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(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 to defeat Van Buren.

Burr provides Charlie with copies of his journal on the Revolutionary War, in which he was an officer, and dictates additional material to fill out his memoirs. Charlie is quickly captivated by the old man, who makes the famous figures of the past, his friends and acquaintances, come alive: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, and many more. Burr had been a leader among the Founding Fathers, a man who sparkled even among that glittering elite. He was Jefferson’s vice president, and he assumed, as did many others, that he would someday be president. Yet he got in the way of powerful interests in New York, represented by Hamilton, and seemed to threaten the Virginia clique headed by Jefferson. Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. His political career in ruins, he went westward, probably with plans to break Mexico away from Spain. Perhaps he intended to become king of Mexico. Jefferson accused him of attempting to break up the union; he had Burr arrested and tried for treason. Despite pressure from Jefferson, however, Burr was not convicted.

Burr brings to life one of American history’s important and neglected figures, but it does more. It entertains and titillates as Burr turns his irreverent wit against the holy figures of the past. Washington is a plump figure who has difficulty getting on a horse without splitting his pants. As a general, he displays “eerie incompetence”; he is a man of courage and will, not military ability. His real genius is for business and for political intrigue. Jefferson is a hypocrite who rattles on about inalienable rights yet denies them to slaves, Indians, women, and poor white men. He is an empire builder who doubles the size of the United States.

Burr is not an embittered old man who has nothing good to say about his contemporaries, however; he likes Adams, Madison, and Jackson. His point is that the Founding Fathers were like all political leaders: They were opportunistic men out...

(The entire section is 1,662 words.)