Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

1876 is one of a series of novels by Vidal that provide a lively and incisive history of the American republic. It is less exciting than Burr and Lincoln because it lacks a dominant historical figure about whom events and themes naturally cluster. Yet Schuyler is a thoroughly convincing narrator, and his account of the election provides an exciting and instructive denouement of the novel. Although it is a historical fact that Tilden lost the election, and therefore it would seem impossible for there to be any suspense in a detailed recounting of his campaign, Vidal manages to devise a plausible, almost day-by-day, rendering of how Tilden almost won.

This devotion to the 1876 election is characteristic of Vidal’s effort as a historical novelist to show history in the making, to identify those moments when the past nearly turned in a direction different from its eventual outcome. There is, in other words, nothing inevitable about how history has developed. It might easily have been otherwise, Vidal implies, when he has Schuyler speak of Tilden’s “chance” to reject legalistic maneuvering in determining the winner of the presidential election. Tilden’s failure to act as the leader of his party and his reluctance to appear to be intervening with the legislative branch’s authority to determine who won the disputed election cost him all of the twenty disputed electoral votes—only one of which he needed to become president.

Without question, Gore Vidal is America’s premier historical novelist. He has adhered to the documentary record while debating the meaning of that record and the motivations of those who have promulgated the official history of the republic. As a result, there is in his historical novels a constant dialectic between fact and fiction that dramatizes history as a dialogue which is never finished, never definitive. Vidal’s work is the perfect antidote to pious versions of American history; it is impossible to become complacent about the idea of America as a fact of life, Vidal implies, when so much of it is a construct of the imagination.