Burr: Scapegoat or scapegrace?

In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”

Cover of Burr shows close-up of dueling piece.
Dueling pistol trigger mechanism is background image.

One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.

Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.

Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.

The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.

Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.

Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).

Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.

Burr by Gore Vidal
Ballantine Books, © 1973, [paper] p. 564 p.
1973 bestseller #5. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Reviewer’s note: Get the hardbound edition. The yellowed pages of the paperback were painful to read.

Surprise ending raises Lewis Rand above pot-boilers

In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses
Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.

Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni