1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Advertisements

Julian by Gore Vidal Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

I love historical fiction, and in my opinion, Gore Vidal is a master of the genre. Having read Burr and Lincoln, which are both excellent, I decided to check out a Vidal novel that explores something outside American history. That brought me to Julian, his 1964 novel about the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, often known as Julian the Apostate.

Twenty years after Julian’s death, Libanius and Priscus, two philosophers who had been Julian’s confidantes, have decided to attempt to have Julian’s memoir published. Once the process of doing so is agreed upon, the novel consists primarily of the manuscript of the memoir, along with the two philosophers’ marginal notes regarding their own memories of the events in Julian’s narrative—and often providing a more truthful, detailed account of what actually happened. Julian’s memoir details his early life and education, his ascent to becoming Caesar in the West, and eventually, his time as emperor. Much of the focus is on his transition from a student-prince only interested in philosophy to an ambitious military leader. Most prominent, though, is Julian’s contempt for Christianity and his interest in Mithraism and the ancient Roman gods, culminating in his efforts as emperor to restore the old Roman religion and eliminate the influence of Christianity altogether—efforts that would lead to his assassination in 363.

As I’ve noticed with the other Gore Vidal novels I’ve read, Julian has a brilliantly crafted structure that presents some worthwhile ideas. The comments on Julian’s memoir, especially from Priscus, frequently mention details that Julian chose not to include, either to make himself look more impressive to future generations or to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories. The notes between Priscus and Libanius throughout the memoir also present a more realistic perspective on some of the people Julian trusted and admired most. By writing the novel in this fashion, rather than simply as a fictional memoir, Vidal demonstrates that even a person’s own words cannot tell their entire story. There will almost always be unflattering details about their lives that they decide—consciously or unconsciously—not to discuss, and it will be up to other people to fill in those blanks. The structure of the novel also suggests that other people can often see the truth about our lives better than we can ourselves, especially when it comes to our closest friends. This is most obvious in Julian regarding the philosopher Maximus, whom Julian depends on for years for spiritual guidance and admires greatly. Priscus, on the other hand, can see that Maximus is more showmanship than spirituality, and that everything he says and does is carefully calculated to keep Julian’s favor.

The religious conflict of the era proves to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unsurprisingly from an author like Gore Vidal, the critique of Christianity is quite harsh, and the religion is presented as a serious detriment to tolerance and intellectual endeavors in the Roman Empire. However, it also seems to me that Vidal views Julian’s attempts to revive the “old gods” with some skepticism as well, especially regarding animal sacrifices and their use as some sort of indicator of future events. Though the novel is not exactly objective about this conflict, I did learn a lot about early Christianity and other practices of the era from it. I always appreciate an entertaining novel that also teaches me something and encourages me to learn more about a subject.

It is clear that Gore Vidal did meticulous research for this book, and Julian is a very accurate depiction of Julian the Apostate and the time in which he lived. It has a lot of the same qualities that I enjoyed so much about Burr and Lincoln, but also gave me the opportunity to find out more about a time in history about which I do not know very much. This is historical fiction at its very best, and I definitely recommend it to any fan of the genre.