Monday, August 31, 2009

Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire"

It's probably not really necessary to encourage people to read Gore Vidal, seeing as he is already a best-selling author and has wide critical acclaim, but it is probably worthwhile to talk about Vidal's Narratives of Empire as a unit, and say that anyone with a genuine interest in U.S. history or politics should think about reading or re-reading them. From 1967 to 2000 Vidal worked on and off on writing a history of the United States from 1836 to the 1950s (With a coda that takes place in the year 2000.) Over 7 books Vidal traces America's path from fledgling nation to burgeoning power to hegemonic superpower, introducing many of America's most important historical figures along the way. This is, of course, a terrible way of introducing the books as it makes them sound like the same dry textbook you read in high school, when in reality not only does Vidal bring a great deal of literary flair to American history, but he also presents the sainted men of America's past in a radically different light.
The real genius of Vidal's historical fiction is that he avoids focusing the books on his creations and instead uses them as a way to listen in on the dining room conversations of Presidents and Senators. There is a certain voyeuristic thrill in the way that Vidal relays these conversations, that while apocryphal, often ring true to historical fact. Vidal revels in telling us the secrets of President's private lives and at times the drama rivals any televised serial. At the same time Vidal never sacrifices his overall agenda which is to show the degree to which America has always been a nation controlled by Washington insiders who tended to have imperial aspirations. While this particular reading of history may turn some people off Vidal's own politics are never overt enough to make the books feel like a polemic, rather the overall message is more a theme that keeps reasserting itself throughout the books.
Of the seven Burr and Lincoln are probably the two essential reads. Burr is probably the best written and indeed has the most interesting cast of characters to work with. While some of the other books focus on historical figures that are less familiar to most people, Burr follows the lives of America's founders, of course highlighting Aaron Burr as well as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and in part revising their respective roles in early America. Lincoln is also fascinating, if perhaps a little less shocking, but still is probably as interesting as any pure biography you could read about Possibly America's greatest president.
The other five, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age are all worth reading especially considering the fact that all the books contain the same family of protagonists, giving the series the feel of a sweeping Russian novel covering the ebb and flow of generations. The only real let down is that Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age cover mostly the same period of time, and the resultant overlapping of story lines is slightly distracting. Perhaps somewhere done the line an ambitious editor will combine these two into a single novel and give the series a little more finality. Otherwise the experience of reading all seven is exciting from beginning to end, and has the benefit of making one revisit their previous knowledge and assumptions about American history.

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