Gore Vidal’s 1876 is the third historical novel in his Narrative of Empire series. Like Burr, it is narrated by Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, now an elderly man. After living in Europe for more than 30 years, Charlie is returning to his homeland on the country’s centennial, intending to support himself and his daughter Emma as a journalist. Charlie’s money was lost in the 1873 monetary crisis, and Emma aristocrat husband died in debt.
As Charlie is hired to write about the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and presidential politics in an election year, and the beautiful Emma becomes a society darling, they interact with many of the elite of the time in New York and Washington. Charlie supports New York Democratic governor Samuel Tilden for president in the hope that a Tilden administration would give him a diplomatic appointment back in Europe. But popular vote winner Tilden is denied the presidency by Republican shenanigans (the lengthy description of the 1876 election dispute is the political focus of the book).
Unlike the earlier Burr and Lincoln, where the central character was a monumental historical figure, 1876 revolves as much around Charlie’s and Emma’s fictional stories as around historical events. The imagined Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler doesn’t have the presence of an Aaron Burr or an Abraham Lincoln, and Emma is a cipher. It’s clear that Charlie worships his daughter, but even realizing that, the reader has trouble with the credibility of classy Emma’s scheming to dispose of her best friend and marry the friend’s wealthy (and boorish) husband. People read historical novels because they’re interested in history. In 1876, the real people are too much in the background of the fictional story.
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