Burr (novel)

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Burr
Burr by Gore Vidal - first edition cover.jpg
First edition
Author Gore Vidal
Country United States
Language English
Series Narratives of Empire
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Random House
Publication date
1973
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 430 pp
ISBN 0-394-48024-4
OCLC 658914
813/.5/4
LC Class PZ3.V6668 Bu
Followed by Lincoln (novel)

Burr (1973), by Gore Vidal, is a historical novel that challenges the traditional founding-fathers iconography of United States history, by means of a narrative that includes a fictional memoir, by Aaron Burr, in representing the people, politics, and events of the U.S. in the early nineteenth century.[1]

In the careers of his life, Aaron Burr was the third US vice president (1801–05), an officer in the Continental Army, during the American War of Independence (1775–83), a lawyer (1782), and a Senator for New York State (1791–97). In consequence to political and personal enmity, while he was Vice President of the U.S., Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on 11 July 1804.[2] After public life, he was embroiled in the Burr Plot (1807), and was acquitted of treason against the U.S.; then, in Europe, he failed to obtain Napoleonic military aid to conquer Spanish Florida. In 1812, Aaron Burr returned to the U.S., and practiced law in New York City, until his death in 1836.[3]

Burr is the initial story of the seven-novel series, Narratives of Empire, with which Gore Vidal examined, explored, and explained the imperial history of the United States; chronologically, the six other historical novels of the series are Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), Washington, D.C. (1967), and The Golden Age (2000).[4]

Description[edit]

Burr (1973) portrays the eponymous anti-hero as a fascinating and honourable gentleman, and portrays his contemporary opponents as mortal men; thus, George Washington is an incompetent military officer, a general who lost most of his battles; Thomas Jefferson is a fey, especially dark and pedantic hypocrite who schemed and bribed witnesses in support of a false charge of treason against Burr, to whom he almost lost the presidency in the election of 1800; and Alexander Hamilton is a bastard-born, over-ambitious opportunist whose rise in high politics was by General Washington's hand, until being killed in the Burr–Hamilton Duel (11 July 1804).

Aaron Burr, the Third U.S. Vice President, 1801–05 (John Vanderlyn, 1802)

The enmities were established, when, despite Burr's initial victory in the voting, the presidential election of 1800 was a tied vote in the Electoral College, between him and Thomas Jefferson. To break the tied electoral vote, the House of Representatives — dominated by Alexander Hamilton — voted thirty-six times, until they elected Jefferson as the U.S. President, and, by procedural default, named Burr as the U.S. Vice President.[5]

The contemporary story of political intrigue occurs from 1833 to 1840, in the time of Jacksonian democracy, years after the treason trial. The narrator is Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, an ambitious young man working as a law clerk in Aaron Burr's law firm, in New York City. Charlie Schuyler is not from a politically-connected family, and is ambivalent about politics and about how law is practiced. Hesitant about taking the examination for admission to the bar, Schuyler works as a newspaper reporter, all the while dreaming of becoming a successful writer, so that he can emigrate from the U.S. to Europe.

Important to the intrigues of the plotters are the allegation that Vice President Martin Van Buren is the bastard son of Aaron Burr; the veracity or falsity of that allegation; and its usefulness in high-government politics. Because Van Buren is a strong candidate for election to the U.S. presidency in 1836, his political enemies, especially a newspaper publisher, enlist Schuyler to glean personally embarrassing facts about Van Buren from the aged Burr, a septuagenarian man in 1834.

Tempted with the promise of a fortune in money, Schuyler thinks about writing a pamphlet proving that Vice President Van Buren is an illegitimate son of Burr, and so end Van Buren's political career. Schuyler is torn between honouring Burr, whom he admires, and betraying him to gain much money, and so take the woman he loves to a new future in Europe. At story's end, Charlie Schuyler has learned more than he had expected about Aaron Burr, about Martin Van Buren, and about his own character, as a man in the world, as Charles Schuyler.[6]

The Burr–Hamilton Duel occurred on 11 July 1804. (J. Mund)

As in the historical novels Messiah (1954), Julian (1964), and Creation (1981), the colonial people, their times, and the places of Burr (1973) are presented through the memoirs of a character in the tale. Throughout the story, the narrative presents thematic parallels to The Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1837), co-written with Matthew Livingston Davis.[7] Many of the incidents of story and plot in Burr are historical fact: Thomas Jefferson was a slaver who fathered children with some of his slave women; the Continental Army General James Wilkinson was a double agent for the Kingdom of Spain; Alexander Hamilton regularly was challenged to a duel, by most every political opponent who felt slandered by him; and Aaron Burr was tried and acquitted of treason against the U.S., consequent to the Burr Plot (1807) for an empire in the south-western territories of the country.[8]

In the “Afterword” to Burr, the novelist Vidal said that, in most instances, the actions and words of the historical characters represented are based upon their personal documents and historical records.[9] Moreover, besides challenging the traditionalist, mythical iconography of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the most controversial aspect of the novel Burr is that Alexander Hamilton gossiped that Burr and his daughter, Theodosia, practiced incest — which character assassination led to their mortal duel; killing Hamilton ended the public life of Aaron Burr.[10]

Imperial narrative[edit]

In the seven novels of the Narratives of Empire series, Gore Vidal examined, explored, and explained the history of the United States through the personal and political fortunes of the generations of two families. The first historical novel, Burr (1973), is narrated by Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, and chronicles the origins of American Imperialism; the third novel, 1876 (1976), is the story of the stolen presidential-election — from Samuel J. Tilden for Rutherford B. Hayes — that marked the centenary of the U.S. as a nation and as a country, and it is the story of the middle-aged Charles S. Schuyler's return to the United States after decades of European residence.

Narrative frame[edit]

From two points of view, the narrative structure of Burr (1973) tells of the eighteenth-century past, by means of Aaron Burr's memoirs of colonial politics, the personalities of the Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and lie after the American War of Independence from Royal Britain; and Charles Schuyler's personal and professional perspectives of the nineteenth-century present of the U.S. republic, in 1834.

1834
  • Chapter Ten: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — One
  • Chapter Eleven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Two
  • Chapter Twelve: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Three, and Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Four
  • Chapter Thirteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Five
  • Chapter Fourteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Six
  • Chapter Fifteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Seven
  • Chapter Eighteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eight, and Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Nine
  • Chapter Nineteen: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Ten
  • Chapter Twenty: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eleven
  • Chapter Twenty-one: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twelve
  • Chapter Twenty-five: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Thirteen
  • Chapter Twenty-seven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Fourteen
  • Chapter Twenty-eight: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Fifteen
  • Chapter Thirty-two: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Sixteen
  • Chapter Thirty-four: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Seventeen
  • Chapter Thirty-six: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Eighteen
1835
  • Chapter Two: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Nineteen
  • Chapter Five: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twenty
  • Chapter Seven: Memoirs of Aaron Burr — Twenty-one

References[edit]

  1. ^ Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
  2. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition (1993) p. 401.
  3. ^ The New Encyclopædia Britannica,volume 2, Fifteenth Edition (1993) p. 664.
  4. ^ Vidal, Gore. (2006) Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2000, p. 123.
  5. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition (1993) p. 401.
  6. ^ Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
  7. ^ Aaron Burr, Matthew Livingston Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Volume 1, 1837.
  8. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition (1993) p. 401.
  9. ^ Vidal, Gore. Burr (1973), p. 429–30
  10. ^ Burr (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)