1876 (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
In an “Afterword” to his novel 1876, Gore Vidal tells us that the work was meant to be the middle book in a trilogy beginning with Burr and ending with Washington, D.C. In 1876 Vidal presents a seemingly factual account of a period he calls “probably the low point in our republic’s history”; in so doing, he intermingles his history lessons with his fiction using the same technique he has found successful in his previous novels.
1876 was America’s centennial year. Symbolically it should have been a year of celebration and pageantry, of looking back and striking boldly ahead. But, in Vidal’s telling, the symbolism was lost on those living through the time. In this novel, we see them looking back only to the Civil War, source of many still-present scars and evils. We see them moving ahead by fits and starts, scrambling toward goals that seem shortsighted at best. We are shown this world through the diary of journalist Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, an affable and decent man, who, though not himself a cynic, succeeds in leaving us with a highly cynical view of his generation’s behavior.
Just how much of the account is historically accurate we do not know. Nor should we care. Vidal reminds us that all written history has been interpreted by someone. At one point in the novel, Schuyler and two other...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Baker, Susan, and Curtis S. Gibson. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. The first full-length study to include Vidal’s most recent works. A biographical sketch precedes a general discussion of Vidal’s early writings, followed by critical discussions of individual novels. The discussions include sections on plot and character development, thematic issues, narrative style, and critical approaches. Includes an essay on 1876.
Goodman, Walter. “History as Fiction.” The New Leader 71 (May 16, 1988): 11-12. Vidal defends himself against critics who charge that his books are “unhistorical or antihistorical exercises.” Although Goodman believes that the harsh criticism is unwarranted, he argues that Vidal’s novels should “best be taken for what they are, which is something different from history.”
Parini, Jay, ed. Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. A collection of essays by various critics that covers the important works of Vidal’s career. An interesting overview that places Vidal’s historical fiction within the context of the entire body of his work.
Vidal, Gore. “The Importance of Being Gore.” Interview by Andrew Kopkind. The Nation 257 (July 5, 1993): 16-19. Vidal discusses the influence of...
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