The passage of time edits history. The roughness and corners of detail wear away under the constant erosion of recall and interpretation. Eventually, unless events or people are sufficiently insignificant so they can be merely forgotten, the process rounds off what remains to form mere icons, summaries that become anodyne cartoons of once complex events and motives.
I can recall the celebrations that surrounded the bi-centennial of the American Revolution. At the time, I thought I knew something about the history. Names such as Washington, Jefferson and Adams became commonplace for a while. A couple of years before, Gore Vidal had published his novel Burr (Vintage, 448 pages), which I had not read. Having just finished it, nearly forty years after it appeared, I now know much more. In the novel Gore Vidal presents a history of the War Of Independence and its aftermath through the eyes of a contemporary, Aaron Burr, who was Vice President to Thomas Jefferson.
Burr’s form is a brilliant invention. The treatment enhances the content, allowing Gore Vidal to lay several perspectives before the reader. Aaron Burr lived to a ripe old age. We meet him first in the 1830s approaching his final years. He is still very much an active participant in life, however. He still has an eye for the ladies, two very big eyes for money or opportunity, and a very much alive and kicking penchant for political dabbling. His proclivities have left a world-wide trail of successes and failures, personal, political and familial.
A gentleman called Schuyler, who considers himself Dutch first, American second, is commissioned to write the old man’s memoirs, after a fashion. He researches, contacts and interviews. There is a motive. The writer’s commission is barbed. What Burr might reveal can be used to lever contemporary political advantage. Schuyler’s task is to prise out the useful from the detail the old man might reveal. And it is from this quest that the book’s eventual surprise materialises. It is, however, quite a long wait.
Schuyler meets Burr several times and, on each occasion, the old man develops a section of his memoir. The writer records the words and, here and there, interprets. Burr has lived a long and eventful life. His rise to fame was accelerated by participation in the War Of Independence. He became a battlefield commander and earned a reputation for success, not difficult when apparently everyone else involved, in Burr’s estimation at least, lacked commitment, competence or both. This included George Washington, who is revealed as a selfish, bungling incompetent.
Burr was also, both by choice and inevitable proximity, a confidante and colleague of Thomas Jefferson, who saw Burr as a competitor. Jefferson’s ideals are portrayed as naiveté and his judgment as eccentric. And Burr was always a threat to Jefferson’s personal interest and ambition, and thus had to be controlled, manipulated, excluded, undermined. As ever, for the good of the country, of course…
But Burr was a survivor. A tempestuous private life riddled with success, failure, allegation and counter-claim, alongside a roller-coaster political career took the central character close to both power and ruin, ecstasy and despair. It also took him close to death several times.
Burr’s enduring claim to fame is the duel he fought against a rival, Alexander Hamilton. Their long-standing rivalry is chartered through the book. Hamilton’s death in the duel surfaces many times in Burr’s narrative before the event itself is presented and, of course, there is more than meets the eye.
Gore Vidal states that he chooses to write historical fiction rather than history to reveal the frailties and shortcomings of icons such as Washington and Jefferson. He cites fiction’s ability to ascribe opinion, its opportunity to create illustrative drama via dialogue in meetings that only might have happened. And at this level, Burr is a remarkable success. Events and people that have become statuesque icons are questioned, reassessed and often revealed as quite different from what we have learned to assume. Burr is also a book of forensic detail and, when that detail is reaffixed to the historical figures we thought we already knew, it is surprising to see them anew, revealed as merely human. It is not a book for the uncommitted reader who might be only partially interested in its subject. This, eventually, is its strength.
—Philip Spires, author of A Fool’s Knot (1976) and Mission (2007)
excerpt from Burr
I don’t seem able to catch the right tone but since William Leggett has invited me to write about Conlonel Burr for the Evening Post, I shall put in everything, and look forward to his response. “I don’t think,” he’ll gulp air in his consumptive way, “that the managing editor will allow any reference to what he calls a ‘a disorderly house.'”
Well, the euphemisms can come later. Lately, mysteriously, Leggett has shown a sudden interest in Colonel Burr, although his editor, Mr. Bryant, finds my employer “unsavoury. Like so many men of the last century, he did not respect the virtue of women.”
Because I am younger than Mr. Bryant, I find Colonel Burr’s “unsaviouriness” a nice contrast to the canting tone of our own day. The eighteenth-centry man was not like us—and Colonel Burr is an eighteenth-century man still alive and vigorous, with a new wife up here in Haarlem, and an od mistress in Jersey City. He is a man of perfect charm and fascination. A monster, in short. To be destroyed? I think that is what Leffett has in mind. But do I?