Alternate History

Burr by Gore Vidal

From the afterword:

“Why a historical novel and not a history? To me, the attraction of the historical novel is that one can be as meticulous (or as careless!) as the historian and yet reserve the right not only to rearrange events but, most important, to attribute motive–something the conscientious historian or biographer aught never do.” 

This post is better late than never. Plus this is a lazy post. Trying to fill my study section so it looks like the done-section of my bookshelves. And so. Finished reading “Burr” last fall. It took me a few years to get around to reading it. That is, I read Lincoln in 2007 but because of other books put-off continuing with Narratives of Empire. Of course, the best part about the series is you don’t have to start from the beginning. In fact, Gore Vidal himself wrote them way outta order. Nomatter. As I’ve said, I plan on reading them all and if my mind holds up, I’ll get them done not so soon enough.

Anyone who wants to know about the history of America should read Vidal’s collection of historical novels. And keep in mind, you will be reading fiction but you will also learn more about American history above and beyond the inadequacy of history lessons from conventional schooling. Hence these books should be required reading. The reason they never will be required reading is because Vidal’s attitude toward life, liberty and the American’t way is counter to most aspects of what has been running the show since, gee, Nixon(?) But that’s neither here nor there. Next on my list is Gore’s Empire–hopefully it won’t take me five years to get to it. BTW, I also read gore’s “Creation”, which is not in the series. The reason I mention it is because Burr and Creation are written basically in the same style based on a kind of memoir and collection of letters.

What is most appealing about Burr is Vidal’s anti-establishment take on our history. I suppose you could call it an alternative history. But there’s something else to Gore Vidal and his motivations that worst-writer suspects has something to do with a desire to at least offer an alternate truth. In that vein, please indulge me this stretch or three: Gore Vidal might be related to Al Gore. In fact, he’s also distantly related to Jimmy Carter. And his grandfather was a Senator from Oklahoma. Vidal even ran for congress but he lost. I mention all that because of one of the significants parts of Aaron Burr’s life. Vidal chronicles the election for third president of the United States. It was a close race and the final decision of the presidency went to Thomas Jefferson but it was decided by the congress because the two tied in electoral votes. So. While reading Vidal’s take on history, I couldn’t help but think about Al Gore and how he lost to Dubya in 2000. Anything similar? I mean, it wasn’t the voters the picked Jefferson. But I am stretching. And I suppose my stretch would be better relatable if Gore or Bush had duelled each other. I know. Wishful thinking. I found this part of Burr’s life to be more interesting than the Hamilton incident but perhaps that’s because Vidal thought it more significant, too.

Burr is a wonderful journey into our history. But what makes it so appealing is that the reader, if willing, won’t be bothered with Vidal’s prose that borderline at times on turning the whole shebang into a soap-opera. Either that or it works at times as a bad western, especially the part about Texas and the Alamo, including some interesting insight into Davie Crockett’s true intention for going…. allow me to say: for going west. But then, worst-writer doesn’t need to mention anything more about Gore Vidal’s attitude toward what made America and what has subsequently ruined it. Indeed. Vidal breaks through all the mythology and paints a beautiful, untainted portrait that motivates further self-inquiry and study.

Rant on.