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This historical novel based on the life of Aaron Burr, U.S. Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, turns the usual history on its head. Burr has traditionally been maligned for committing treason, and for murder by pistol duel, although he was found not guilty of treason, and charges against him for Alexander Hamilton’s death resulting from their duel were either dropped or ended in acquittal.
Author Gore Vidal* used historical documents and, when possible, factual words and phrases used by the real-life characters, to create a world where the “traitor” Burr is the honorable hero, and the Founding Fathers are at fault: George Washington is incompetent, Thomas Jefferson is a hypocrite, and Alexander Hamilton is a rumormongering opportunist.
historical fiction based on real documents, characters, and events
Almost all the characters in the book actually existed (although their portrayals may not all be equally true to life). One exception is the invented narrator of the book, Charles Schuyler, a law clerk in Burr’s office in 1833. Offered money by the New York Evening Post for inside information on Burr, Schuyler takes to making note of everything Burr does and says. He likes Burr, but he also wants money so he can elope to Europe with the woman he loves.
Looking for information to support the claim that Martin Van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son, Schuyler searches in a trunk Burr keeps in his inner office:
I looked in vain for any reference to Van Buren. But then it would take a month to study all the letters and papers not to mention the thousand-page journal the Colonel wrote while he was in Europe, to be presented to his daughter Theodosia on his return. Presentation was never made, of course. After the death of her child, Theodosia set sail for New York. The ship was lost at sea and so the journal rests in the trunk, presumably unread by anyone. For the Colonel’s sake, I wonder if it ought to be read.
With startling candour the Colonel reports his poverty in London and Paris; his attempts to get an interview with Napoleon, to borrow money, to obtain a passport from an American consul who detests him and will not grant him what is any citizen’s due. I was most struck by the way in which the Colonel describes each of his sexual encounters, using French words which I don’t always understand as well as a private language shared by him and his daughter.
Gore received some flack for including a long-lasting rumor in the book — why did Burr challenge Hamilton to a duel? History has never presented an opinion on this question. Was it because Hamilton knew of some of Burr’s seditious intentions and called him a traitor? Or was it because Hamilton was spreading rumors that Burr had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Theodosia? Schuyler muses:
What sort of man is the Colonel? What sort of daughter was Theodosia? When I read his letters to her, and hers to him, it is like an exchange between Lord Chesterfield and his son (had the son been the father’s equal, for Theodosia’s style is learned and brilliant), but then when I read this journal and realize the way they spoke privately to one another I am mystified.
In 1833, Burr is already an old man. The duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton is far behind him, as is his trial for treason for allegedly planning to form a new country in the southwestern United States, although his political career and popularity with the public has suffered much. But there are still those plotting to bring him down.
A large part of the novel is comprised of the notes Schuyler made of Burr’s recollections about events during the American Revolution, such as Washington’s military campaign at Valley Forge, his trial for treason, and the years that followed independence, especially Burr’s involvement in politics.
Burr is the first book in Vidal’s seven-novel series Narratives of Empire; the others are Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and The Golden Age. (Borrow/buy information further below.)
more books in Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series you can borrow for free
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