Discovering America

Burr: A Novel

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 430 pp., $8.95

Never did America witness a stranger union than when Jefferson, the representative of ideal purity, allied himself with Aaron Burr…in the expectation of fixing the United States in a career of simplicity and virtue,” Henry Adams tells us. “And no more curious speculation could have been suggested to the politicians of 1800 than the question of whether New York would corrupt Virginia or Virginia would check the prosperity of New York.”

In this case, as generally happens in public affairs, the answer to the question turned out to be “neither.” A generation of presidents, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, disposed of any notion that Virginia, of all commonwealths, might have need of New York’s corrupting instruction in political jobbery; while Virginia checked the prosperity of no New Yorker except Aaron Burr.

Burr has hung in our history like a thief from the gibbet ever since. Gore Vidal’s effort to bring the body down and render it an honored burial is both dexterous and affecting. His Burr is imagined at the end of his life in the New York of the 1830s. He is still lively enough for two ambitions: one is to outlive James Madison and be truly the last leaf on the tree of revolution; and the other is to try just one more of the succession of gaudy, jerrybuilt enterprises which perennially promised and never provided him his fortune. To his juniors this old man has all the fascination that belongs to someone who stands at the same time for an evil reputation and a glorious past. There is dying in him the last witness to a national ancestry already becoming unrecognizable to its children. His voice speaks sometimes in the elegance of memoir and sometimes in the casual dress of talk.

Vidal has a wonderful talent both for mimicry and evocation; and if Burr is candidly a reproduction, we cannot easily conceive of the original piece as having a detectable difference. Vidal has also the love of learning which is so often best guarded by its distance from American university education. He has never let himself be distracted by inferior models or merely satisfied with the greatest ones. Gibbon pointed—but only pointed—him toward Julian the Apostate; and Julian has the particular charm of making us imagine that we have come not upon one of Gibbon’s pupils but upon one of his sources.

The model for Burr seems to be Henry Adams; and, since Vidal can dress for any part, we ought not to be surprised at how alike they turn out to be. They share ancestral piety: Vidal is just as proud of a collateral link with a disgraced vice president as Adams was of the blood of two presidents. They are both avuncular: Burr is dedicated to three of Vidal’s nephews. And they have a similarly useful readiness to call up historical gossip to improve the gospel of history. The difference is that Adams was generally too respectable to …

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