At the end of 1876, the third novel in Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series about US history, wealthy American William Sanford fathers two children by different mothers, both of whom die, and he settles in Europe. Number 4 in the series, Empire, opens two decades later, and the two Sanford children raised in France are now players in America. Blaise has dropped out of Yale, attached himself to yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, and has ambitions of owning his own newspaper. As a woman, Caroline doesn’t exactly start out with career ambitions, but seeing an opportunity to one up her half-brother, with whom she’s feuding over their late father’s estate, she buys a failing Washington newspaper and turns it into a success by following Hearst’s lurid example.
As journalists, the fictional Caroline and Blaise are able to mingle in the highest society, including presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt; John Hay, who was Lincoln’s young secretary in an earlier novel and is now a sickly, elderly secretary of state; his good friend Henry Adams; and novelist Henry James. Roosevelt and Hearst are both vividly drawn as reckless power-brokers, and Empire’s high point comes in the last few pages when Vidal imagines their unrecorded dialogue during an actual meeting.
1876 paled in comparison with Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln, each of which was carried by the personality of its subject. Although Empire, like 1876, has a fictional protagonist, it’s a more compelling read. Caroline is an interesting creation—Vidal deserves credit for portraying a strong, unconventional woman—but the bigger reason for Empire’s success may be that it has clear themes. The first is shown in Vidal’s choice of a title. The British Empire was in decline at the turn of the century, the United States was ascending, and most of Washington thought it America’s duty to civilize the less developed world. The second major theme is the power of the press. Hearst goes beyond sensationalizing the tawdry; he starts wars and invents politicians.
Vidal’s overriding theme in Narratives of Empire—that the country is controlled by moneyed interests— is most explicit in this middle book of the series.
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