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...
(The entire section is 792 words.)