Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Fairly Short Post on Gore Vidal's Burr and Lincoln

Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" books are by no means obscure - they're in print, easily available, and Vidal is perhaps America's most prominent "man of letters" - but I can't help but feel that they're a little underrated. At least these, the first two in the series, are among the most impressive (not to mention most enjoyable) "big" novels from the last 40 years or so that I've read. (By "'big' novels", I mean novels that have a great deal of ambition in terms of scope and themes and also have a subject that is a fit match to that ambition).

Lincoln is, understandably, the more serious installment, dealing, as it does, with the most important event in American history. Vidal's take on Lincoln is refreshingly ambiguous. But the book really shines when it comes to its depictions of the other politicians in war time Washington. My favorite: Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and Lincoln's chief Republican rival. Burr is more gossipy and, through Burr, Vidal seems more interesting in tearing down idols. It's hard to decide who comes off worse, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (right now I would say Jefferson), both of whom seem to be competing for the title of America's Greatest Hypocrite.

Vidal's take on politicians, in general, is one that I find myself nodding along to. It's certainly cynical: their great ideas and great statesmanship sometimes seem to get lost in the shadow of their even greater ambition. But, at the same time, the cynicism never turns mean-spirited. Vidal's irony is too sure and his touch too light for that. And he certainly seems to have some kind of admiration for these men and an appreciation for the feats they undertook to realize their ambitions.

Michael Blowhard floated the theory that the function of big novels like these was taken over by TV miniseries. I'd suggest that it's been taken over from those miniseries by shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood (which is Shakespearean in the same American way that these books are, but on a smaller scale and with a grungier cast). As much as I like these series, I can't help but feel that pop culture has lost something with the waning of the "blockbuster novel". These books operate on a scale and with a level of detail and intellectual sophistication that remains out of the grasp of even the best TV shows.

1 comment:

Russell Eliot Dale said...

I couldn't agree more about the greatness and underappreciation of Gore Vidal's "Burr". I think it is a thrilling book and a really important one for all Americans to read.