Reading, Writing, And History

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Mr. Vidal, like his hero Burr, would rather be found dead than dull, and he has executed some clever ploys to keep things entertaining. The narrator is a young man, Charlie Schuyler, who works in Aaron Burr’s law office in New York. It is 1833, and Burr, at seventy-seven, is three years from the end of his life (which comes before the end of the book). Yearning to be a writer and sucked into the muddy whirlpool of party politics as practiced in the New York of that era, Charlie undertakes to discover as much as he can about Colonel Burr’s connection with the Vice President, Martin Van Buren, and also to write Burr’s biography. There is a thin thread of plot involving Charlie’s odd affair with a prostitute whom he liberates from a bordello and wants to marry, but, as Vidai obviously intended, Burr is the real protagonist. Anyone who reads the book all the way through—and this is quite a job—will have a fairly complete idea of Burr’s tempestuous career. Vidai achieves this biographical compass by interrupting the narrative with long, numbered sections called “Memoirs of Aaron Burr,” a document supposedly dictated by Burr to Charlie Schuyler to promote both a correct version of his life and Charlie’s literary ambitions.

And there’s the rub, when it comes to history versus fiction. An unwary reader could be forgiven for supposing that Burr: A Novel is a kind of literary birthday cake, with layers of fictional frosting alternating between solid slabs of real history, namely, “Memoirs of Aaron Burr.” In the afterword the author gives no hint that he, Gore Vidai, actually composed these “memoirs”; he jauntily waves aside the need for a bibliography, asserting that “it would be endless.…” This gives the impression that he has spent the last ten years, at least, in large libraries researching his novel, but it does not explain where “Memoirs of Aaron Burr” came from.

There is, of course, ample internal evidence in the “memoirs” to suggest that one is not reading the autobiographical reminiscences of any gentleman writing (or dictating) in 1833 or 1834. For one thing, the prose doesn’t ring true, instead resembling that of a stylish modern writer: “As we sat over peach ice-cream, drinking more chilled wine than was entirely necessary, watching the long shadows stretch across the lawn, the first fireflies glow in the shrubbery, Jefferson told us the reason for the dinner.…” For another, Burr has been endowed by Vidai with unusual psychic powers: he seems to know many historical facts that he could not possibly have known at that time; and he reproduces long, complicated conversations that took place thirty or forty years earlier with not a syllable lost. With a mind like that, who needs tape recorders?

This is not to charge that Mr. Vidal invented most of the contents of the alleged “Memoirs of Aaron Burr.” He has read and digested the standard sources and used them, on the whole, ingeniously; no doubt he has also poked an inquisitive thumb into more esoteric documents and pulled out, here and there, a juicy plum or two. One suspects that there could be found among Mr. Vidal’s collection a well-marked copy of the earliest serious biography of his hero, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr by James Parton (1857). This remarkable work, which has fallen into undeserved neglect, enjoyed the advantage of having been written when there were still scores of people alive who had known Aaron Burr and who were more than willing to talk about him. Parton supplied Vidai with some of his best material, not only for livening up the “memoirs” with anecdotes but as grist for some of the scenes involving Charlie Schuyler and his notorious mentor. One of Vidal’s most exciting and convincing chapters describes how Burr and Charlie boat across the Hudson to the exact spot where the most famous duel in American history occurred in the summer of 1804. There on the narrow ledge beneath the Palisades of New Jersey the old man not only retells the story but relives it, making Charlie stand just where Hamilton stood when he took the fatal ball from Burr’s pistol and going through every hair-raising detail of the scene as if it were all happening again. It is extremely well done, with the skill of a veteran novelist—and the source for it is an equally well done passage, albeit in a different narrative mode, in James Parton’s biography. Parton heard the story from the lips of the very man who had gone with Burr to Weehawken for the re-enactment.