In the spring of 1974, as the Watergate scandal that would bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon was playing out in the halls of Congress and across the news media, Vidal's Burr, a look at the American Revolution and Early Republic through the eyes of its darkest figure, Aaron Burr, was at the top of the New York Times fiction bestsellers list.
"How diabolically well-timed is the appearance of Gore Vidal's latest novel, Burr; just at this most disillusioning moment in American history when all the old verities are beginning to seem hollow, Mr. Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with. And what a tour de force is the result!...What an employment for the usable past! What hagiography for the Nixon era!" wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times.
New Jersey-born Aaron Burr served as an officer in the Revolutionary War. He was later a prominent attorney and a United States Senator from New York. After losing the presidential election in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson in a deadlocked election decided by the House of Representatives, Burr served as Jefferson's vice-president. Today Burr is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a self-promoting scoundrel who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was later charged with treason for attempting to set up an empire with himself as its leader in American "western" territory along the Mississippi River.
The focus of Burr's scorn are the iconic Washington and Jefferson, leaders of what Burr contemptuously refers to as the "Virginian junto." Washington is a vain, waddling, dullard and an incompetent commander. "I found irritating the slowness of his mind; not to mention his awesome gift for failure in field," Burr says. "In three years he has lost every engagement with the enemy except for a small victory at Trenton and that had been an accident." Burr calls Thomas Jefferson "the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful. Were the philosopher's charm less, the politician's deceit might not have been so shocking."
|Burr reissue, 2000.|
|Young Gore Vidal with Anais Nin, c.1946.|
|Vidal with Jay Parini, Key West Book Festival,|
2009 (photo/Carol Tedesco, AP).
|Vidal's 1968 bestseller.|
"Burr is the best of Gore’s work. Lincoln is different, probably as good in many respects," Parini' told TCR in regard to Vidal's novels. He adds that Julian, Vidal's 1964 novel about Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century Roman emperor who abandoned Christianity in favor of a return to paganism, is "a rival for one of the top three books by Vidal."
Vidal also wrote plays -- most notably The Best Man, about an aloof intellectual and a charismatic young populist vying for their party's presidential nomination -- screenplays, teleplays, and countless essays. The most comprehensive collection of Vidal's essays is the nearly 1,300 page volume United States: Essays 1952-1992 (1993). Parini edited and wrote an introduction to a shorter collection -- The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (2008).
|Vidal (left) with Tennessee Williams and John|
F. Kennedy, Palm Beach, 1958.
In 2012, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, during her short but highly publicized campaign for the Republican nomination for president, told supporters that as a college student she read "this snotty novel called Burr by Gore Vidal [that] mocked our Founding Fathers...people that I revere, and the country that I love" and it turned her from Democrat to Republican.
Also in the top ten list in May 1974 were The Partners by Louis Auchincloss, who was a cousin of Vidal's former stepfather Hugh Auchincloss, and Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie. Like Thornton Wilder, Christie had been publishing since the 1920s and was nearing the end of her career.
|One of Vidal's mysteries written|
under the pen name Edgar Box, 1953.
Burr remained in the top ten through mid-August 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency and the New York Times fiction list was headed by John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, a "thinking man's spy story" about Soviet espionage.
Vidal died in 2012 at age eighty-six. As did Burr, he outlived most of his friends and adversaries. Vidal has been likened to Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken as a public intellectual. Could anyone on the current scene be likened to Vidal? Parini told TCR that "I don’t myself see anyone on the scene who is like Gore or Twain or Mencken. Nobody comes close."
Here's more information --
"Gore Vidal, The Art of Fiction, no. 50." (Interview). The Paris Review (Fall 1974).
"The Contradiction of Being Gore Vidal." The American Conservative (1 August 2012).
"Gore Vidal: The Virgil of American Populism." Salon (2 August 2012).
"Gore Vidal's Burr is Antidote to Tea Party Myths." Bloomburg View (14 August 2012).
"Postscript: Gore Vidal." The New Yorker (2 August 2012).
"Ten [Vidal] Quotes on Writing." Writer's Digest (1 August 2012).
The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.