Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
1876 is written in the form of a journal that Charles Schuyler is keeping for himself. After a more than thirty-year absence, he is returning with his daughter to the United States, which is on the eve of its centennial year. The panic of 1873 (a monetary crisis initiated by the passage in that year of the Silver Act, which ended the coinage of silver and thus reduced the amount of currency in circulation) has wiped out his capital, and he is forced to solicit journalistic assignments and to secure a wealthy husband for his widowed daughter. His main aim is to help Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, get elected president, for which Schuyler hopes to be rewarded with a diplomatic post in France.
Schuyler is a self-described “Rip Van Winkle” who is awakening to what is, for him, a new country. Thus his journal is filled with commentary on the manners and morals of the populace, on the way that Americans speak, dress, neglect to bathe frequently enough, and so on. He is a Europeanized American who is alternately amused and irritated by the crudeness of the cultural and political climate. Mark Twain, for example, is viewed as a kind of professional roughneck whom Schuyler detests. Twain has “cunningly” played “the fool” for his own enormous profit and popularity, but in Schuyler’s view, Twain has also “come to hate himself, but lacks the courage either to crack the mirror or to change, if he could, that deliberately common face which it so faithfully reflects.” Corrupt politicians and businessmen conspire to defraud the public of millions, and thus Schuyler is confirmed in his support of Tilden’s candidacy as a reformer and as one of the few men in public life who is not afraid to expose corruption.
At the same time, Schuyler’s critique of America is tempered by his awareness of his own connivance in corruption. After all, he assiduously courts well-to-do New York families, such as the Apgars, who have eligible sons who might marry his daughter. He is troubled by his role as journalist, since that also means kowtowing to the powerful in order to gather information and commissions for more work. He prefers the guise of the historian who can afford to take a more impartial and objective view of politics and society. He is best known in Europe for his book, Paris Under the Commune.
As the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr (Schuyler is also the narrator of Vidal’s Burr, 1973), as a writer who has covered nearly a half-century of American and European history, and as a partisan deeply involved in the upcoming election, Schuyler is in a perfect position to bring a very complex consciousness to his descriptions of personalities and issues. Having compromised some of his own principles for money, Schuyler can tolerantly record the schemes of politicians such as James G. Blaine and show how they fit into a nation bent on efficiently consolidating its power and prosperity. As Schuyler says of Cornelius Vanderbilt,it must be said in the old villain’s favour that before he managed through theft, violence, and fraud to put together his railroad empire, a passenger from New York City to Chicago was obliged to change trains seventeen times during the course of the journey.
Schuyler is hardly an apologist for capitalism, but he cannot gainsay the service that Vanderbilt has provided to the public any more than he can overlook “such a vast floating criminal class” and the “grinding poverty in grisly contrast to the awful richness of the sort of people” he has been seeing in New York. If he is not as fiercely dedicated to reform as his journalist colleague, Charles Nordhoff, Schuyler is a more aloof and therefore a more reliable observer of politics.
As the nation heads indifferently toward electing a new president, Schuyler and his daughter alternately court and criticize society. Emma is something of a Bonapartist and is attracted to politicians such as Blaine who are not bothered by the brokering of principles as long as they advance to higher offices of power. Schuyler, on the other hand, is allied to the legalistic Tilden, who would do more for the poor and bring order to the slipshod procedures of President Ulysses Grant’s corrupt government. Father and daughter, in other words, are excellent exemplars of the conflicts and contradictions that beset mid-century America.