In the early pages of 1876, the narrator of the novel, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, an American returning to his native New York after nearly forty years in Europe, is interviewed by the local press and catches sight of a sketch an artist is making of him: “a short stout pigeon of a man with three chins lodged in an exaggerated highwinged collar…and of course the snubbed nose, square jaw of a Dutchman no longer young.” This is an ingenious way of smuggling a description of a first-person narrator into a novel, but it is also curiously awkward, and makes one wonder why a writer would put himself through such antics. The same is true of the form of 1876 generally. Schuyler is confiding his thoughts and impressions to a notebook: “These pages are to be a quarry, no more. A collection of day-to-day impressions of my new old country.”
Yet the notebook keeps behaving like a novel. This is not surprising, since it is a novel, but it is disquieting to find a man writing so novelistically in his notebook, and even at one point prematurely addressing his future readers, only to banish them as promptly as he can: “In a moment I shall be explaining and explaining all sorts of things to you, dear reader, when none of this is meant for any eyes but mine. These notes are to be the quarry….” The difficulty here, I think, is Vidal’s not Schuyler’s. He has committed himself to a verisimilitude which creaks every time the writer moves. The same is true of Burr and Two Sisters (but not of Myra Breckinridge); only in Burr the pace is so fast we don’t stop to listen to the creaking.
Vidal is scrupulous about historical detail, and tactful in his allusions to famous events and people and inventions. Little Big Horn is briefly mentioned in 1876, Mark Twain is referred to (“He has just this month published what appears to be a boys’ book”), and then encountered. Schuyler visits (and writes on) the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He is surprised by the new railway (“when we crossed Sixth Avenue at Cornelia Street, I gasped and Emma gave a cry, as a train of cars drawn by a steam engine hurtled with deafening sound over our heads at thirty miles an hour”); and rides one of the new elevators (“the grilled gate was flung open to reveal a small panelled chamber containing a uniformed man gravely fiddling with mysterious wheels and levers…. The door shut behind us and we rose into the air“).
But neither here nor in Burr is there a real flavor of the nineteenth century in the writing. There is no attempt at sustained pastiche, which is probably wise. But it does mean that the verisimilitude which dominates the book (as much in the examples I have just quoted as in its narrative form) places it in a rather strange literary corner. Burr and 1876 are new …