David Shankbone: Gore Vidal (2009)
Ralph came over to Stu and knelt down. 'Can we get you anything, Stu?'
Stu smiled. 'Yeah. Everything Gore Vidal ever wrote - those books about Lincoln and Aaron Burr and those guys. I always meant to read the suckers. Now it looks like I got the chance.'
- Stephen King, The Stand (1990): 923.
Towards the end of Stephen King's apocalyptic masterpiece The Stand, one of his main characters, Stu Redman, is left behind by his companions in a washed-out gully because he's sprained his ankle and they're unable to lift him out.
Stu's last, rather plaintive request is for a set of Gore Vidal's American history novels. We already know that he's a big reader. Earlier in the story he was enthralled by the adventures of Fiver and the other rabbits in Watership Down, but the Vidal novels seem like quite a departure from the quest narratives Stu loves - and which he and the others are far-from-coincidentally reenacting at this very moment in the story.
Stephen King: The Stand (1978 / 1990)
Curiously enough, if we go back in time to 1978, when The Stand originally appeared - in a form severely truncated by the demands of his publisher's accounting department, much to King's chagrin - we find a rather different version of this scene:
Ralph came over to Stu and knelt down. 'Can we get you anything, Stu?'Ralph's crooked grin is the same on both occasions, but the books Stu longs to read have changed somewhat in the twelve years between the two texts of King's novel.
Stu smiled. 'Yeah. All those books about that Kent family. I always meant to read em. Now it looks like I got the chance.'
Ralph grinned crookedly. 'Sorry, Stu. Looks like I'm tapped.'
- Stephen King, The Stand (1978): 661.
John Jakes: The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-79)
For those of you who (like me) didn't happen to know, the "Kent Family Chronicles" are, according to Wikipedia:
a series of eight novels by John Jakes written for Lyle Engel of Book Creations, Inc. to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.They were published between 1974 and 1979, which positions them nicely to be read by the 1978 version of Stu. All of the books were "best sellers, with no novel in the series selling fewer than 3.5 million copies."
Gore Vidal: Narratives of Empire (1967-2000)
Could the same be said of Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" series? That was the author's final choice for an overall title, though his publisher apparently preferred "the politically neutral series-title 'American Chronicles'."
Although written at various times, over a period of thirty-odd years, out of historical sequence, these seven novels do have interlocking stories and characters - some, admittedly, rather crudely soldered onto the earlier books in order to fit them into Vidal's later vision for the series.
Here they are in order of appearance:
And here they are in chronological sequence:
They were, at various times, referred to as "American Chronicles", "Narratives of a Golden Age" and "Narratives of Empire". Does this apparent indecision on their author's part explain some of the difficulties we find when trying to discuss them as a whole? What are they actually about? Certainly they don't aim to emulate the bicentennial boosterism of John Jakes's Kent Family Chronicles, but do they present a clear alternative to that?
The series began very promisingly with Burr, a multi-faceted romp through the Revolutionary War and the early years of the Republic, seen through the quizzical eyes of that pantomime villain Aaron Burr (or, rather, a young journalist's attempts to turn Burr's fragments of memoir into a coherent account of a long-lost age).
Of course, all this was long before the musical Hamilton made that particular founding father a household name. I have to confess to not having heard of Aaron Burr before reading Vidal's novel, let alone about his notorious duel with Alexander Hamilton. It was all news to me, in other words.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton (2015)
Burr is clearly a kind of alter-ego for Gore Vidal: a kind of internal émigré, despised by his contemporaries for largely spurious reasons, but brighter and better-informed than any of them. Vidal makes no secret of Burr's flaws - just as he is open about his own in Palimpsest, his 1995 memoir - but the unspoken offence constituted by Vidal's unashamed homosexuality in repressed late-twentieth century America makes a good parallel with Burr's alleged "treason" - another name for the same political opportunism practised more successfully by the Empire-building Thomas Jefferson.
Stylistically, the book had much in common with other post-modern novels of the era such as John Barth's Sot-Weed Factor (1960) or John Berger's Little Big Man (1964). There was, however, a sophistication and depth to Vidal's knowledge of American history which gave it an extra edge. And I suspect that that's why it's still so readable today, when so many of the other dazzling fictions of the era have faded into obscurity.
The Burr-Hamilton Duel (1804)
With the next volume in the series - in chronological, though not in publication order - Vidal went into another gear. Lincoln is a brilliantly empathetic and subtle portrait of America's most famous president. Even Vidal's detractors were forced to admit that he'd managed to transform some of the most hackneyed material imaginable into a kind of secret history of the Civil War.
