The Best Men?

The reader of a historical novel, like someone at a gospel meeting, is urged to decide. He must put himself in the hands of the author. Doubt has no place. We trust that the writer has done his work, has gone to the library, or, better, remembers the events of which he writes. We like to think that in his material form he was there, in the corridors of power, or could have been, or is descended from someone whose true, inside account is here being given. Our permanent view of some notable event or figure is clay in His hands. The Golden Age is Gore Vidal’s elegiac historical novel about the twentieth century, and we seem to be in good hands.

Certainly our view of some things may be altered. In general, history has a way of writing itself by incremental revelations. Diaries are found, sealed archives are opened, reluctant memories spilled. At any given moment the inattentive may lose track of where things stand in this retrospective process of uncovering the truth of the past. Political correctness apart, was Pat Buchanan right or wrong when he advanced his controversial hypothesis that if America had not entered World War II (our “just” war, after all), nothing much would have happened to us? What is the state of knowledge about how much Roosevelt knew beforehand of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor, and with what degree of intention did he provoke it?

That and other questions may have formed in the minds of most of us, and some of them will be answered provocatively in the seventh in Vidal’s magisterial, if mischievous, series of historical novels about American presidents and events from Aaron Burr to Abraham Lincoln to Hollywood and the Washington of Woodrow Wilson. With what authority, we do not ask; it is enough to feel that Vidal knows the truth of things, is an excellent scholar, and was well placed to hear the gossip, near to if not in the corridors of power. “I was thinking about history,” says young Peter Sanford to a young Joseph Alsop, two of the characters in the book—the latter, of course “historical.” “About writing it or making it?” Alsop asks. “About what it is, if it is anything at all except different versions of something that probably never was.” What a temptation for a novelist.

Did William Randolph Hearst, deep in debt, really have a sort of garage sale in the Gimbels boys’ department? Did the teetotaling Calvin Coolidge, enjoying a glass of wine, really say, “I’ve got to remember the name of this beverage?” Did Alice Roosevelt Longworth really have a baby by Idaho Senator Borah? Even more riveting, did a Wall Street group consider getting rid of Roosevelt by military force with the collusion of Army Air Corps generals?

On faith, we must decide whether it is all made up, or all true. Why it should matter to us is one of those mysteries no doubt …

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