Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal

dust jacket cover is all textGore Vidal’s Lincoln is an absolutely marvelous historical novel, far too good to interest average American readers who propelled North and South to the 1984 bestseller list.

Vidal doesn’t invent stories: He pulls out the stories hidden in historical documents, translates them into contemporary language, and puts them in dramatic context. He lets readers can decode the character and motivation of persons long since dead.

Vidal’s focus is Lincoln’s “White House” years. (During Lincoln’s occupancy, it was called the President’s House.)

The novel opens February, 1861 with president-elect Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, disguised in plain clothes and guarded by detective Allan Pinkerton.

The country has split over slavery.

Several “cotton republics” have already seceded from the Union.

Lincoln’s life has been threatened.

Lincoln has one overriding goal: Maintaining the unity of the states.

Vidal weaves into his narrative contrasting and conflicting impressions of Lincoln held by the people with whom he spent the most time:  His personal staff, his cabinet, and the generals who he is forced to rely on to fight to save the Union.

Vidal’s writing is sparklingly clear and bubbles with humor.

Through the multiplicity of viewpoints, Vidal provides nuanced picture of President Lincoln, the politician.

Lincoln: A Novel by Gore Vidal
Random House 1st ed. 1984. 657 p.
1984 bestseller #10; my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

1876: America the scandalous

In his bestseller Burr, Gore Vidal swaddled the story of America’s babyhood into a tale about a law clerk for Aaron Burr’s who uses his insider knowledge to launch a journalistic career.

In his novel 1876, after living 40 years in Europe, Charlie returns to America accompanied by his widowed daughter, Emma, the Princess d’Agrigente.

Both father and daughter are broke.

Charlie hopes to get himself appointed minister to France by the next American president and find Emma a rich second husband. He’ll use his journalism skills to gain access to the right people.

In 1876 America celebrated her first Centennial, but the country’s mood was not happy.

The Civil War is over, but the country is still divided.

Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency is rocked by scandals.

Armies of disabled and unemployed soldiers beg on the streets.

Bribery is rampant.

A small coterie of ultra-rich, Astors and Vanderbilts, run the economy to their advantage but thousands, including Charlie, lost their life savings in the Panic of 1873.

Irish, Italians, and Chinese lured to the U.S. are “taking jobs away from our own people.”

“Half the people don’t even speak English.”

Native Americans rise in violent rebellion at Little Big Horn.

One presidential candidate refuses to disclose his tax returns.

And the man who wins the 1876 popular vote fails to get the presidency.

Vidal lays bare the character of the nation at the end of its first century in this entertaining tale enlivened with Charlie’s wry comments.

1876 by Gore Vidal
Random House, ©1976, 362 p.
1976 bestseller #6. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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.

Myra Breckenridge repels and fascinates

Eponymous Myra Breckrenridge is as repellent a character as you’d ever not want to meet.

And she’s absolutely fascinating.

Photo collage of dictators with overprint.
Myra believes her life mission is to realign the sexes.

Gore Vidal presents Myra’s story as her confidences in her diary, written as therapy on the urging of her dentist and analyst, Randolph.

Myra is in Hollywood to attempt to get money she believes owed to her by Buck Loner, her late husband Myron’s uncle. Buck had built a flourishing acting school on land willed jointly to him and his late sister, Myron’s mother.

Buck says he’ll get his lawyer on it; meanwhile, he invites Myra to join his faculty to teach courses in Empathy and Posture.

Myra and Buck set out to swindle each other without dropping the pose of family bonding.

For 20 of her 27 years, Myra in imagination cast herself as a the female lead in films she saw while growing up. But Myra doesn’t want the subservient roles: Myra hates men, and she’s determined to dominate them.

Despite his heavy hand with satire, Vidal makes the transgender Myra believable and human.

I didn’t like Myra the person or Myra the novel, but I felt I did something necessary and respectful just by exposing myself to Myra’s perspective.


Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, [1968] 264 p.
1968 bestseller #7. My grade: A-.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni