Perry Whitford's Reviews > 1876

1876 by Gore Vidal
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's review
Jun 05, 2011

really liked it
Read in October, 2006 — I own a copy

I read this in 2006, the year after Dubyah's second election "victory" in America. I had no idea at the time that the sorry charade of vote rigging that bought that unfathomable oafs second term had occurred in the previous century also, so soon after the democratic high point of the Abolition of Slavery too.
Due to that, the lessons of this book are as prescient now as ever, and maybe they always will be America; which Gore Vidal must have decided back in 1976 when he wrote this and focussed on the election of 1876 as one of the bench-marks for his Narratives of Empire series, alongside more famous events, such as the Civil War and "Black Tuesday".

Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler is a recently impoverished writer who returns to America after thirty years in europe, where he witnessed the events that led to the Paris Commune.
Through his eyes the book firstly paints a picture of New York society at this time, then shows us Washington DC and its movers and shakers. Vidal brings to life both scenes with exquisite detail and his characters are all incredibly urbane and witty: its a joy to read, as all his books are. He is so authoritative, so intelligent that I always believe everything he writes, although he certainly has his own agendas.

What we see in the end is how Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden is effectively robbed of the presidency by the distinctly undemocratic vagueries of the election process, which are manipulated by the will and ruthlessness of the Republican Party, leading to their candidate Rutherford Hayes assuming office despite getting less votes- sound familiar?
The way it plays out is eerily similar to the aforementioned George W Bush and Al Gore election a hundred and some years later. The system is picked over and dismantled by Gore and as with most political processes the finer points are pretty dry and dull, but Gore is such a skilled writer he can add a sense of high-brow silkiness to anything. I was entertained, and ended up frankly amazed that the dubiousness detailed here could be repeated again in our current, media age.

If you like historical fiction, Vidal is as good at writing it as I have come across so far. Recommended.
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