Burr (1973)

by Gore Vidal

Burr is chronologically the first of Gore Vidal’s seven irreverent novels about American history, and it’s thought the most entertaining by many readers. Aaron Burr, third vice president of the United States, has been a famous villain in American history books because he killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Vidal portrays Burr as a honorable if roguish man. The portrait of Burr is not the only one different from the accepted version: in this book George Washington is an incompetent general, Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite, and Hamilton a rash opportunist.

The narrator of Burr is a fictional character, Charlie Schuyler, a young clerk in Burr’s New York law office three decades after the Hamilton killing and Burr’s treason trial for allegedly plotting to detach the western states and Louisiana from the Union. (He was acquitted.) Woven through Charlie’s 1830s’ narrative are Burr’s dictated “memoirs” of the early days of the Republic. Behind Burr’s back, Charlie has been enlisted to prove that Burr’s crony Martin Van Buren is Burr’s illegitimate son, thus ruining Van Buren’s political career. Nothing has ever come to light to prove what was rumored at the time, but in the novel Charlie not only gets an answer but finds out something about his own heritage.

Although Vidal’s cynical perception of history was different from the mainstream, his research for the historical novels was meticulous. He read hundreds of secondary sources for each and in afterwards tells what (usually little) was made up. He generally had the real characters doing what they actually did when they did it, and many of their words had been spoken or written by them.


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