There is something delicious about finishing a book and thinking about which of your friends would be most scandalized by reading it. You envision jaws dropping in horror that someone printed something so objectionable. The obvious sorts of books that do this have sex and drugs in them, but the most incendiary works can often be historical.
I was reminded of this the other day when I lent out my copy of Gore Vidal's Burr, a truly smart, funny and richly detailed historical novel that manages to rile up easily 50% of the people who read it. I have met someone who claims to have "hurled" this book at a wall. Anything that provokes reactions as severe as complete delight and historical outrage is worth examining.
Published in 1973, Vidal's book appears designed to shock and inspire readers. Capitalizing on popular disgust with Nixon's "silent majority" war on social unrest and on disillusionment from the failures of the 1960s (while also seemingly intended to thumb its nose at the building nostalgia for 1976's bicentennial celebration), the book recounts the memoirs of its eponymous character Aaron Burr. He's an attorney, a scoundrel, a murdering duelist and an exonerated traitor. What he has to say about his contemporaries is not generous.
The book takes the form of twin autobiography. It opens in 1836, narrated by a scion of an old Dutch New York family, Charlie Schuyler, looking for journalism work to bide his time. He's young, at a loss for a real career, wandering. Political insiders hit upon a scheme for him: he will interview Aaron Burr, returned from Europe, and help to compile his memoirs. It's hoped that, during this, Burr will let slip details that confirm that presidential candidate Martin Van Buren is his bastard son, scotching Van Buren's chances.
From here, the book jumps back and forth between the present of Schuyler's time and the past of Burr's career, creating a panoramic timeline running from the creation of the country to the evolution of full party-machine politics. By making Schuyler a journalist and Burr something of a dandy, a self-promoter and a man eager to exculpate himself in the record, Vidal has a convenient literary mechanism for his principal narrators to remember things in such detail. It's a lovely trope, because this allows him to give readers a vibrant and colorful sense of the Revolutionary War, the early congress, the first "trial of the century," historic Washington and Virginia, and riots in New York in the 1830s. History, in Vidal's hands, is pleasantly rescued from John Trumbull portraits, woodcuts, and bloodless academic prose.
Of course, the trade-off in avoiding bloodless prose is engaging Burr's passionate defense of himself and denunciation of his peers. George Washington is dismissed as empty-headed, image-conscious and renowned for never winning a major battle. Alexander Hamilton is a preening, adulterous aristocrat with Bonapartist visions of executive power and a vicious pen that he wields without heed of the consequences. Thomas Jefferson gets it worst of all, contemptuously described as hypocrite and Machiavel, a gossip who idly destroyed careers in the press, then attempted to suppress the press—who invoked the spirit of liberty while owning people, maintaining rigid party-whip "executive" discipline in congress and trampling on the first and fourth amendments to the Bill of Rights.
Reading these sorts of things can make some people apoplectic. The problem is, they're all pretty much true.
Washington didn't "win" any major battles (Yorktown was a siege, and in any event it was largely orchestrated by the French), and many of his contemporaries noted that, while not a dumb man, he was never the smartest one in the room. However, one thing he did better than everyone else was look like a general and look like a president. Hamilton really could be a nasty piece of work, and at the constitutional convention he advocated a presidency that would be imperial even by today's standards (with the position granted for life). Finally, Jefferson unrepentantly smeared others via proxies in the press, tried to suppress newspapers while president, suspended the right of habeas corpus and even threatened to destroy the Supreme Court. And he "had sex" with people he owned, which is the sort of thing that winds up in quotes because it's a thorny legal issue whether "property" or a slave in a master-slave dynamic can ever truly give consent.
People really don't like hearing these sorts of things in a purely academic context, but within the bounds of a fictional memoir from America's second greatest "traitor," the scandalizing effects are dampened. If our heroes are tarnished, they're in good company. Everybody schemes; everybody has less than dignified aims and appetites; everybody is human. Ultimately the effect of Burr's trying to rehabilitate his career and reputation while deflating the empty rhetoric about the other founders is to restore all these contemporaries to a roughly level playing field. Vidal's tone might be archly revisionist, but his historical foundation is solid and amply researched. His interpretations are intense and strongly worded, but they're all grounded in fact. Even his angriest passages about Jefferson rely on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leonard Levy's Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side.
While it's important that Vidal's work is smartly and responsibly done, what's perhaps more important is how entertainingly it is done. Aaron Burr as a lay historian is wickedly funny, often in that politely elliptical style familiar to anyone who has read libels from the Revolutionary War period. He's also very likable. You want him to be found innocent of high treason: he's too interesting, too richly three-dimensional a character to stop listening to. Charlie Schuyler is by far a weaker character—Burr and his contemporaries are really where the characterizations come alive—but even his wandering diffidence in New York allows us to see its seamy political machine, its saloons and brothels.
Burr can give offense. It pulls no punches when it comes to the sacred figures in America's historical pantheon. But then again, it shouldn't. Vidal's lesson, Burr's lesson—the lesson that his contemporaries would likely themselves impart—is that uncritical reverence for history is probably as bad as ignorance of it, and that no mortal man deserves such blind hagiography. Burr will probably upset some people. But the first question we should ask is, "Why?"