Gore Vidal's American Chronicles: 1967-2000

Golden Age When Vidal published Washington, D.C. in 1967, he had no plan to tell America's story from the Revolutionary War through the present. But that's what he ended up doing with seven novels published between 1967 and 2000. They have come to be called his American Chronicles or sometimes his Chronicles of Empire. Although Vidal wrote the books out of historical sequence, they still have interlocking stories, common themes and recurring characters with ancestors who tie the saga all together. They fit together well, except perhaps for the last two in historical chronology, Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age, which cover the same years in different ways. The former stands alone as a thoughtful dramatic novel in its own right, but the latter really only has resonance in the context of all the books that came before it.

Now that Vidal has completed the series, one might just consider it to be six books in length, with Washington, D.C. standing off to the side, in part an accidental beginning to a Chronicle that it no longer fits, and in part an alternative conclusion that's more literary and introspective than historical. It's the purest work of fiction in the series, and as such, Vidal clearly felt more comfortable inventing and probing the psychologies of his characters, whereas the other six - and especially the last three - concern themselves more superficially with behavior (both political and social) and more with the facts of history, interpreted through his point of view. He also wrote Washington, D.C. before fully realizing his position as the reigning gadfly of American historical studies.

So the six united books of his Chronicles - brimming with portraits of every significant politicial, social and literary figure of the American past - reconstruct touchstone eras in history, with Vidal telling us the "true" stories behind the purifications and outright lies of standard history texts penned by university historians who, Vidal claims, get tenure by reaffirming the status quo of a noble, heroic America. What emerges is a portrait of an alleged "democratic republic" that is, in truth, dominated by moneyed gentry and their paid-for political figures, who care more about power and political victory than the people's business. In fact, "the people" are seldom seen in these books because they live their lives so far removed from the vortex of money and power.

In the chronology of American history, these are the seven books and the years of history they explore: Burr (1775-1840), Lincoln (1861-1865), 1876 (1875-1877), Empire (1898-1906), Hollywood (1917-1923), Washington, D.C. (1937-1952) and The Golden Age (1939-2000).

To maintain the flow of Vidal's grand story, my notes that follow will discuss the books in the chronology of history rather than the order in which Vidal wrote them. Thus The Golden Age is the true sixth and final book of the series, for it makes the era of Washington, D.C. conform to the novels that came before-yet-after them in the Chronicles, adding characters who should have appeared in Washington, D.C. but didn't because Vidal had not yet invented them. Think of Washington, D.C., then, as an alternative ending to the Chronicles, filling in the intimate personal details that a broader historical book like The Golden Age could not. Still, if you read the books in the order of American history, read Washington, D.C. before The Golden Age if you want the fictional character in the latter book to take on full dimension.

Finally, a footnote: Vidal has never won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but if any of his books were contenders, they would have been his American Chronicles. In fact, Lincoln almost won a prize. The three-member committee selecting the Fiction prize unanimously chose the book, but the Pulitzer's general committee rejected the recommendation and instead awarded the prize that year to Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs, a tale of two academics in love. The Fiction committee chose not to give a prize in 1974, the year in which Burr was eligible, nor in 1977, the year in which 1876 was eligible. The Pulitzer committee has only failed to give a Fiction prize 10 times since the creation of the awards in 1917. The committee has since given the award every year, without interruption, since 1978.

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Burr (1973)
In Vidal's version of the life of Aaron Burr, it's the powerful Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton who subvert the young American ideal, not their fall guy, Aaron Burr, who was at least an honest rogue. Part of the story of Burr's life is told through his fictional memoirs, and others parts by Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, who has a deep respect and affection for Burr, who becomes Charlie's mentor of sorts (and not by accident). Charlie - a cool Vidalian observer, although somewhat of a participant as well - reappears briefly in Lincoln and at great length in 1876, planting seeds that grow heartily in subsequent books of the Chronicles. The book made Vidal something of a recognized authority on Aaron Burr, and in 2004, he appeared as one of numerous talking heads who reflected on the Burr/Hamilton duel in a History Channel documentary-cum-dramatic-recreation about the two men.

