“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.” Gore Vidal
The Narratives of Empire is a series of historical novels – or as Gabriel Garcia Marquez would also have it – Novelised Histories, which Gore Vidal, published between 1967 and 2000. They chronicle the bright revolutionary dawn of America to the decadence of the late ‘American Empire’ that Vidal considered to be a prisoner of the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ that Dwight Eisenhower had warned of in his presidential retirement speech.
The narratives of the novels interweave the stories of two families with the primary historical characters and events of U.S. history. And despite the publisher’s desire for the series to be to be known by the ‘politically neutral’ title “American Narratives”, Vidal much preferred “Narratives of Empire” which he felt captured the Arc of the series far better.
The books were not written in chronological order and in fact there is no real need to read them in chronological order either as for the most part they stand alone perfectly well. Though perhaps it might be better to say the ‘Washington DC’ stands apart slightly as it was not written to be part of a series and it does have a chronological if not thematic contemporary in the ‘The Golden Age’ which perhaps does require familiarity with the previous books.
This Vidal’s version of the life of Aaron Burr. It’s perhaps fair to call him an anti-hero, though Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are flawed characters too who subvert the revolutionary American ideal but are nimble enough to leave Burr as the fall guy. Vidal uses a fictional memoir by Burr and a keen observer of the world in Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler to illuminate the political and social worlds of early America. Vidal does not stint on his historical accuracy and liberally seeds his canvas with historical characters: George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson all appear with Washington Irving and even Davy Crockett making guest appearances.
This is a knowing and sometimes slyly cutting history with facets of real men and women being used to drive the narrative as much as the historical events. Agency drives the narratives as much as any ‘factual plot’, though, make no mistake, Vidal was a thorough researcher and as Lincoln would prove he cared for the history as much as the literary aspects of the book.
In February 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln sneaks into Washington DC . He is protected by the proto-Secret Service of Pinkerton Private Detectives and also wears a newly grown beard in the hope he will not be recognised. The reason behind this subterfuge is simple: In 10 days he will take his Oath of Office but there is considerable evidence of plans to assassinate him.
Lincoln is the longest and arguably the finest, of the books in the series. It is thoughtful and suspenseful very much like a literary thriller at times – even though we know the end. With Lincoln at its centre Vidal throws a wide net dealing with the conflicts and terrible decisions the President faced and how he could be quite ruthless in defending ‘The Union’ – suspending parts of the constitution in order to defend it and claiming that his main duty was to defend the Union at all costs.
Lincoln is an admirable character but not without flaws, but he is a man willing to compromise in order to succeed and to that end gathers around him a cabinet of the shrewdest, most intelligent and able politicians of his day and despite some of them being his enemies – and enemies with fellow cabinet members too – he moulds them into a formidable government.
It is this government that will lead the country into the Civil War and win it. Vidal tells the story well and isn’t afraid to puncture Lincoln’s status as a secular saint by detailing his wheeling and dealing over the issue of slavery. So confident is Vidal in his treatment of Lincoln that he will even take on hallowed ‘Gettysburg Address’. In the book Lincoln does not read the classic version but rather Vidal used “not Lincoln’s final tinkered-with draft but what someone who was there (Charles Hale of the Boston Daily Advertiser) wrote down.”. Its useful to remember that the press at the time truly hated the address.
It was this level of confidence – and the unsettling truth about Lincoln’s early desires to safe keep the Union even at the expense of the slaves – that brought him into conflict with Academia or more specifically some tenured hagiographers of Lincoln working in American Universities. Suffice to say that the Professors under-estimated the rigour of Vidal’s research and proved their hubris by being so spectacularly stupid as to take the author on in print. Vidal was a man who after being punched to the ground by a drunken Norma Mailer was able to destroy his pugilistic opponent by simply sighing and saying, “As usual words failed him”.
It wasn’t too much of a shock therefore when hubristic history professors were flayed alive with most wince inducing literary flair. However, to rub salt in their wounds they were then buried by the full, overwhelming detail of Vidal’s historical research and that probably hurt them most of all.
In terms of the series though ‘Lincoln’ is where the character William Sanford makes his first appearance. He is a military officer who will occasionally meet Lincoln and other leading historical figures at the White House. In the next book he will play a fuller role and it is this genesis of the Sanford dynasty which will anchor the last four books.
Vidal certainly seems to consider nation’s first centennial to be a very low point in American history. In this novel, which is a ‘sequel’ to Burr he uses the character of Charles Shermerhorn Schuyler, the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, to tell the story. Schuyler had left America to take a position as an Ambassador in Europe in 1837 for President Martin Van Buren. But now in December 1875 he had returned home.
1876 opens with a long appreciation of New York, which Schuyler, a native New Yorker, no longer recognises. And this culture shock – amongst other changes Central Park has just been completed and he barely recognises the city at all – is compounded by his being drawn into the 1876 election which has been viewed as the most corrupt election ever to have taken place in the country up until that time. Weirdly it was the first presidential election where, thanks to the venom of the politics and the nefarious corruption of the governing party, where the winner of the popular vote did not become president…ring any bells?
