Book Review: 'Burr' by Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal was an interesting character. Though he certainly wasn’t a libertarian, his suspicion of government and consistent critiques of its abuses at home and abroad made him stick out like a sore thumb from the managerial-minded centrists who otherwise dominated the Democratic Party (and arguably still do). This suspicion is amply on display in his novel Burr, a fictionalized account of the life and times of Aaron Burr. Less remembered for his tenure as vice president than for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the Revolutionary War colonel-turned-redheaded stepchild of the Revolution is the perfect anchor for something more ambitious than merely dramatizing the life of a historical figure. Jumping back and forth between Burr’s memoir and the present activities of journalist Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler in the 1830s, Vidal uses the colonel’s story as a springboard from which he can investigate and interrogate America during its infancy, weaving a narrative of political deception and forgotten treachery.
The book, perhaps predictably, is at its most withering when dealing with the Founding Fathers. Far from the heroic, almost-Olympian figures of our national mythos, Vidal portrays them as deeply flawed human beings with their own disparate agendas. George Washington is a disastrously-inept military commander selected more for his symbolic stature as a leader than any actual strategic prowess or leadership qualities, while Hamilton is a power-hungry, coattail-riding opportunist in love with the sound of his own voice. The true villain of the piece, however, is Thomas Jefferson, portrayed here as a hypocritical schemer who jettisons his political principles the moment they become inconvenient to his self-interests. It’s unclear how accurate to history the individual character of each Founder is (Vidal doesn’t include a bibliography, claiming that a comprehensive listing of sources he draws from would be too long and unwieldy) but the historical record - from passage of blatantly unconstitutional legislation like the Alien and Sedition Acts to their failure to forcefully come out against slavery and put an end to it - amply shows that these men, as brilliant and forward-thinking as they might have been, fell short of the noble ideals they hoped and tried to build this nation on.
That being said, most of what we see and hear about the Founding Fathers is filtered through the lens of Colonel Burr, whose less-than-fond recollections of them are almost certainly influenced by consideration for his own interests and reputation. Vidal himself, in his afterword to the book, admits to admiring the man he casts as arch-villain, Jefferson, more than his anti-hero Burr, suggesting that even he doesn’t mean for readers to take the colonel’s account of the early years of the Republic and its leaders as gospel truth. Furthermore, Burr’s character is directly called into question by what he himself admits to Charlie - such as conspiring to start a war with Spain to seize Mexico and make himself king - in addition to his present-day conduct, like marrying the wealthy Eliza Bowen Jumel only to abandon her and claim her financial assets as his. Even so, the colonel’s frankness about his self-serving nature (along with a very Vidalian gift for the occasional well-targeted witticism) lends him an unexpected element of honesty and likability. Perhaps its proof of Burr’s storied charm that he - like that other great, misunderstood historical villain, Richard III - is able to get us to hate his enemies and root for him.
Given the historical setting and the book’s length (430 pages, to be exact), some might be intimidated by the prospect of reading dense text rendered in archaic, post-colonial speech. To Vidal’s immense credit, however, he writes in a manner that strikes a fine balance between engaging and authentic, allowing readers to engross themselves in Burr’s story without getting lost in the world he inhabits. There is a lofty quality to much of the prose (Burr’s claim that “it is the truth that blasts us like a thunderbolt from the God my grandfather regularly communed with” particularly comes to mind) that might strike modern ears as overly grandiose but, in the context of the book, sounds perfectly natural. On top of crafting a convincing facsimile of what we imagine to be the speech of the era, Vidal also incorporates his legendary wit and sarcasm into characters’ dialogue and narration. Burr, for instance, describes Jefferson as “beautifully human” right before adding “eminently vague” and “entirely dishonest”, though the most memorable (and certainly most humorous) example has to be the colonel’s observation that “For a large, rather ungainly man (he had the hips, buttocks, and bosom of a woman), Washington could move with brutal swiftness.” The resulting tone is flippant, frilly, and far removed from the dry dramatization one otherwise expect.
The purpose of much of this prose, of course, is to paint a demystified picture of the early United States. Vidal devotes great detail to describing the clothing, sensibilities, and lifestyle of the time, imbuing the book with a certain sensuousness that makes the characters and places it describes feel all the more real. Yet even more pronounced is his delight in describing the unsavory side of early 19th-century America, lavishing attention on the various vices that Charlie and his peers engage in like drinking, visiting brothels, and frankly acknowledging homosexual relations (something that was still controversial, if not dangerous, during the flamboyant, openly bisexual Vidal’s time). This unfamiliar America bears less resemblance to the radical-yet-respectable revisionism of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and more to Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States, with its upfront portrayal of illicit activities and sexuality in the decades after independence. Powerful men like Burr, Jefferson, and then-sitting president Andrew Jackson plot to steer the US in their respective images but perhaps - as Russell contends in his book - it’s the people living on the margins of society like the madam Rosanna Townsend or the gay, Tory loyalist William de la Touche Clancy who better reflect the character and contradictions of the young country.
Yet it is the machinations of these powerful men that is central to the overriding thesis of the book. If Burr’s story and the way it unfolds is any indication, Vidal understands American history as not driven by mass movements or activist pressure but by backroom dealings between shady, shrewd men with their own objectives. This, of course, is a skeptical perspective of power that will likely resonate with many government-wary libertarians even as they might quibble with other, more conventionally left-wing aspects of Vidal’s revisionist narrative. However, this skepticism boils over into outright cynicism: toward the end of the novel, Charlie says that, after gathering material for a planned anti-Burr pamphlet and learning the shocking truth about the men and events that founded this country, he has come to hate politics and anyone who involves themselves with it. This hatred - while certainly understandable to even the most optimistic libertarian - drives him to detest even the abolitionists who agitate so earnestly for the end of slavery. Charlie’s disgust at the system is more than justified, but it should serve as a warning to readers that cynicism, left unchecked, may lead to one channeling it toward the people challenging said system instead of the ones running it.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Maybe it’s that, even if America’s founding myths were just that and the Founding Fathers themselves were complicated men with their own shortcomings and moral failings, there’s no reason we can’t honor the inspiring ideals that they failed to live up to. Indeed, the characters that inspire us the most are not any of the founders nor the cynical muckrakers who Charlie works for, but the aforementioned abolitionists: largely-unseen but often alluded to, they’re busy working away in the background of the story to extend the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised by the Declaration of Independence to those who were denied it. Burr may be a harsh illustration of the gulf between the high-minded liberal values that sired this nation and the troubled, often-ugly history that followed, but it’s also a reminder that it’s up to us - not the generals, not the politicians, but ordinary Americans - to make sure that our country finally bridges that gulf.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.