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Lincoln (1984)
On a cold, muddy night in February 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln sneaks into Washington, Pinkerton guards at his side and a newly grown beard on his chin so nobody will recognize him. He'll take the oath of office in 10 days - if the rumored plan to assassinate him doesn't succeed first. A wealthy railroad lawyer and failed politician (until he won the presidency), he ran on a platform that said the South can keep slavery but no new territories can initiate it; and now, with rebels already seizing land and forts in Southern states, he'll now do anything, from tolerating slavery to fighting a war - to keep the Union together.

So begins Lincoln, the longest of the American Chronicles and perhaps the most suspenseful, even though we all know how it ends. With a strong historical figure at its center - Lincoln was indeed honest but hardly a small-town dupe - the novel ultimately flatters his intelligence but reminds us of how he freely suspended Constitutional principles, claiming his oath requires him to preserve and protect the Union by any means necessary. Once president, Lincoln surprises his detractors with his wiles and surrounds himself with the most shrewd and talented men in government, most of whom once wanted or still want his job, for he knows he needs to have these people nearby so he can keep an eye on them. He rules with a serene - almost mystical - sense of certitude and destiny, hanging on to power in a most unstable time.

lincoln Eventually, during the Civil War, Lincoln "frees" the slaves in the South - where he has no power - as a political move, but doesn't free them in the North or the border states, claiming he has no power to do so. He meets with free black leaders and proposes a plan to resettle all former slaves in Central America or Africa, arguing they will never have equality with whites in American. Meanwhile, Mary Todd Lincoln - the president's flighty wife who is slowly going mad - sells government secrets and has a groundskeeper punished for it, all the while spending money on White House decorations like it's going out of style (and with the mint working overtime to print more money, it might as well be).

Like all the later Chronicles, Lincoln features a vast tapestry of historical figures, with some fictional ones sprinkled in as necessary, though fewer here than in Burr and 1876, the books that Vidal wrote before it. As the Civil War unfolds, the novel explores how and why our leaders wage war, an ongoing theme of the series. The politicians in Lincoln have a healthy Vidalian contempt for the press, and as always with Vidal's politicians, they can't stop talking about the next election and who will challenge whom. We also see the emergence here of how half-truths and the manipulation of public images keep the citizenry in the dark while politicians play behind-the-scenes power games.

With its exhaustive details about the formalities of government and the fine trappings that decorate the lives of its privileged characters, Lincoln seems at times to be somewhat too long. But with the Civil War at its center, most of it reads briskly enough, though Vidal does skim on the exploring the complexities of the war, reducing it instead to slavery and politics. Incidentally, when the president reads the Gettysburg Address, it's not the version we all have come to know: Vidal says he used "not Lincoln's final tinkered-with draft but what someone who was there (Charles Hale of the Boston Daily Advertiser) wrote down."

Finally, Lincoln marks the first historical appearance of a member of the Sanford family: William Sanford is a young Civil War officer who meets from time to time with President Lincoln and his commanders at the White House. In the next book of the Chronicles, he plays a key supporting role and creates Sanford progeny who will propagate through the last four books.

As with Burr, Lincoln established Vidal as an authoritative voice on its subject, and in the years that followed the book's publication, some of his more startling assertions about Lincoln - for example, that he suffered from syphillis - later were credited by academic scholars. When a biography of Lincoln appeared in 2005 arguing that Lincoln was bisexual, Vidal wrote a piece for Vanity Fair supporting the claim.

Along with its critical and commercial success - it was adapted into a TV mini-series, with Sam Waterston as the president and Mary Tyler Moore as his wife - Lincoln almost won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The three-member committee selecting the Fiction prize unanimously chose the book, but the Pulitzer's general committee rejected the recommendation and instead awarded the prize that year to Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs, a tale of two academics in love.

