Quo's Reviews > Burr

Burr by Gore Vidal
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really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed
Recommended for: Readers interested in the American Revolution &/or the Hamilton/Burr controversy...

Near the beginning of Burr by Gore Vidal, Aaron Burr is narrating his life & times to Charles Schuyler & suggests that he "has a lingering desire to tell the true story of the Revolution before it is too late." Beyond that & while speaking of himself, Burr declares: "he is a labyrinth". Most are familiar with "The Duel" that had Aaron Burr strike down Alexander Hamilton with whom he'd had a long-running feud, establishing Burr as an arch-villain within the shadows of American history but the esteemed novelist, Gore Vidal (born: Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr.), seeks to tell the story of the Burr/Hamilton discord from Aaron Burr's point of view & does so admirably in this novel. From the beginning, it seems clear that the author researched the characters & this period of American History quite vigorously in devising something of a hybrid historical novel, most certainly not just an exercise in fiction.

Burr is normally cast as a malevolent, sinister character overshadowed by the splendidly cerebral Hamilton, a man who coauthored The Federalist Papers and established America's banking system but in fact Burr had graduated from Princeton (originally The College of New Jersey), where his father had been president of the university & had a fairly distinguished record in the American War of Revolution, though with an exceedingly negative view of George Washington & everyone else he encountered in the military conflict and in life at large. Having read an autobiography of Gore Vidal, I sensed more than a few similar characteristics shared by Vidal & Burr. However, what came as a surprise was the many similarities between Burr & Hamilton, who at various points in their respective lives admired each other. But at another point it is declared that Burr recalls his 1st meeting with Hamilton, indicating that "they were like brothers, if the brothers were Cain & Abel."

It is alleged that the great rivalry began when Aaron Burr & Alexander Hamilton were young lawyers, handling opposing sides in a famous case:
Burr's rivalry with Hamilton began in those days. It was inevitable. Both were heroes, both were ambitious, both were lawyers. Of the two, Hamilton was considered to be more profound philosophically as well as more long-winded but with a tendency to undo his own brief by taking it past the point of advocacy. Burr was more effective in court because his mind was swifter & he never moralized unless to demonstrate a paradox. Yet juries are often grateful to a lawyer for not preaching at them. Neither Burr nor Hamilton were natural orators like Clay or Webster. They could not move multitudes; on the other hand they were both effective with juries & with their peers. And despite their rivalry, Burr & Hamilton sometimes worked together.
Beyond that, there is a rather humorous account of Chas. Schuyler doing some background work on the licentious life of Aaron Burr both in the U.S. & while living abroad, learning that both Burr & Hamilton had visited the same brothel, one run by a Mrs. Townsend who reads Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress and philosophy books during slow moments at the bordello. It is noted that, when a younger "working girl", she had personally serviced both Burr & Hamilton. And it should also be mentioned that Mr. Schuyler, who has been enlisted by Burr to help author his autobiography and thus "preside over the rehabilitation of a man slandered by both Hamilton & Jefferson" is himself a patron of Mrs. Townsend's house of "soiled doves". Schuyler, young & impressionable, is rather in awe of Aaron Burr & calls him "Colonel", though after a recent stroke and seemingly impoverished, senses that Burr's mind is slipping. Curiously, as Burr details his own life to Schuyler, Mr. Burr is reading & annotating his copy of the Life of Alexander Hamilton, with the old rivalry very much on his mind. As I read Gore Vidal's novel, on more than one occasion I thought of the relationship between Mozart & Salieri, as related by Salieri in the film, Amadeus.

There are twists aplenty in the Gore Vidal novel, including the suggestion that at one point, Burr's amanuensis Schuyler is enlisted for $500 to prove that Burr is the father of Martin Van Buren. Perhaps, what I most enjoyed is the author's excellent portrayal of the political dynamics of this early phase of American History, including the inception of the Democratic Party, gradually replacing the Federalists of Hamilton & Adams. Burr is pitted against Jefferson, Monroe against Washington in the beginning of the political factionalism that George Washington had hoped the nation could avoid. Here is an analysis of changing political relationships:
Van Buren will be nominated & he will defeat Clay or any other National Republican--no, no, Whig, I must get used to calling them that. How topsy-turvy it all is! Those of us who were for the Revolution were Whigs. Those for Britain were Tories. Then there was the fight over the federal Constitution. Governor Clinton wanted a weak federal government. So, some of the Whigs became anti-Federalists & some like Hamilton became Federalist. Then the Tory-Federalists became Republican. Now, Tory-Federalist Republicans call themselves Whig though they are anti-Whig while the anti-Federalist Republicans are now Jacksonian Democrats. Oh, names are magic here!
There is even a discussion of the freedom of the press that seems rather contemporary, with the issue raised of "false facts" vs. "true lies". And there is considerable plotting about which territories will eventually become part of the United States and the suggestion that Aaron Burr was an instigator of various unsanctioned alliances with other countries, seeking to become the emperor of some future realm of his own devising.

However, Burr is given an opportunity by Vidal for a rebuttal: "Whatever my ambitions, none ever involved the cancellation of a legal election or the overthrow of the Constitution. It is curious that Hamilton (who was capable of any illegality) should have attached so securely to me the unlikely epithet of "embryo Caesar." I suspect that when Hamilton looked at me, he saw, in some magical way, himself reflected. Best of all to smash the glass & free the self therein--to range at will." Ultimately, it is alleged that what Hamilton said to provoke the duel was that Aaron Burr had had an incestuous relationship with Burr's daughter Theodosia. That said, the noxious legacy of settling differences with a duel enjoyed a long history, with Burr having been involved in a previous duel and Hamilton's oldest son having been killed in one.

Gore Vidal's Burr represents a thoroughly enjoyable & interesting novel and I look forward to reading another of the author's historically-rooted tales. A minor distraction was Vidal's use of some rather archaic words where a glossary might have been helpful. Also, the Jay Parini biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal with multiple photos from the author's life, is quite worth reading. Also, there is an excellent segment on the Burr/Hamilton duel & what caused it within Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.
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Reading Progress

June 17, 2017 – Started Reading
June 17, 2017 – Shelved
August 23, 2017 – Finished Reading
April 16, 2019 – Shelved as: reviewed

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout Great review. How does Charles Schuyler relate to Philip Schuyler, Hamilton's father-in-law? Son? Didn't that create problems?

message 2: by Quo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Quo Thanks for the comment. According to Gore Vidal's casting of Mr. Schuyler, he was not a relative of the rather famous Dutch family, or at least not a near-relative. By the way, I've corrected the incorrect spelling of the Schuyler name but at least I was consistent in my misspelling in the review. What interested me rather a lot was the author's own background in politics, not so much his unsuccessful & somewhat wistful campaigns for public office but rather his very close relationship with his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore who served several terms as one of the 1st two senators from Oklahoma, a blind man who often depended on a young Gore Vidal to read & "translate" the daily papers & other correspondence for him. Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr. changed his formal name to "Gore" in part as a tribute to his revered grandfather.

message 3: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout Thanks for the clarification. Now I'm wondering if Sen. Thomas Gore was related to Al Gore, the senator, VP and presidential candidate, although it seems unlikely, since one was from Oklahoma and the other from Tennessee. It's interesting to know the source and reason for Gore Vidal's adopted name.

Howard Very good.

This is the novel that caused Michele Bachmann to leave the Democratic party and join the Republicans.

See: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

message 5: by Quo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Quo Howard: I enjoyed reading your own review of Gore Vidal's novel, "Burr". Thanks for providing the link & for reading my review of the book. I've made a further comment on your own review just below your GR review of the novel.

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