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 challenging the traditional iconography[1] of United States history via narrative and a fictional memoir of Aaron Burr. Burr was variously the third US vice president, a US Army officer in and combat veteran of the Revolutionary War, a lawyer and a U.S. senator from New York. In an 1804 duel, while still vice president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, who had been the first US Treasury Secretary.

Description[edit]

Burr is the first sequential novel of the author's seven-novel Narratives of Empire series. It portrays its eponymous anti-hero as a fascinating and honourable gentleman, and skewers most of his contemporaries, e.g. George Washington, an incompetent general who lost most of his battles; Thomas Jefferson, with whom Burr tied for the presidency in the election of 1800, as a fey, especially dark and pedantic hypocrite who schemed and bribed witnesses in support of a false charge of treason against Burr after almost losing the election to him; and Alexander Hamilton, the bastard opportunist who rose with Washington, before Burr killed him in their famous duel.

Like Vidal's historical novels Julian and Creation, Burr contains an imaginary memoir. In fact, Vidal did meticulous research of hundreds of documents to come up with his alternative reading of history. In an afterword, the author maintains that in all but a few instances, the characters' actions and many of their words are based on actual historical records.

Indeed, the election of 1800 did result in a tie between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, and it took more than 30 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson became president and Burr his vice president (as mandated by the election rules at the time). Many other incidents in the novel are verifiable in the historical record, including Jefferson owning (and probably fathering) slaves, James Wilkinson serving as a double agent for Spain, Alexander Hamilton being challenged to duels by opponents who felt slandered by him, and Burr's trial and acquittal on charges of treason. There are also many parallels in the novel to Aaron Burr's real memoir, written by Matthew L. Davis and published shortly after Burr's death.

The narrator in Burr is the fictional Charles ("Charlie") Schuyler, a young man of Dutch descent working as an apprentice in Burr's New York law office some 30 years after the treason trial. Charlie is not from a political family and is ambivalent about politics and practicing law. While procrastinating over the bar exam, he writes stories for newspapers and dreams about being a successful writer so he can move to Europe.

A major plot thread involves Vice President (and presidential candidate) Martin Van Buren, who is rumored to be Burr's illegitimate son. Charlie is enlisted by Van Buren's political enemies to glean facts about Van Buren from Burr. He is tempted by the promise of a fortune if he writes a pamphlet proving that Van Buren is Burr's bastard son, which would ruin the future president's political career. He is torn between honoring Burr, whom he admires, and gaining a fortune to take the woman he loves away to a new future. In the end, Charlie learns more than he could have imagined about Burr, Van Buren, and about his own character.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the novel is the premise that the "despicable" gossip spread by Hamilton which led to his death by Burr's bullet was that Burr had practiced incest with his beloved daughter, Theodosia. Though purely the speculation of author Vidal (albeit after some consideration of the evidence and probability), this ultimately fictional and unprovable plot device has been repeated as factual on the Internet and in less scholarly works.

Narrative Frame[edit]

Vidal presents Burr's stories of the immediate post-Independence period more or less sequentially, but severally, as they are dictated to (and revised by) Charlie Schuyler, through the main section of the novel, called 1834, thus:

  • Chapter Ten : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--One
  • Chapter Eleven : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--Two
  • Chapter Twelve : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--Three, 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, 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

Three parts follow in 1835:

  • Chapter Two : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--Nineteen
  • Chapter Five : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--Twenty
  • Chapter Seven : Memoirs of Aaron Burr--Twenty-one

Narratives of Empire[edit]

Burr is the first in a series of novels in which Vidal follows generations of a fictional family through the history of the United States. The third book in the series, 1876, tells of Charlie Schuyler returning to the United States after having spent nearly forty years in Europe.

References[edit]