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1876 (1976)
Vidal believes that the nation's centennial was the lowest point in American history, and in this novel, which was more or less a sequel to Burr, he tells a story of America's worst year through the alert, well-connected eyes of Charles Shermerhorn Schuyler, the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, who left America for Europe in 1837 as an ambassador for President Martin Van Buren. Charlie married a wealthy Italian woman, raised his daughter Emma largely in France, and now, in December 1875, has returned home with Emma, a 35-year-old widowed mother of two children who stayed in Europe with their odious paternal grandmother. It's the eve of an election year, and if the corrupt Grant doesn't seek a third term, the next president will surely be New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, a "cold fish" of a personality, but still highly intelligent and honest, having rid New York City of the its corrupt mayor, "Boss" Tweed.

1876 opens with a charming panorama of the "modern" New York, which Charlie (a native) barely remembers. ("The fact that I can no longer tell a prostitute from a fine lady is the first sign that I have been away for a very long time.") Now the fashionable parts of the city stretch all the way north to 59th Street, where the new Central Park has just been completed. Everything about this burgh intrigues Charlie, even the "perpendicular railway" (i.e. elevator) that carries him to his pied-a-terre. But his tranquillity does not last: Through his work as a noted journalist and his connection to the city's top newspapers and editors - as well as his acquaintance with Tilden - he gets draw into the nefarious presidential election of 1876, the only time in history when, thanks to the venomous politics that were afoot, the winner of the popular vote (Tilden) did not become president.

With the publication of 1876, Vidal declared that he had written a trilogy of novels about American history, adding that "tetralogist are beyond the pale." He would, of course, go on to write four more books in this series, thus creating his Chronicles. Like all of the books except Washington, D.C., this installment focuses largely on the patrician society of real-life historical and literary figures, allowing Vidal to unfurl his saga of the emerging American empire. The story moves along nicely, though, because Charlie Schuyler is an attentive narrator with an obliging disposition. ("No wonder the country is in the hands of criminals," he observes, after an friend's anti-Semitic diatribe, "if the gentry are so fastidious - and fatuous.")

Finally, 1876 begins a fictional bloodline that carries through the remaining novels: When Emma Schuyler marries William Sanford - a widower with an infant son, Blaise - they produce a daughter, Caroline. Both Sanford children will become central figures in Empire, Hollywood and The Golden Age, although only Blaise appears in Washington, D.C. because, in 1967, Vidal had not yet imagined Caroline as the progeny of the Sanford clan. In The Golden Age, the mature Caroline will discover two manuscripts left by her Grandfather Schuyler: A book about Aaron Burr (i.e. Vidal's novel Burr), and a journal about the election of 1876 (i.e. Vidal's 1876). In a decidedly post-modern touch (from our point of view), she edits and published both of them, turning fiction/fact into fact/fiction - and/or vice versa.

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Empire (1987)
This connecting novel in the American Chronicles opens in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War, mentioned in the opening passage as a weightless afterthought by "the handsomest of America's great ladies," the wife of a senator who serenely arranges flowers for the afternoon's lunch with 37 of her closest friends. At the center of the historical figures in Empire are two fictional Sanfords: Caroline, age 21, the daughter of Emma Schuyler Sanford of 1876 (and thus the illegitimate granddaughter of Aaron Burr), who does not want simply to be married like other women of her upper-class, European-bred stature; and her slightly older half brother, Blaise. Their father has just died, and his money is to be divided by a badly drawn will. This is far more important to the future of the single Caroline than to the Yale dropout Blaise, who has already become a newspaperman and apprentice to William Randolph Hearst. On the whole, Empire seems too concerned with frivolities, name dropping and gossipy historical deconstruction, becoming more of an exegetic dissection of a culture than an absorbing fictional narrative. Historical figures abound, from the thundering, egomaniacal Hearst - who claims to have "invented" Theodore Roosevelt - to the writer Henry Adams, a more agreeable voice of civility and reason. You may find Vidal's historical revelations fascinating, or you may wonder whether the real William McKinley would actually throw a napkin over the face of his epileptic wife during her seizures and simply keep talking, removing the napkin when her seizure ended. Vidal delights in these historical tidbits, whether apocryphal or not. But perhaps most importantly, as a link in the Chronicles, Empire plants the seed of Blaise Sanford, who refuses to believe (on anti-Semitic grounds alone) that Dreyfus was innocent, and who will grow into the powerful political puppeteer of Washington, D.C.

