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Burr, by Gore Vidal

Second paragraph of third chapter:
‘Too long?’ I had given him a straighforward [sic] two-page description of the wedding, scribbled on the ride back to New York. The newly wed couple had departed at dawn in Madame's yellow coach with six horses to visit the Colonel's nephew, Governor Edwards, at Hartford, Connecticut. Yes, I am trying to be a journalist, mentioning all facts.
This turned out to be a surprisingly timely read. Gore Vidal tells the story of Aaron Burr through a young journalist, Charlie Schuyler (“not one of the Schuylers”), who downloads Burr’s version of his career in the months before his death in 1836. It’s a nice alternate take on the received version of America’s founding story (which has been reinforced by Hamilton), rather like his novel about Julian the Apostate (who has however had rather better historiography than Aaron Burr). The book is rather long, but there is a lot of story here, including also young Schuyler’s ultimately doomed relationship with a sex worker.

When this was published in 1973, it was seen as commentary on Watergate. I’m sure that Watergate was in Vidal’s mind, and I have seen contemprary reviews complaining that he portrays Washington and Jefferson as less than heroic. For me the most insteresting nuance was Andrew Jackson, the president of the day in 1836, who had come to power as a revolutionary and failed to really deliver much more than patronage for his friends; Burr remembers him as a young and fairly mainstream political actor, who only later decided that it suited him to be anti-establishment.

Going back a bit, I was interested by the reflections on the Revolutionary War, particularly the story of the Arnold/Montgomery invasion of Canada and the general critique of Washington’s leadership. The Burr defensive account of the election of 1800 is of course revisionist. But there are some nicely done twists at the end which remind us that Burr, like everyone else, is an unreliable narrator.

I enjoyed this, and I would positively recommend it as an expansion of the Hamilton universe; not so much to readers who are not interested in early American politics. Also it shoudl be said that Vidal does not give the women of Burr’s story much voice. You can get it here.

This was my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on that pile is Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin.

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