1876 allows Vidal to slowly unfurl his saga – both in terms of the narrative of the ‘American Empire – but also in his creation of a fictional bloodline or family that he will use to drive the narrative of the later books. He still joyously crams the book full of historical figures, faithfully reflecting their social and political roles and weaving them into the overall narrative but it is with the creation of the Schuyler / Sandford families that Vidal begins to play with us. One of the progeny of that line – Caroline – will, in the ‘Golden Age’ discover two manuscripts left by her Grandfather. One is a book about Aaron Burr (Vidal’s novel Burr), and a journal about the election of 1876 (Vidal’s book 1876). Caroline will edit and publish both books and so Vidal has one of his fictional characters publishing his books which themselves are historical fiction.
This novel opens in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Vidal puts two of his fictional characters at the centre of the novel. They are both Sanfords: Caroline, the daughter of Emma Schuyler Sanford of 1876 (and therefore the illegitimate granddaughter of Aaron Burr) and her slightly older half-brother, Blaise.
Empire is filled with gossip, name dropping and historical deconstruction. It perhaps reflects the time whilst also being a sly dissection of the society and culture. Blaise works for the egomaniac Randolph Hearst who foreshadows a certain Australian media media mogul. But Vidal carefully mixes the gossip and recorded history of various characters of the time and whilst some revelations – William McKinley throwing a napkin over the face of his epileptic wife during her seizures and then simply continuing the dinner table conversation – may seem outrageous Vidal’s research showed that it was historically accurate. Vidal delights in presenting us with facts disguised as gossip but such asides always give us glimpses into the true nature of the historical figures they illuminate.
Importantly, ‘Empire’ sows the seed of Blaise Sanford into the series. He is a man who, thanks to his association with the grotesque Hearst, will evolve into the powerful political force of the later ‘Washington, DC’.
Caroline Sanford, protagonist of ‘Empire’ takes centre stage once again. A scion of Washington publishing, Caroline somehow finds herself a Hollywood movie actress. She ‘becomes’ the actress Emma Traxler to take advantage of the new media in order to make propaganda films that warn America about the danger that Germany represents to the country. She still shares in interest in an important Washington newspaper with her half-brother Blaise, and so is a very influential politically and socially. Woodrow Wilson is a confidante and she is no stranger to the White House
Hollywood is a frisky and at times frothy book which reflects its main subject. And the history of fledgling film industry gives Vidal considerable scope to flex his muscles with Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle all appearing and at the same time lets the author display his considerable insider knowledge of the industry.
Vidal also sneaks in an appearance by his grandfather, Sen. Thomas P. Gore.
Washington, D.C. (1967)
This is the novel that set the whole ball rolling. Though Vidal had no idea that it would. It was not ‘the first’ in a series. It was written as a stand-alone novel, but it became the genesis for the entire ‘Narratives of Empire’
Set in the years between 1937 and 1953. Its protagonist is Peter Sanford, a young man of a famous political family who can be most readily identified as a young alter ego of Vidal. This becomes quite clear when Sandford shares an intimate love with a schoolboy friend who dies in World War II. This directly reflects a loss Vidal suffered.
The other presiding figure here is Sen. James Burden Day, an anti-New Deal Democrat – much like Vidal’s late grandfather, Sen. T.P. Gore – and around these two men the book becomes a dark and disturbing study of Washington politics. Washington politics has become removed from ‘real life’ and indeed reality itself. Vidal was born into a political family and was a DC political insider – he ran for Office in the 60’s – and he carefully details the amoral machinations, lies and deceit that sadly have become the hallmark of global politics. The book is at once a wide-ranging condemnation of American politics and a rather introspective and intimate portrait of the people who populate that world by a man who has been there and done that. It is at once a polemic and a touching history.
The Golden Age (2000)
The seventh and final book Vidal wrote for American Narratives both completes the series and because Gore Vidal is Gore Vidal – totally messes with the timeline we thought we were dealing with. It doesn’t pick up from ‘Washington, D.C’. it loops back to ‘re-write’ 1939 to 1954.
If you haven’t followed the series, then this is not an issue and the book is a fine ‘stand-alone’ novel. But given that ‘Washington DC’ was not written as the ‘end’ of a series Vidal has to complete the stories of characters who are, in narrative terms, chronologically earlier. So Vidal uses this book to complete the missing years in his character’s stories if only because when he wrote Washington DC he hadn’t yet created the characters… with me so far?
Caroline Sanford is back and picks up her role as an intimate of power but now FDR and Eleanor replace Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as the centres of political and social power. This places her at the centre of WW2 and here the theme of the Narratives – that from the Spanish American War onwards all the nation’s conflicts have wars that have been started by the covert machinations of politicians, the media and the power brokers – becomes explicit. Vidal is painting a picture where those powerful men and woman have all sought to make America into an Empire whilst explicitly denying that any such Empire existed.
To this end Vidal turns all his powers of historical research, political innuendo and spiteful fantasy up to 11. He insinuates the right-wing theory that FDR deliberately provoked the Japanese into Pearl Harbour into the book adding the usual rider that warnings were ignored so as to facilitate that attack. Throughout the book Vidal is presaging the influence of the Industrial-Military-Complex that Eisenhower would later warn us of. Vidal highlights that this era is the turning point where he believes America became a country that was ‘perpetually at war’.
But Vidal being Vidal he cannot resist pulling the rug out from under at the end. The story concludes with a fictional character – Peter Sanford – meeting up with his old friend Gore Vidal at the author’s Italian villa to record a discussion for American television. At one point during that encounter Vidal reminds Peter that he created him..
And so, with that weird but also apt scene the series of novels which are historical fiction or fictional history ends.