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Hollywood (1990)
Caroline Sanford, the fictional protagonist of Empire, returns in the fifth tale of Vidal's seven American Chronicles. Still involved in Washington publishing, Caroline becomes Hollywood movie actress Emma Traxler, circa 1917, not so much out of a lust for stardom, but rather to make progaganda films that edified America about the dangerous European Huns. At the same time, Caroline shares in interest in an influential Washington newspaper with her half brother Blaise, and as such, she's a political player who spends time in the White House of her friend and confidante, Woodrow Wilson, - just as she will a generation later with FDR. She balances her time between East and West in an era when the cinema begins to play a vital role in American cultural life, thus allowing Vidal to write about a medium that recurs in his work, from the ribaldry of Myra Breckinridge to the serenity of Screening History, his brief nonfiction memoir about the movies of his childhood. Caroline has a child, Emma, by a young married senator, James Burden Day, although Emma never knows who her father is because Caroline quickly marries a dull, suitable cousin of the Sanford clan. None of this history for Sen. Day appears in Washington, D.C. because, of course, Vidal had not yet imagined the fullness of Day's life in 1967.

Unlike its predecessor, Empire, Hollywood is a livelier book, and the show business setting permits Vidal leeway to have some sinister fun with his characters and his narrative. Among the presidents in the book, Woodrow Wilson comes off looking much better than his successor, Warren Harding, who lets his dog pee on White House furniture. In the novel's Hollywood, luminaries like Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle have cameos; in Washington, the minor players include Calvin Coolidge, Henry Cabot Lodge and even the author's grandfather, Sen. Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma.

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Washington, D.C. (1967)
Set in the nation's capital between the years 1937 and 1953, Vidal's first political novel revolves around Peter Sanford, a young man of a political family who shares traits with the young Vidal but who is more his alter ego in spirit than in autobiographical fact. Peter's father is powerful newspaper publisher Blaise Sanford; his sister, Enid, is a frivolous alcoholic who marries Clay Overbury, a Kennedy-like young man with high ambitions. The other presiding figure in the story is Sen. James Burden Day, an anti-New Deal Democrat, like Vidal's late grandfather, Sen. T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. It's an ominous study of Washington political life, and Vidal's young protagonist shares an intimate love with a schoolboy friend who dies in World War II, once again resurrecting Jimmie.

The story of Washington, D.C. - which paints a relentlessly dark portrait of American political machinations and their far removal from American life - explores Sen. Day's dream of the presidency (never realized) and the wartime heroism of Clay, his aide, whom Blaise grooms for the nation's highest office (which is, after all, the only reason to enter politics). When Enid's inappropriate behavior - including adultery, which Clay is free to practice without complaint - begins to jeopardize Clay's political aspirations, he and his father-in-law quietly conspire to take care of things. Peter and Enid find the bond between Blaise and Clay to be so intense that they even speculate on whether the two may be in love with each other. Their speculation goes nowhere in Vidal's 1967 novel, but 20 years later, in Empire - which takes place 40 years earlier - Vidal would retrofit the vague possibility of Blaise's same-sex affinities.

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.

