Burr Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Vidal’s iconoclastic portrait of the American Founding Fathers in Burr would have shocked an earlier generation. In 1973, however, the United States had just emerged from the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and was still torn by controversy over the Vietnam War and by the Watergate scandal that would soon force President Richard Nixon to resign from office. As one reviewer of Burr pointed out, to the millions of Americans who believed that the ancient verities of the republic had become hollow, Vidal explained that they always had been. If many readers were surprised that Vidal’s history was not what their teachers had taught them, his description of the Founding Fathers did not shock professional historians. As usual, Vidal had done excellent research and had based his work solidly in the interpretative tradition of such great American historians as Henry Adams and Charles Beard as well as the young revisionist historians of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Burr opens in 1833 and ends in 1840, four years after Aaron Burr’s death at age eighty. It is narrated by Charles Schuyler, a twenty-five-year-old law clerk in Burr’s office, who wants to give up the legal profession to be a writer. He is intrigued by Burr, a dark figure of the heroic period of American history, who is still very much alive and active. Burr is witty, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated. He is willing to talk to Charlie about the past. Meanwhile, several friends of Charlie are plotting against Vice President Martin van Buren, whom they expect will try for the presidency in 1836, after Andrew Jackson’s second term in office. Van Buren’s enemies see Charlie’s project with Burr as a possible way to carry out their political schemes. They know that Burr and Van Buren had been close; in fact, there is a rumor that Van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son. If Charlie finds evidence of that in his research on Burr, they can use it...

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Burr Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Burr begins on July 1, 1833, with a special dispatch from the New York Evening Post announcing the marriage of “Colonel Aaron Burr, aged seventy-seven” to “Eliza Jumel, born Bowen fifty-eight years ago (more likely sixty-five but remember: she is prone to litigation!).” The author of the dispatch, and narrator of the novel, is Charles Schuyler, who is studying law under Burr, an attorney still active in the affairs of love and politics. Schuyler’s narrative intended to resolve some of the confusion and the conflicting claims that mark historical accounts of Burr’s controversial career, while not pretending to offer the ultimate truth about the man. As Burr himself will suggest, the printed history of his affairs has been unreliable; the point of Schuyler’s dispatch is that even at this late stage in his subject’s life, accurate information is difficult to obtain and to publish on a figure who refers to the legend of himself as “the hellish Aaron Burr [who] meant single-handedly to disband the United States.”

Vidal has wisely chosen not to present Burr’s life in strict chronological order. The most fascinating and historically significant period of the protagonist’s life is over by his fiftieth year, and while Burr’s personality remains intriguing, his last thirty years are of minor importance and are telescoped into a few pages of Schuyler’s speculations about how Burr has coped with his infamous past.

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Burr Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baker, Susan, and Curtis S. Gibson. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. 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 Burr.

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 his same-sex orientation on his work. Although he does not specifically discuss Burr, he does give examples from history where the sexual preference of certain important figures could have been a factor in determining the course of events.

Vidal, Gore. Interview by Jay Parini. The New England Review 14 (Fall 1991): 93-101. Vidal talks about his career as a novelist and television scriptwriter. He cites writers who have influenced him, including Jonathan Swift and William Golding. He also shares his views on contemporary literary criticism. A revealing interview that offers valuable insight into Vidal’s artistic motivations.