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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Empire opens in 1898, just as the Spanish-American War ends. Charles Schuyler, the engaging young narrator of Burr , is dead, but his granddaughter, Caroline Sanford, is the protagonist of this book. Her half brother, Blaise Sanford, works for publisher William Randolph Hearst, and Caroline defies the Victorian era gender...

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Empire opens in 1898, just as the Spanish-American War ends. Charles Schuyler, the engaging young narrator of Burr, is dead, but his granddaughter, Caroline Sanford, is the protagonist of this book. Her half brother, Blaise Sanford, works for publisher William Randolph Hearst, and Caroline defies the Victorian era gender code and buys her own newspaper, in Washington, D.C. She copies Hearst’s style of yellow journalism, featuring murders on the front page of her newspaper, preferably of beautiful half-naked young women. Blaise later joins her as part owner of the Tribune, which gives them access to the power brokers who make history, as does Caroline’s affair with a rising southern politician, James Burden Day.

Much of the story is told from the point of view of Caroline’s friend, John Hay, once Abraham Lincoln’s young aide, now secretary of state. Hay’s circle includes Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, whose geopolitical intrigues are wryly observed by Hay’s close friends, historian Henry Adams and author Henry James.

Hay, Adams, and James dissect the world scene as the United States continues its evolution from republic to empire. Vidal traces the path from the republic established by men such as George Washington and John Adams through the creation of an internal empire by Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and James Polk—expansionists who grabbed vast tracts of land from Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. Lincoln created a unified nation with a powerful central government. McKinley then uses that new power to destroy the Spanish empire. He seizes Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, which, along with other island bases, transform the Caribbean and Pacific into American lakes. Roosevelt adds the Panama Canal to the American empire, which allows Washington to move its fleet quickly from one geopolitical hotspot to another.

Washington becomes the dynamic hub of the new empire, a place where politics and the media merge in ways that transform both. Caroline and Blaise Sanford both admire and are appalled by Hearst. Rather than contenting himself with just reporting the news, they believe that he is assuming immense power as an inventor of reality. Hearst believes that he, almost alone, created the war with Spain, which in its wake gave the United States an overseas empire. He says he invented the nation’s newest hero, Theodore Roosevelt, by sending him off to war surrounded by reporters.

There were limits to this new form of power. Hearst decides to go into politics himself but is shoved aside by his invention, Roosevelt, who becomes vice president in March, 1901, and then president, after McKinley’s assassination in September. The book ends with an angry confrontation between Hearst and Roosevelt. The publishing tycoon tells Roosevelt that he is a Hearst creation. History made me, not you, Roosevelt says. However, true history, Hearst muses, is the final fiction, and he is author of that.

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