The Golden Age

by Gore Vidal

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Literary Techniques

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Vidal's most evident technique is the use of history to expand and enrich the fictional story about the Sanfords. His characters include those who are actual historical figures; those who are based on historical figures, but have been renamed; and fictional characters who are placed within the realm of history. The backdrop that Vidal uses is purely historical, which allows his interesting "insider's" view of the events of the 1940s and early 1950s. Vidal was present and active during this time period in Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood, thanks to his familial connections and the publication of his first novel at an early age. Therefore, he uses his own personal information and recollections to enhance the portraits of his characters. The effect is somewhat similar to the metafiction of his other novels, although not as pronounced. By allowing characters to occasionally foretell the future by using his backward-looking twenty-twenty vision, he calls attention to the construction of his story in particular, but really to that of history in general. He reminds the reader that the history that one reads in a history textbook has also been written with certain personal investments and assumptions. It is the myth of the 1940s and 1950s with its smooth transitions into war and out, and the myth of history in general that Vidal is here attempting to dispel with the interweaving of fact and fiction.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The Golden Age, if nothing else, presents an interesting look at the past and all its imperfections. Vidal would argue that it is these imperfections that textbooks leave out to the detriment of our own knowledge of history, and that is partially his reason for writing this series. His intertwining of fact and fiction may bring the issues to life, but it also creates new ones about the ability of fiction to teach us about the past. These problems may become clearer when the novel is supplemented with other texts outlining this same time period.

1. The Good War: An Oral History by Studs Terkel is a book filled with stories of World War II from a diverse group of people: from people still in the U.S. to those sent overseas, from the lowest soldier to some of the highest powers. Most of the stories focus on people living outside of Washington, but the collection does include some by people involved in politics at the time. How does Terkel's portrayal of this time differ from that presented by Vidal? Are there issues that are included in Terkel's collection that Vidal leaves out, or only subtly mentions?

2. The End of Reform by Alan Brinkley focuses on Roosevelt and his "brain trust" at the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s. This is an inside look at the liberalist politics of Roosevelt and those around him. What do you think Brinkley would think of Vidal's portrayal of Roosevelt, especially his insinuations of Roosevelt's dealings with Japan leading up to Pearl Harbor?

3. What might Vidal say was the "American Ideal" in the 1940s and early 1950s? How has it changed?

4. Why would Vidal end the book with a fast-forward look to the future? Are there any similar gestures that Vidal includes throughout the story?

5. What is the status of the public's "right to know" in this novel? Has it changed? Do you think that the public should have access to political documents, such as the Pearl Harbor documents? Did the public have the right to know about FDR's affairs?

6. Look at how political conventions have changed over the years. What currents in society have...

(This entire section contains 431 words.)

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caused those changes? How do they reflect changes in politics?

7. Does the appearance of Vidal in his work surprise you? Does that affect the way that you look at the novel? Why would Vidal insert himself into the fiction?

8. What myths or assumptions in particular about this time period does it seem that Vidal wishes to dispel? What myths or assumptions does it seem that he wants to encourage?

Social Concerns

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Firmly positioned in a time in which the public's "right to know" is a hotly debated topic and presidential personal matters are assumed to be open for general observation, Gore Vidal looks back to a time in which politics were not assumed to be open and decisions were made for the citizens of the United States, not by them. Vidal presents an interesting look at what many have termed the "golden age," the 1940s and early 1950s. He concentrates on the two power centers of the United States at the time, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., with an emphasis on the latter.

The novel includes a great many characters, but the story centers around two people in particular: Caroline Sanford (former movie actress and former owner/publisher of a Washington paper, the Tribune) and her nephew, Peter Sanford (son to Caroline's half-brother, Blaise Sanford, the current owner/publisher of the Tribune). Caroline is an intimate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his circle, most especially Harry Hopkins, who is considered to be FDR's other half and right-hand man. Harry courts Caroline throughout the story, but she insists that she is not up to caring for the sickly Harry; in spite of her refusals, their friendship remains steadfast. Peter, her nephew, is not a politician, but a journalist, working for his father and the Tribune, but often not agreeing with his father's opinions. Vidal tells the story of Washington in the forties through the vantage points of Caroline and Peter, both of whom are simultaneously inside and outside of the circle of power.

Although the common citizens of America are not of primary interest in the lives of the people of Vidal's story, their well-being makes up one particular focus of the novel. Peter and Caroline frequently (but on separate occasions and not to each other) question the effects that certain moves by Washington's power brokers will have on the health of the general public. Vidal questions why the people of the United States would allow so much power to be invested in those who are quite obviously using and abusing that power. The answer seems to be found within the stop-at-nothing tactics that these manipulators of public opinion employ. It seems not to be a matter of Americans' gross ignorance, or charming naivete, but rather a vested interest that Americans have in their own well-being. The rebound from the Depression is what the country wanted; it is what the country got, so Roosevelt stays in power until he dies. Vidal does raise interesting questions about Roosevelt and his "dictatorship" as some detractors call it. This novel presents the other side of American politics and so in this way, the reader gets to see one version of what really went on at this time. Vidal manages to intertwine what did happen with what might have happened so smoothly and seamlessly that one begins to wonder what happened that we do not know about, and questions what we do know. Conspiracy theories abound on all sorts of topics, and the events at Pearl Harbor are touched upon here. In this novel, a few anti-Roosevelt characters present "evidence" that FDR and the members of his cabinet provoked the Japanese into attacking, knew when the attack would occur, and purposely failed to properly warn commanders at Pearl Harbor.

Vidal subtly includes many of the issues and difficulties facing the country throughout this decade, including sentiments that were felt by the politicians and the public throughout this time period. The debate over isolationism or entry into World War II during Roosevelt's campaign against Wendell Wilkie, the controlling of votes and constituencies by certain "bosses," Asa Philip Randolph's threatened march on Washington economic legislation, the war itself, the Truman doctrine, anti-Roosevelt feelings, anti-Truman feelings, and the Communist scare are all issues that make an appearance in the novel, some more fully than others. Vidal presents his story over the backdrop of history, which is never left entirely out of the story. It often takes a backseat, which Vidal might argue is most often the case in real life, even if we know we are currently becoming part of history. The novel presents an interesting way of looking at the events of this period; it brings to life many of the events that in other accounts might seem dull or uninteresting.

Literary Precedents

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Although Vidal's novel is historical, his writing does not belong with those of a naturalist or even the realist school of writing. The events and many of the characters Vidal includes did exist and so are realistic in that respect, but the way in which he manipulates the characters' places in space and time, and the acceleration of time from chapter to chapter until the fast-forward to the new millennium at the end, places him outside this vein. In terms of Vidal's writing as a whole, he owes credit to Italo Calvino, a writer Vidal greatly supported who brilliantly employs the techniques of metafiction. Calvino's novels such as Invisible Cities and The Baron in the Trees also use a historical backdrop with a modern reconfiguring, but in both of these novels, the historical backdrop is considerably more distant than the one that Vidal employs here. Calvino's influence is perhaps more apparent in Vidal's other novels that rely more heavily on metafiction, but it is still apparent in the case of this novel through such techniques as the self-conscious foreshadowing of historical events. An author like Jeanette Winterston is also a kindred spirit; her novels, such as Sexing the Cherry, place themselves in the past, but with a fast-forward to the present.


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An unabridged version of The Golden Age, read by Anne Twomey and narrated by Kathryn Walker, is available on tape. An abridged version, read by Gore Vidal and narrated by Kathryn Walker, is available on tape and compact disc. All of the recordings are produced by Bantam Books-Audio.