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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gore Vidal's Burr

I've finished another book for my Spring Reading Thing 2007. The book is Burr by Gore Vidal Vidal wrote Burr as a historical novel which means that while the facts about events that transpired are accurate, Vidal ascribes his own thoughts and words into the minds and mouths of those about whom he writes. That makes the depiction of Vidal's characters somewhat suspect.

Vidal has written Aaron Burr kind of like a Founding Fathers Jose Canseco. Burr didn't do anything others of his political party or simply men of the times didn't do; the difference between Burr and them was that Burr owned up to it. And since the Constitution and the entire US Government was a work in development, it was left to the various interpretations of the day as to whether what those men did was legal, ethical, or moral. Vidal's Burr is written as an honorable man while many other famous names from that era were anything but.

For instance, if Vidal's interpretation of Thomas Jefferson is correct, the guy was a tyrant who wanted to manipulate the law to fit into whatever circumstance he happened to find himself. Besides that, Jefferson couldn't tell the truth to save his life and was involved in all kinds of political self-serving intrigue. In fact, according to historical records, Thomas Jefferson wouldn't have been President of the United States if Aaron Burr had wanted to break the electoral tie in his own favor. But Burr backed off and threw his support to Jefferson thereby becoming Vice-President.

Something else Vidal writes about is the lack of commitment Jefferson had to the nation he helped found. Jefferson believed strongly in states' rights up to and including a state having the ability to withdraw from the Union and ignore laws legislated by Congress if it so chose. Vidal writes about the Union as a loosely constructed group of states who needed to create their own governments while dealing with what they may have construed as interference from the Federal Government. This is not what is taught in American History classes.

Nor is it taught, but Vidal makes it perfectly clear, that George Washington was a dim-witted man who was good at one thing -- losing battles to the British. Because of him, the Revolutionary War dragged on longer than it needed to, but because Washington was from Virginia and Virginia had the most clout among the states of the Union, Washington remained in charge of the armed forces. In an aside story, Vidal talks about Jefferson having been an inventor or sorts. He did invent a plow that was very useful on his own plantation. George Washington also invented a plow, only his plow was so heavy and cumbersome that two horses couldn't pull it from a muddy ditch.

Burr's most famous act was that of killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Vidal's Hamilton was a nasty man with a vicious tongue, and to say that he wasn't very well liked is an understatement.

I would definitely recommend Burr but with the advisory that it can become both confusing and tedious when it comes to describing some of Burr's behavior. What saved it for me and kept me reading was Vidal's wit and sarcasm. He does have a wonderful way with words, and this book reflects him at his best. The problem is that in giving us his best, he sometimes clouds the reality of the man about whom I'd hoped to learn more.

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