The Golden Age

by Gore Vidal

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Caroline Sanford provides the central focus of The Golden Age as it begins in 1939, but she soon gives way as protagonist to her young nephew and heir, Peter Sanford. Peter meets President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and most of the other political insiders of his time, as well as such cultural figures as playwright Tennessee Williams, composer Leonard Bernstein, and even a young novelist named Gore Vidal.

Sanford family relationships are tangled, although death simplifies matters as the years pass. Peter’s father, Blaise Sanford, champions the ruthlessly ambitious Clay Overbury in his relentless drive for power. Overbury forces his benefactor, Senator James Burden Day, into retirement so that Overbury can take Day’s Senate seat.

However, the Sanford domestic entanglements take a backseat to the geopolitical maneuvers that begin in 1939. Caroline observes the drama firsthand, through her friendship with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s alter ego. Hopkins mocks the blindness of isolationists who oppose Roosevelt’s attempts to support France and Great Britain, under assault from Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Hopkins says that the unspoken reality is that Americans have a world empire and that Great Britain is America’s client state, which must be protected for American self-interest. Peter and his friend Gore Vidal later speculate about Roosevelt’s role in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They believe that Roosevelt deliberately provoked Japan into an attack, allowing the United States to enter World War II and establish itself as the dominant global power.

After World War II, Peter and his friend Aeneas Duncan publish a journal, American Idea, which becomes a major force in American intellectual and cultural life, and marks the beginning, they believe, of a postwar golden age, in literature, dance, music, and art.

The American renaissance flared and then quickly dimmed. Everything takes a backseat to the Cold War. The two wartime allies, the United States and Soviet Union, divide the world between them and face off in a potentially deadly confrontation. President Truman puts the finishing touches on the American empire. He uses the people’s fear of the Soviet Union to build a national security state, creating the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. His newly militarized national government then inaugurates a loyalty program that quashes dissent and ends the brief golden age.

The book skips ahead to the millennium. On New Years Day, 2000, Peter meets a young man, Aaron Burr Decker, Caroline’s great-grandson. Aaron asked Peter to participate in a televised dialogue with Peter’s friend, Vidal, which takes place in Vidal’s home in Italy. The two old men, Gore and Peter, try to make sense of the era they had lived in. Peter finally reminds Gore that he, Peter, is only a made-up character in a Vidal novel. Why, he asks, did you not give me a better world in which to live?

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (July, 2000): 1977.

The Independent, November 4, 2000, p. 10.

The Independent on Sunday, October 8, 2000, pp. 63-64.

Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 163.

The New York Times, September 28, 2000, p. B8.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 1, 2000): 14.

Publishers Weekly 247 (July 24, 2000): 65.

Time 156 (September 25, 2000): 92.

The Washington Post, October 1, 2000, p. 5.

The Washington Times, October 8, 2000, p. B8.

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