Caroline Sanford provides the central focus of The Golden Age as it begins in 1939, but she soon gives way as protagonist to her young nephew and heir, Peter Sanford. Peter meets President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and most of the other political insiders of his time, as well as such cultural figures as playwright Tennessee Williams, composer Leonard Bernstein, and even a young novelist named Gore Vidal.
Sanford family relationships are tangled, although death simplifies matters as the years pass. Peter’s father, Blaise Sanford, champions the ruthlessly ambitious Clay Overbury in his relentless drive for power. Overbury forces his benefactor, Senator James Burden Day, into retirement so that Overbury can take Day’s Senate seat.
However, the Sanford domestic entanglements take a backseat to the geopolitical maneuvers that begin in 1939. Caroline observes the drama firsthand, through her friendship with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s alter ego. Hopkins mocks the blindness of isolationists who oppose Roosevelt’s attempts to support France and Great Britain, under assault from Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Hopkins says that the unspoken reality is that Americans have a world empire and that Great Britain is America’s client state, which must be protected for American self-interest. Peter and his friend Gore Vidal later speculate about Roosevelt’s role in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They believe that Roosevelt deliberately...
Gore Vidal began his saga of American history with the publication of Washington, D.C. in 1967. Like that first novel in the series, The Golden Age is about people in power and people scheming to be in power, and about people positioned to observe how power is won and lost in the nation’s capital. Vidal himself comes from a family steeped in American political history (he and Al Gore are cousins), and Vidal began his writing career after World War II by replacing his given names—Eugene Luther—with the last name of his grandfather, a U.S. senator. Vidal is related as well to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He has also conducted campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; has played a senator in Tim Robbins’s film, Bob Roberts (1992); has written a play, The Best Man (pr. 1960), about a presidential aspirant; and has published countless essays on American politics. Furthermore, Vidal reminds readers of his integral place in postwar American political and literary life by putting himself as a character in this novel and concluding the book with a dialogue between himself and his character Peter Sanford. Just as the historical novel blends fact and fiction, so Vidal has, with this final volume, blended himself into the historical and imaginative life of his nation.
Between Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age, Vidal published Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), and Hollywood (1990), novels that cover every major period of American history. Although The Golden Age is set in the immediate past, it hearkens back to Vidal’s strongest novel in the series, Burr, a key work that crystallized Vidal’s vision of a republic destined to become an empire. In The Golden Age, Caroline Sanford is editing the memoirs of Charles Schuyler, her grandfather and the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. Schuyler is the narrator of Burr, a novel that takes a jaundiced view of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers who had to get rid of Burr because he punctured their pretension—their claim to be democrats even as they schemed to create an American empire. For those who have read Vidal’s other historical novels, there is a delicious scene in which Caroline Sanford confronts Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson’s reverential biographer. Malone is aghast that Charles Schuyler should repeat the scandalous story that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Caroline is advised by a publisher that she will have difficulty getting her book into print because it impugns the reputation of a Virginia gentleman. Vidal is having his sly fun here. With the recent DNA tests showing conclusively that Jefferson did father slave children, Vidal’s “fiction” has become a fact.
However, Vidal has a larger point to make with this minor episode in The Golden Age. Historical fiction, he implies, can not only reimagine the past; it can give weight to a reinterpretation of history that anticipates the work historians can accomplish only generations later and by plodding through mountains of evidence. Historical novels are readings of human character, and thus a historical novelist can portray a figure such as Jefferson in all his humanity whereas historians are hobbled by a repository of evidence that is always incomplete. Vidal’s main point about Jefferson is that he was a man of passion as well as principle, and that Burr became a scapegoat for the sins of others.
In Vidal’s view, Jefferson, then Lincoln, and finally Franklin Roosevelt constituted a governing class that built an imperial power and made a mockery of the country’s devotion to democracy. In The Golden Age, Roosevelt is portrayed as scheming to involve the United States in World War II. The overwhelming majority of the people are against fighting another war, and so Roosevelt must find a way to provoke an attack that will justify his entry into the war. He cuts off oil supplies to Japan and does not inform the Pacific fleet of an imminent attack on Pearl Harbor. Although most historians would now reject Vidal’s horrendous picture of an American president allowing much of his fleet to be destroyed, there were investigations of the Pearl Harbor attack after the war. How was it that even though the Japanese codes had been cracked, the United States...