“History does not enjoy too close an examination of its processes,” observes the author of Empire following Theodore Roosevelt’s terse speech seconding William McKinley for the presidential nomination. In his latest novel, the fifth in a cycle tracing American history, Gore Vidal provides an elaborate examination of political developments at the turn of the century, and, if history itself does not enjoy it, it is likely that his readers will. Vidal, who grew up in Washington, D.C., in a distinguished political family, himself ran twice, unsuccessfully, for public office. Empire follows Washington, D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984) in Vidal’s continuing attempt to provide fictional shape for American history and to debunk the most fatuous national myths. His contemporary contempt for an imperial presidency and for Yankee arrogance is projected nine decades into the past.
Set during the administrations of McKinley and Roosevelt, the novel records that moment when, militarily triumphant in Cuba, Panama, and the Philippines, the United States ceased to be a republic and set up shop as an empire. Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba came to be ruled out of Washington, D.C. Though Empire focuses on a period that is perhaps less intrinsically colorful than those of Lincoln and Burr, it manages to convey a detailed sense of life at the social and political top in Washington, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. It mingles invented characters, such as Caroline and Blaise Sanford, with such historical figures as William Randolph Hearst, John Hay, and Henry Adams. The worldly, urbane voice of its author is intent on demystifying the birth of American imperialism.
The novel’s theme is power, and, while warriors and diplomats are busy offstage extending United States dominion to the edge of Asia through chicanery and brutal massacres, Caroline Sanford is busy taking control of her own life by subduing those in her way. Defying social conventions, she insists on bearing the child of her married lover. Beautiful, intelligent, and manipulative, she is a melodramatic creation.
As the book begins, in 1896, Caroline is twenty years old and has been deprived of a considerable inheritance through the machinations of her half brother Blaise until she reaches the age of twenty-seven. Through a technicality in their father’s will, Blaise manages to maintain temporary stewardship of fifteen million dollars. While he can, Blaise makes use of it to bank-roll and then rival Hearst’s journalistic empire.
Caroline refuses to accept the gilded cage to which the Gilded Age has consigned women of her class. Establishing herself in Washington, she becomes the owner of the feeble Tribune, and she uses her new position as newspaper lord to become a fierce competitor to Hearst not only in reporting events but also in contriving them. Empire chronicles American history as a pageant of scoundrels and fools, and, when Hearst, whose...
(The entire section is 1273 words.)