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The Golden Age (2000)
The seventh and final book Vidal wrote for his American Chronicles both completes the series and - in a move worthy of his time-traversing "inventions" - re-imagines it. Rather than simply taking place after Washington, D.C. - which covers the years 1937 to 1952 - The Golden Age loops back to re-cover the same years, 1939 to 1954, with closing chapters that take the characters into the subsequent decades. This creates an odd sensation that probably will only bother readers who remember the intricacies of Washington, D.C. That book - written before Vidal realized he had a lengthy Chronicle in the making - introduced the Sanford family: Blaise, the powerful, manipulative publisher/father; Peter, his teen-age son who grows up to publish a Leftist magazine; and Enid, his doomed, alcoholic daughter.

They all return, although the predominant Sanford of The Golden Age is Blaise's half sister Caroline, who did not appear in Washington, D.C. because she did not yet exist: Vidal didn't create a sibling for Blaise until two decades later in Empire, which pre-dates Washington, D.C. in U.S. historical chronology, but not in the chronology of Vidal's own canon. So he's retrofitted his story of the mid-20th Century to include Caroline. Back as well from Washington, D.C. - although greatly reduced in significance - are the ambitious, philandering young Clay Overbury, a Kennedy-esque figure with presidential ambitions in the time of the real JFK; and Sen. James Burden Day, whom Vidal based broadly upon his grandfather, Sen. Thomas P. Gore - with whom Sen. Day converses in The Golden Age, adding another vaguely post-modern twist. Sen. Day would surely have known Sen. Gore in the time of Washington, D.C.. But back then, Vidal wasn't yet interested in making these kinds of reflexive leaps and links. cover

The effect of all this is not so much post-modern as merely one of an author doing the best he can to unite seven books in an accidental epic. Had Vidal known what this series would become, he surely would have invented Caroline earlier and included her among the Sanford clan in Washington, D.C.. Thus Golden Age is the narrative Washington D.C. might have been had Vidal written the books chronologically - although the prose of the earlier "closing chapter" are much richer and the tone more appropriate to the narrative. The writing in Golden Age feels somewhat too light and expository - that is, too much like Empire and Hollywood, the books that preceded it chronologically.

The novel's plot finds Caroline Sanford back from Paris and resuming her role as silent co-publisher (along with Blaise) of the Washington newspaper she founded in Empire. She's an intimate of the FDR and Eleanor, just as she was with Theodore Roosevelt. At the center of The Golden Age is all the evidence and innuendo Vidal can muster about how Franklin's lust for war led him to ignore clear warnings of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor so the attack would enrage Americans into joining the fight in Europe. This brings home, once and for all, the central thesis of the American Chronicles: Namely, that all of our wars have been started by the clandestine maneuverings of our politicians and power brokers, who all along have wanted nothing more (yet nothing less) than to expand the American empire. Along the way, we meet every Washington political luminary of the era - and many literary ones as well in the New York salons that Peter comes to enjoy. Even Cary Grant drops by during the scenes that take place in Hollywood.

The Golden Age and Washington, D.C. fit together well enough as narratives, each book telling different stories of the period they cover. But their writing styles are incompatible, and the later book makes one significant mistake in reconstructing the relationship between Peter Sanford and his eventual wife, Diana Day. You might think of the new book as an alternative version of the older one - or, less generously, as a writer trying to palimpsest a portion of his fictional past. In all, The Golden Age short shrifts the fictional characters of the earlier book, altering their affinities for one another to suit the new narrative, and replacing their compelling introspection with a novel of ideas of the sort Vidal has come to write about history and politics. The story concludes in February 2000, with an aging Peter Sanford and his long-time acquaintance, the author Gore Vidal, meeting at Vidal's Italian villa to tape a political discussion for American TV. During their haunting encounter that day, Vidal reminds Peter that he created him, and Peter acknowledges the debt. And there the story ends.

The Early Fiction: 1946-1956
The Pseudonyms: 1950-1954
The Later Fiction: 1962-2006
The American Chronicles: 1967-2000
Works for the Theater: 1956-1972
Essays, Interviews and Memoirs: 1963-Present
Writing About Gore Vidal: 1951-Present

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ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu