Books

THE GILT AND GUILT OF AMERICAN HISTORY

Vidal's last American chronicle rewrites history and his own literary past.

"THE GOLDEN AGE" By Gore Vidal, Doubleday. $27.50.

Reviewed by Harry Kloman

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettte, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2000

Gore Vidal had an accident in 1967. He published his first American political novel, Washington, D.C., and thus began, without realizing it, a series of novels that would blend historical characters with fictional ones to tell his challenging version of the story of American's two centuries of economic, military and cultural imperialism.

These books would ultimately become known as his American Chronicles or sometimes his Chronicles of Empire, echoing themes that the politically astute author would further espouse in his nonfiction essays and public speechmaking.

In time, Vidal would go on to write Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and now, to conclude the prodigious series, The Golden Age, all with interlocking historical and fictional characters, and all with history lessons they don't dare teach in civics class, where, Vidal argues, they brainwash each new generation to secure the future of the American empire rather than telling people the truth about their history.

Vidal's chronicle began at the end, with the story of a political family during the years 1937 to 1952. Sprinkled with cameos by historical figures, none of whom take center stage, Washington, D.C. - which covers the same years and follows the same fictional characters as The Golden Age - stayed mostly inside the social halls and bedrooms of Laurel House, the mock-Georgian mansion on the Virginia side of the Potomac built by Blaise Sanford, a powerful newspaper publisher.

His son, Peter, is an impatient teen-ager when both novels begin and a Left-leaning publisher when they end. Clay Overbury is an ambitious, JFK-like war hero and philanderer who works as an aide to the stately old Sen. James Burden Day, an anti-New Deal Democrat wants FDR's job. Peter's unstable, alcoholic sister, Enid, becomes Clay's wife, and after World War II, Clay becomes a congressman, with only his mentor, Sen. Day, standing between him and the Senate.

These characters all return in The Golden Age, although "return" isn't quite the right word. Both books cover the same period of time in American history, the older book virtually ignoring historical figures, the newer one bringing them to the fore and largely dismissing the fictional ones. This choice makes The Golden Age a more consistent denouement to the history-heavy later books of the Chronicles, even though the wind has pretty much gone out of their sails by now. Thus Washington, D.C. remains unique in the series, more fictional than historical, more intimate than didactic, and as a literary work, much more satisfying.

PG
Online In The Golden Age, the Sanford family mostly winnows in and out, replaced by a story that explores FDR's scheme to draw a reluctant America into World War II. His only choice: Let the Japanese attack one of our military installations to get Americans - who overwhelmingly believe the Europeans should fight their own war - all revved up.

The Golden Age also gives Blaise Sanford's commanding half sister, Caroline Sanford, a major role. She's right there as a trusted adviser to FDR, helping the dying president back into his seat after his fourth inaugural address. Just home from Europe when The Golden Age begins, Carloine insinuates herself back into the life of The Washington Tribune, the newspaper she co-founded with Blaise, who would rather not have her under foot.

Caroline's presence in The Golden Age is most odd because she didn't exist at all in Washington, D.C.: Vidal had not invented her in 1967 and would not until 20 years later when he wrote Empire, the Chronicle that explores fin-de-siecle America.

So The Golden Age both completes Vidal's series and - in a move worthy of his time-tripping, post-modern fictions, like Live from Golgotha and The Smithsonian Institution - rewrites Vidal's own literary past. The retro-fitting of Caroline also provides him with two strong proto-feminist women - Caroline and her good friend, Eleanor Roosevelt - whereas a generation ago, his women in Washington, D.C. were all flighty socialites, sloppy alcoholics or rich men's wives.

Aside from this uncomfortable alteration to the Sanford family's future history, and the differences in their narrative voices, the two concluding volumes fit together well enough. Vidal only makes one major fictional error - he has two characters in The Golden Age getting married much earlier than they did in Washington, D.C. - that only the most attentive readers of both books will catch.

At the center of Vidal's politics in The Golden Age is all the evidence and innuendo he can muster about how FDR, disturbed by his country's pacifism in the face of the menacing Hitler, allowed America to be attacked and thus enraged into joining the European war. This brings home, once and for all, the central thesis of his Chronicles: that all of our wars have grown from the maneuverings of our politicians and money brokers, who merely want to expand the American empire.

And that's not the only conspiracy theory in the novel: Did you know, for example, that Wendell Willkie's people had a man killed so his replacement, a Willkie crony, could determine seating arrangements at the 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia? Vidal's novel abounds with such - what? Little-known history? Gossipy apocrypha? You be the judge.

The Golden Age - its title is deeply ironic and bitter - concludes in February 2000, with an aging Peter Sanford visiting a most unusual friend to tape a political discussion for American TV. The encounter permits a few haunting moments as Vidal once again brings together the elements of his life and work. There will, it seems, be no more American Chronicles from Vidal - at least, not in fictional form. As for the nonfiction, no doubt the author will continue to dare us to stop believing the histories written by the people who won the wars they started for profit and power in the first place.

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