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 characters are involved in a discussion of history and truth. One says, “We cannot know any history truly. I suppose somewhere, in Heaven perhaps, there is a Platonic history of the world, a precise, true record. But what we think to be history is nothing but fiction.” This remark is regarded as somewhat blasphemous by those present, but it gives Vidal license to continue his rewrite of history.
Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler returns in 1876 to his homeland after an absence of four decades. He had been appointed American vice consul at Antwerp by President Martin Van Buren in 1837. He had married abroad and sired a daughter, now thirty years old, who has been recently widowed. Now, in quest of a secure future for himself and his daughter, Schuyler has decided to return to America. It is Schuyler’s hope that his daughter, a French princess by her first marriage, will now marry a rich American and that he himself will enjoy a distinguished position as father of the bride. In the meantime, he intends to make a good living as a journalist, capitalizing on contacts he has established over the past forty years when he reported from time to time on European affairs for American papers and journals.
The first half of the novel concentrates on Schuyler’s observations of the country to which he has returned. We see with him the America of his time: a changed and changing potpourri of people in quest of money and power, all intertwined in a curiously democratic version of the European aristocracy. As he writes on first seeing New York City,None of the Americans I have met in Europe over the past four decades saw fit to prepare me for the opulence, the grandeur, the vulgarity, and poverty, the elegance, the awful crowded abundance of this city, which, when I last saw it, was a minor seaport with such small pretensions. . . .
Vidal manages to create in Schuyler both a believable voice and an interesting commentator; he is established in the role of foreign observer, one who brings to America an objective judgment. At the same time, we are touched by his wistfulness at being American but not really a part of the America that inspires his admiration; this...
(The entire section is 1451 words.)