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Passions in Politics

1876

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 364 pp., $10.00

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 novels about the old century written in a manner that goes back about halfway toward the time of the action; the manner of Galsworthy or Arnold Bennett, say. Clearly technical experiment for its own sake is pointless, and writers of course should write exactly as they want to. But I do find it odd that America’s most intelligent novelist should linger so long among old styles. Perhaps this is Vidal’s way of hanging on to the large audience that he says a novelist needs. (“Unhappily,” he wrote in a remarkable essay on Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, “the novelist, by the very nature of his coarse art, is greedy and immodest; unless he is read by everyone, he cannot delight, instruct, reform, destroy a world he wants, at the least, to be different for his having lived in it.” Give or take a nice irony or two, Vidal is describing his own practice.)

V. talks a great deal better than he writes.” This churlish thought must have occurred to many people who have read Vidal after seeing him on television, and it was deft as well as courageous of Vidal to attribute it to a character in Two Sisters. But it isn’t true. What is true is that Vidal talks better than Charles Schuyler (who is the narrator of both Burr and 1876) usually writes, and 1876, especially, gives the impression that Vidal is holding himself in check, trying hard not to give his nineteenth-century man of letters too much twentieth-century verve. Schuyler is fond of fussy, echoing wordplay (“Our captor was in a captivating mood,” “where orchestras play and lecturers bray”), arch attempts at fine writing (“With age one does grow, if not wise, forgiving; also, forgetting—also, forgotten”), and the occasional bit of high philosophizing (“Of all living creatures, only the man of letters knows that he must die”).

Fortunately Vidal borrows Schuyler’s voice now and again for his own purposes, and a severe and lucid wit then breaks through. William Cullen Bryant’s translations from Homer are said to be “much admired by those who have no Greek and the wrong English.” Contemporary poetry is described as “at best…no more than carefully ruined prose.” Catholic countries are said to be more agreeable to live in than Protestant ones “because they are not in the slightest degree Christian.” And Senator Roscoe Conkling’s look of sincerity was “so perfectly convincing,” Schuyler-Vidal writes, “that I knew myself to be in the presence of a truly deceitful man.”

1876 is a slow book—we don’t reach the year of its title until page 121—and its real virtue is not its meticulous reconstruction of old New York and old Washington, or even its scrutiny of the motives of historical figures. “Why a historical novel and not a history?” Vidal asked in an afterword to Burr, and one of his answers was that the historical novelist can “attribute motive—something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never to do.” But Vidal really seems less interested in motive than he is in power, in political destinies found and missed. The central subject of both Burr and 1876 is what might have been, measured by a steady investigation of what actually was. Both books perform a recurring double take. We see the great man—Washington, Jefferson, Irving, Garfield—in unattractive close-up, a map of moral warts. Then we see how the warts enter into the composition of his greatness, which is not denied by this inspection, but rather reinforced. Only it is a greatness ratified by historical success, and Vidal’s gift is to be able to view such success in the light of other options—historical failure, for example—without falling into sentimentality.

The exile’s angle helps. America is a foreign country for Schuyler now, and he consistently affects a European cynicism about all the local corruption.

I hope that Mr. Tweed manages to escape for good with all his swag. But then I tend to side with criminals. Although my sympathies in France are officially republican, at heart I delight in all Bonapartes—particularly in the first one, whose crimes were on such a large scale that they have ceased to be the stuff of moralizing and are simply history.

There is a portion of sincerity here, since Schuyler really does like politicians with dash, and some of the best pages in 1876 concern Senator James G. Blaine’s swashbuckling performance in extricating himself from a railroad scandal. But for all his long European residence, Schuyler is still an American and a sentimentalist, deeply shocked by the venality of his countrymen, and longing for someone to come and clean the stables: “I have always felt that somewhere in this corrupt and canting American society there still exists in certain men a sense of what the good society must be.”

Schuyler’s daughter is a French princess, widow of the son of one of Napoleon’s marshals, and he is anxious to get her married again, and see her settled before he dies: “I am, frankly, desperate, and would sell Emma to the highest bidder.” But he is not as desperate as he thinks, and when he learns that Emma has made her own arrangements for her marriage, which appear to include the virtual murder of her best friend, he is aghast, and dies shortly after. The final scene between father and daughter, in which he decides he knows all he needs to know about her crime, doesn’t wish to hear his much-loved child give details or explain or lie, is very delicately done. Vidal is playing a complicated variation on the old theme of Henry James. The American innocent here is innocent compared both to his fellow Americans, the ones who stayed at home, and to his European daughter. Innocence is a state of mind, not a state of culture, and is fast fading from the world.

In the place of innocence, one might hope for a morality based on experience. But experience tends to teach dark lessons, and the central event of 1876 (of the novel as it was of the year) is the disputed presidential election, which Tilden seemed to have won for the Democrats, until the Republicans questioned the vote of the electoral colleges in Florida and Louisiana, and after much debate and amid a rising worry that a fresh civil war might break out, managed to get Rutherfraud B. Hayes, as he was known in some circles, elevated to the presidency. Tilden, who had cleaned up City Hall in New York, could perhaps have bought the election he had already won—since the right amount of money spent in Florida and Louisiana would apparently have done the trick—but would not pay.

Schuyler the European wishes Tilden had coughed up, because Schuyler wanted to be the American minister to Paris, which is the job he would have got had Tilden been elected. But Schuyler the American is relieved. His dry, dyspeptic hero (“Is it possible, I wonder, that in this gaudy centennial year these states have produced a great man?”) keeps his hands and heart clean, and takes a trip to Europe. In case we have any doubts about the connection between the public and the private events in the novel, Vidal ensures that February 19, 1877, the day the tide turned against Tilden, is the day Emma’s best friend dies in childbirth, at the end of a pregnancy that Emma falsely led her to believe she would survive. The suggestion is that virtue is simply impractical, that effective action in the real world must always take up the instruments of evil, and that we can only hope, rather foolishly, that those instruments will not do us too much harm, that some of the bad guys will not be as bad as all that.

I find Emma’s little plot rather too neat and lurid, an easy way of casting an elegant shadow across the last pages of the novel. But 1876 seems to carry a double message. There is the broadly cynical view, outlined just above, which is what the book seems to say. And then there is a more diffuse, faintly promising argument communicated by the sheer energy and passion with which, here and in other novels, Vidal explores American politics. An arena that can command such loyal attention can’t simply be a bath of corruption, and Vidal’s writing itself assumes a constituency which hopes for something better than to be governed by more or less cautious crooks forever. This constituency may be entirely wishful, but the wish seems to me a necessary one.

Vidal is discreet but firm, about historical parallels. 1876 had its recent war, its recent assassination, its breakin, and its seedy administration, and Vidal touches on all these subjects, not so much to suggest that history repeats itself or that plus ça change, plus c’est les mêmes shows, as to remind us that we are not a historical island. 1876 is less vivid than Burr because there is less mischief in it, because it affords Vidal less of a chance to romp among famous American names, scattering suspicions as he goes. But it is in one sense a more serious book. It asks us to believe, not in a rogue hero like Burr, and not even in a man like Tilden, who might have been a hero but wasn’t, but in politics itself, that grimy and intricate activity we can’t afford to give up.

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