This was, admittedly, a few years before Ken Burn's classic PBS Documentary series woke up even non-history buffs to the sheer horror and momentousness of this "nineteenth-century catastrophe". Lincoln stands up very well to the comparison, though.
I've read many books about the era - Bruce Catton's and Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogies, Carl Sandburg's six-volume life of Lincoln, Freeman's seven-volume series about Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants, even Allan Nevin's 8-volume Ordeal of the Union - but I haven't spotted any obvious solecisms in Gore Vidal's knowledge, let alone his sophisticated treatment of the characters involved.
Honoré Morrow: Great Captain (1930)
The same could certainly not be said for the above trilogy of Lincoln novels, by Theodore Dreiser-protégée Honoré Morrow, which I also happen to have on my shelves. It dates roughly from the era of movies such as Young Mister Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), and is rather like them in spirit.
Morrow has concocted a spirited yarn, with heavily fictionalised elements such as the Confederate spy Miss Ford who dominates the Lincoln household in the first novel, Forever Free (1927). Despite the fact that she's been detected separately by each member of the household (with the possible exception of the obnoxious Tad) she's allowed to run loose, concocting abduction and assassination plots with monotonous regularity, until she's finally stabbed by a kitchen hand - whilst disguised as a black slave - in a last desperate attempt to prevent the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation!
The second novel, With Malice Toward None (1928), centres upon a particularly saccharine love affair conducted by Senator Sumner with a Washington socialite, under the watchful eyes of his intimate friends, the Lincolns. Given the unrelenting, abundantly-documented hostility between the real Lincoln and Sumner, this is perhaps the weakest of the three books. (Or, as I'm tempted to add: "What's on the board, Miss Ford?")
Morrow's third and culminating volume, The Last Full Measure (1930), is largely concerned with the ins and outs of John Wilkes Booth's assassination plot. Like Vidal, Morrow doubles the President's wise and wholesome activities with the nefarious treachery of Booth and his low-life accomplices. Like Vidal - and yet so unlike. Once again, she fictionalises freely, and shifts speeches and events as it suits her. It is, nevertheless, probably the best written and constructed of her three novels.
Honoré Morrow's Lincoln is a devoted admirer of the poetry of Walt Whitman; his wife Mary Todd Lincoln is a constant help to him, despite occasional passing fits of temper; Seward, in her version, is a laughing buffoon and Chase a non-entity - it is Sumner who dominates the politics of the time. Above all, her Lincoln is sentimental and teary-eyed to an appalling degree. His obsession with deporting American negroes to Africa, and his refusal to see them as equal with whites are glossed over with facile phrases.
Given the way in which Vidal deconstructs all the convenient myths about Lincoln, it's hard to explain why 'the ancient' (as Nicolay and Hay, his two private secretaries, call him) remains so compelling and - let's face it - loveable as the central figure of his novel. Perhaps it's because he's constantly seen through the eyes of others: particularly John Hay (shown in a far more frivolous light in Morrow's version).
Reading the two novels in such swift succession doesn't really do justice to Morrow, who did a pretty good job under the constraints of her era - and who lacked the splendid Civil War histories now so readily available. The fact that one can still read Gore Vidal's book with admiration forty years after it was published, however, is a tribute not only to his consummate skill as a writer, but also to the profundity of his grasp of American history. He makes up almost nothing, and his book is the stronger for it.
Honoré Willsie Morrow (1880-1940)
If Lincoln is the high point of Gore Vidal's whole series of fictional histories, perhaps it's because his fascination with a figure of the past whom he is unable, finally, to fathom, let alone patronise, drives him to new heights as a writer. 1876, by contrast, albeit another fascinating historical tapestry, was written more in the cynical spirit of Burr.
This is hardly surprising, as it has the same narrator: Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, Aaron Burr's illegitimate son, a reasonably well-known (though unfortunately almost penniless) writer who's been living in Europe since 1839. His return to the bustling republic of the gilded age is the subject of the book, which consists of 'notes' for the series of articles he hopes to write on the experience.
If all this sounds like a foreshadowing of Henry James's year-long return to America in 1904, which inspired his late masterpiece The American Scene (1907) - with its memorable pictures of the devastation of "the great lonely land", and the triumph of greed over the simpler country of his youth - that's presumably quite intentional. The young James only appears in passing in this novel, but will play a far more important part in the next one in line.
James A. Michener: Centennial (1974)
1976, the bicentennial year, was, of course, a time when any number of backward looks over the United States' two centuries of history were to be expected. Besides the Kent Chronicles, one of the best known and most successful was James A. Michener's huge, episodic, chronicle novel Centennial.
Centennial is by no means a casual or optimistic celebration of the journey from there to here. It is, in fact, a long saga of deceit and bloodshed, culminating in the acquittal of a local entrepreneur who has devised a way for rich men to shoot (protected) bald eagles out of helicopters - they almost always miss, so he's devised a way of exploding a small plastic bag of offal outside the cockpit as he surreptitiously shoots the bird himself!
Beyond its rather sombre tone, it has little in common with Vidal's chronicle of political chicanery and intrigue, culminating in the first unequivocally stolen presidential election in American history - until the Bush / Gore débâcle of 2000, that is. Michener, by contrast, tries to take solace in the rich pageant of life on the plains.
The fact that both authors end up in so downbeat a mood may have something to do with the nadir of trust in the American system caused by the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 - Michener's narrator actually watches the hearings in his hotel room whilst charting the fortunes of his representative Colorado middletown of Centennial.
Whatever inspired this gloom in each case, though, it's as well for us as readers to be reminded from time to time that bad as things undoubtedly are now with the 'the land of the free and the home of the brave', they weren't all that great in 1976 - or 1876 - or virtually any other date in history one can name, for that matter - either.
Francis Scott Key: The Star-Spangled Banner (1814)
Empire tries to do a great deal in a short space of time. This could be seen as admirable or unfortunate, depending on your prior expectations of a novel of this type - or in this series.
On the one hand, it provides us with a kind of updated version of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady in its account of the fascinating rise of Caroline Sanford from cheated heiress to self-assured newspaper publisher (there's something there, too, of Katharine Graham's successful tenure at the Washington Post, I suspect).
However, it's mostly a political history of the McKinley / Roosevelt era of imperial expansion on the part of America: it was, afer all, during this period that Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and a number of other Caribbean and Pacific dependencies were added to the "protection" of the United States.
The rise of yellow journalism and the growing dominance of William Randolph Hearst is also explored in some depth, largely through the former's relations with Caroline's scheming brother Blaise Sanford.
What else? There's a brief history of "the hearts": a group of wealthy Washingtonians including Henry Adams, his dead wife Clover, Secretary of State John Hay, and various others, who seem - in context - to embody some alternate philosophy of life superior to the merciless materialism of the fin de siècle.
All these ingredients would seem to promise a major novel. And it's certainly this which Vidal has laboured to compose. They fail, somehow, to cohere - perhaps because they lack a single central focus, unlike the earlier novels in the sequence.
If it ends up being a fascinating might-have-been in purely fictional terms, so much talent and skill has gone into it that it can still serve as a storehouse of contemporary attitudes and events. Where else, for instance, could I have found out about John Hay's early dialect poems "Little Breeches" and "Jim Bludso", which Henry James persists in quoting at him, embarrassingly, every time they meet?
John Hay: Pike County Ballads (1912)
The problem with Hollywood, which picks up pretty much where Empire left off - albeit with a decade or so in between - is that there's a bit too much scheming and politicking, and not nearly enough Hollywood.
The sordid saga of Warren Gamaliel Harding's rise to power and influence despite (or because of) his legion of crooked, small-town friends is expounded in great - though at times confusing - detail. Interesting though this undoubtedly is, it's hard to see precisely how it meshes with the continuing saga of Caroline Sanford, her brother Blaise, and their various lovers and friends.
Once again, this is an immensely informative novel for those of us who are bit shaky in our knowledge of early twentieth century American politics. For every reader who feels this to be a deficiency, however, I'll bet there are a dozen others who would rather hear more about the silent movies Caroline finds herself first starring in, then producing!
One glimpses, at times, in the livelier chapters of Vidal's book, the possibility of some modern rival to such classic Hollywood novels as Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) or even Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1939).
Alas, for the first time one begins to feel that the constraints of Vidal's series are beginning to outweigh the benefits. The book as a whole remains a fascinatingly panoramic view of many aspects of contemporary American life. It just lacks focus. But then, that no longer seems to be a vital part of Vidal's overall scheme.
Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust (1939)
The same could not be said of the next in the series - which was also, confusingly, the first to be written. The reason for this, of course, is that even if Vidal dreamed of such a roman fleuve in 1967, when he first published this book, he can have had little idea what precise form it would take.
Washington, D.C. is a very focussed novel indeed. Unfortunately, the main burden of the plot is the evil and underhanded way in which Enid Sanford, daughter of the nefarious Blaise (already familiar to readers of the previous two books), and sister to the protagonist, Peter Sanford, is sacrificed to the political ambitions of her husband, a JFK-clone called Clay Overbury.
The absence of Caroline Sanford from the narrative is due to the fact that she had not yet been invented when Vidal wrote it. In his introduction to the 1994 reissue of 1876, however, he reassures us that:
Now I have rewritten Washington, D.C., the summing-up novel, in order to bring together all the strands of the story.I was interested to check just how substantive this "rewriting" of the earlier novel was. Comparing my 1976 paperback to one published in 2000, I could find only two substantive new passages. The first, in chapter one, involved a more detailed account of Peter's genealogy, based on the events of the earlier books. The second, in chapter seven, involves a two-page exposition of just how their family is related to Aaron Burr, another subject intensively canvassed in Burr and 1876.- Gore Vidal, "Narratives of a Golden Age." 1876: A Novel. 1977. London: Abacus, 1994. vii-xii.
Beyond this, it's hard to see any really significant difference between the two texts. Washington, D.C. is largely a morality tale: a denunciation of the inevitable compromises involved in political advancement. Enid, however, is so poisonously mendacious and self-destructive a drunk, and Peter so pompous a prig, that it's hard to see them as constituting much of a moral centre to the narrative. As a whole, it lacks the more nuanced and complex picture of human relationships familiar to us from the earlier (or should I say later?) books in the series.
Perhaps it's just a question of what one expects from it, though. In his own online essay "Gore Vidal's American Chronicles: 1967-2000" (2005), Harry Kloman explains that:
With the appearance of The Golden Age in 2000, Washington, D.C. no longer stands as the closing volume in the Chronicles. Nonetheless, it remains unique among the seven books, arguably the best, and surely - with its introspective look at Washington politics, revealed through the experiences of Vidal's provocative fictional creations - the most intimate and original.I can't really agree, but it's certainly interesting to read an alternate view on the subject. The trouble is, the more vindictive and self-righteous Peter and his band of buddies became, the more I found myself sympathising with the undeniably dynamic, if a little too morally pliable, Clay Overbury.
Gore Vidal: Washington, D. C. (1967)
Which brings us to The Golden Age. I wish I could see this as the triumphant culmination of Vidal's immense fictional design it was clearly meant to be.
And, yes, it begins well, with Caroline Sanford's return to America after twenty-odd years in France, and her gradual reintroduction to the new realities of the Franklin - rather than Theodore - Roosevelt era.
Unfortunately she dies halfway through, which leaves us with her self-satisfied nephew Peter as cicerone to the distinct lack of action which distinguishes the rest of the book.
There's a great deal of noise about the old canard that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbour. There are a lot of cheap shots at his successor, Truman. There are even some perfunctory attempts at metafiction when Vidal introduces himself (both young and old) as a character in the narrative.
But there's none of the old zest, the sense of being in the hands of an immensely knowing and well-informed fictional prestidigitator. Tiresome factual glitches and even downright errors disfigure the pages: Churchill is described as a major player at the post-war Potsdam conference whereas he was actually replaced by his successor Clement Attlee early in the discussions; Clay Overbury has to share the stage with his presumed original, the real JFK (Vidal gets out of this one by having Clay die in a plane crash, which it's hinted may have been arranged by Peter!) ...
Ford Madox Ford: Last Post (1928)
Vidal ends up sounding more and more like a tiresome old conspiracy theorist, and so tendentious are some of his readings of the Second World War and its aftermath that it has the effect of casting doubt on many of his earlier interpretations of "received" history. Was he just a blustering fantasist all the time? It would be a shame to have to think so.
No, like Last Post, that thoroughly dispensable final part of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End sequence, one would probably be better off not reading this one at all. Or certainly not rereading it. For all its chronological and thematic difficulties, it's best to continue to regard Washington D.C. as the last link in his fictional tapestry.
At least, that's what I would have advised Stu Redman, as he lay in his bivouac under the ruined interstate highway. Of course, given it was his version of 1990 at the time, he had little choice in the matter - but he was certainly fortunate that Hollywood would have just appeared to distract him from his seemingly desperate plight!
Gore Vidal: Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995)
Gore Vidal (1948)
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal
- Williwaw (1946)
- In a Yellow Wood (1947)
- The City and the Pillar (1948)
- The Season of Comfort (1949)
- A Search for the King (1950)
- Dark Green, Bright Red (1950)
- [as Katherine Everard] A Star's Progress [aka Cry Shame!] (1950)
- The Judgment of Paris (1952)
- [as Edgar Box] Death in the Fifth Position (1952)
- [as Cameron Kay] Thieves Fall Out (1953)
- [as Edgar Box] Death Before Bedtime (1953)
- [as Edgar Box] Death Likes It Hot (1954)
- Messiah (1954)
- Julian (1964)
- Julian. 1962. Panther Books Ltd. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1972.
- Washington, D.C. [Narratives of Empire, 6] (1967)
- Washington, D.C. 1967. Panther Books Ltd. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1976.
- Washington, D.C. 1967. Narratives of Empire. Vintage. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000.
- Myra Breckinridge (1968)
- Two Sisters (1970)
- Burr [Narratives of Empire, 1] (1973)
- Burr. 1973. Panther Books Ltd. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1974.
- Myron (1974)
- 1876 [Narratives of Empire, 3] (1976)
- 1876. 1976. Narratives of a Golden Age. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Limited, 1994.
- Kalki (1978)
- Three by Box: The Complete Mysteries of Edgar Box (1978)
- Creation (1981)
- Creation: A Novel. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1981.
- Duluth (1983)
- Lincoln [Narratives of Empire, 2] (1984)
- Lincoln. 1984. Panther Books. London: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1985.
- Empire [Narratives of Empire, 4] (1987)
- Empire. 1987. Grafton Books. London: Collins Publishing Group, 1989.
- Hollywood [Narratives of Empire, 5] (1990)
- Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s. 1990. Narratives of Empire. Vintage. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000.
- Live From Golgotha (1992)
- The Smithsonian Institution (1998)
- The Golden Age [Narratives of Empire, 7] (2000)
- The Golden Age. 2000. Narratives of Empire. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK), 2001.
- A Thirsty Evil (1956)
- Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories (2006)
- Visit to a Small Planet (1957)
- The Best Man (1960)
- On the March to the Sea (1960–61 / 2004)
- Romulus [adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Romulus der Große (1950)] (1962)
- Weekend (1968)
- Drawing Room Comedy (1970)
- An Evening with Richard Nixon (1970)
- Climax!: A Farewell to Arms [TV adaptation] (1955)
- Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde [TV adaptation] (1955)
- The Best of Broadway [TV adaptation of Stage Door] (1955)
- The Catered Affair (1956)
- I Accuse! (1958)
- The Left Handed Gun (1958)
- The Scapegoat (1959)
- Ben Hur (1959)
- Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
- The Best Man (1964)
- Is Paris Burning? (1966)
- Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)
- Caligula (1979)
- Dress Gray (1986)
- The Sicilian (1987)
- Billy the Kid (1989)
- Dimenticare Palermo (1989)
- Rocking the Boat (1963)
- Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (1969)
- Sex, Death and Money (1969)
- Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952–1972 (1972)
- On Our Own Now: Collected Essays 1952-1972. 1974. Panther Books Ltd. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1976.
- Matters of Fact and of Fiction (1977)
- Sex is Politics and Vice Versa [Limited edition] (1979)
- [Ed.] Views from a Window (1981)
- The Second American Revolution (1983)
- Vidal In Venice (1985)
- Armageddon? [UK only] (1987)
- At Home (1988)
- A View From The Diner's Club [UK only] (1991)
- Screening History (1992)
- Decline and Fall of the American Empire (1992)
- United States: Essays 1952–1992 (1993)
- Palimpsest: A Memoir (1995)
- Palimpsest: A Memoir. 1995. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK), 1996.
- Virgin Islands [UK only] (1997)
- The American Presidency (1998)
- Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings (1999)
- The Essential Gore Vidal. Ed. Fred Kaplan (1999)
- The Essential Gore Vidal. Ed. Fred Kaplan. 1999. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK), 2000.
- The Last Empire: Essays 1992–2000 (2001)
- Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or How We Came To Be So Hated (2002)
- Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (2002)
- Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003)
- Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004)
- Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir (2006)
- The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (2008)
- Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare (2009)
- I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics: Interviews with Jon Wiener (2013)
- History of the National Security State. Introduction by Paul Jay (2014)
- Buckley vs. Vidal: The Historic 1968 ABC News Debates (2015)
- Parini, Jay. Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (2015)
Gore Vidal: United States (1993)