Reading, Writing, And History

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The charge against Gore Vidai is not that he has failed to use good sources but that he has sometimes abused them. There is copious evidence in reliable sources that Aaron Burr was not fond of Thomas Jefferson, for example; but what is the reader to make of a statement like this, attributed to Burr in the “memoirs” concocted for him by Vidai: “Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves”? Jefferson was a strong President, but “ruthless” is a very strong word, and few scholars who have spent their lives studying Jefferson would be willing to approve the epithet. He looked toward a new and better world, to be sure; but to say that he “wanted to create” it raises a vision of autocracy that is foreign to Jefferson’s hopes and expectations. “Led” would be more appropriate than “dominated” when it comes to his ideal of the independent farmer; and “supported by slaves” is simply untrue. Jefferson was a slave owner—a large one—and can be justly accused of a personal failure in never freeing himself from the bondage, so to speak, of slaveholding; but there is no doubt whatsoever that he abhorred the institution and looked eagerly forward to a time when all men would be free. Thus Vidai represents Burr as having said things about Jefferson that (a) Burr never actually said; (b) Burr might not have fully agreed with; and (c) misrepresent the historical Jefferson. The reader is left with false impressions of both Burr and Jefferson, reinforced by a vague notion that valid documents (Burr’s “memoirs”) support these impressions.

Burr was, on good evidence, an accomplished gallant, and Mr. Vidai—although he resists the temptation to paint lascivious scenes with a discretion hardly to be expected of the author of Myra Breckinridge —pegs the whole plot of his novel on the supposition that Martin Van Buren was one of Burr’s illegitimate offspring; he also advances the idea that what finally brought on the great duel with Hamilton was Hamilton’s having accused Burr of incest with his only legitimate child, the marvelous Theodosia. It would be nice to have his bibliography if only to learn the basis for these intriguing bits of alleged fact.

But if Gore Vidal has insufficiently honored the muse of history in Burr: A Novel , it may be that John Updike has been too reverential in Buchanan Dying . His long appendix of “Acknowledgments”—about a third of the whole book—not only gives a full bibliography but discusses at length the value to the author of the principal items in it. At length and, it ought to be said, with great discrimination and sense. Mr. Updike writes so well about history and historiography that you find yourself wishing he had himself tried not a historical novel but a biography of Buchanan. He has the touch of the great writers of narrative history like De Voto and Catton: with all due respect for documented facts, he is given to insights that quicken the facts with life. Here he is, for instance, discussing the likelihood that Anne Coleman, having through a misunderstanding broken off her engagement with the young Buchanan in 1819, committed suicide out of despondence and because she may have been pregnant: ”…in the farm country of southeastern Pennsylvania as I remember it, pregnancy did not disrupt the engagement, it hastened the marriage. Anne and Buchanan were, after all, publicly betrothed; a sudden wedding would have been a harmless scandal. Our rural ancestors could become hysterical over many things—comets and damnation, for two—but not, I think, over fertility.…I imagine her as a suicide, but of the type that half-means it, that in the innocence of egoism thinks to extend a living dialogue through death, and to force a rescue.”

The play itself is a feat of prestidigitation but, unhappily, not quite as successful as the appendix. We find ourselves in a bedroom of Buchanan’s mansion in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1868. Buchanan is there, slowly dying; and as he dies he dreams or fantasies conversations with persons who at one time or another were important to him. They appear singly or in groups: Harriet Lane, Buchanan’s beautiful niece and the old bachelor’s hostess during his White House years; Robert Coleman, the father of his fiancée, Anne (who also appears); John Slidell, once his political crony and later Confederate emissary to France; Buchanan’s mother; the empress of Russia (to whom Buchanan was the American minister in 1832–33); Andrew Jackson; Stephen Douglas; James K. Polk—and many others. The chronology is dreamily capricious; these figures come and go like ghosts to enact the dying man’s feverish reverie of his life. The most poignant and difficult episode of that life, personally, was Buchanan’s unfulfilled love affair with Anne Coleman; politically it was his anguished attempt to hold off the coming of the Civil War while he was President. Updike investigates and illustrates these and other coordinates of Buchanan’s biograph through well-made dramatic scenes, and the whole play thus becomes a kind of life of James Buchanan. “I wanted to seize Buchanan’s life so as to apprehend its shape—his ‘fate’—with my own hands,” the author tells us; and this he has done.