1973’s Burr is as good an entry point into Vidal’s prolific catalog as any other. If anything, the book has only become more relevant in recent years in the wake of the massive success of the musical Hamilton. That play may be named for the beloved Founding Father and first Treasury Secretary, but his nemesis Aaron Burr is arguably its most intriguing character. What drives this brilliant but aloof lawyer whose made “Wait for it” his defining mantra? What motivated him to shoot his former friend and doom himself to become an American pariah? The play itself only has so many answers to give, which is what makes Vidal’s Burr such an enjoyable and even necessary companion piece.
Burr is the first in a seven-volume series dubbed “Narratives of Empire,” as Vidal traces the growing pains of a nation from its birth in 1776 to what he argues is the end of its golden age in the early 1950s. But you don’t really need to worry about any of that. Just know that Burr itself is a fictionalized memoir of the former Vice President, one set in the twilight of his life in 1834 but broken up by flashbacks to the Revolutionary War and the infamous “Burr conspiracy” of 1807. The book offers fascinating insight into Burr’s personality, motivations and knack for always staying one or two steps ahead of personal and financial ruin.
The Narratives of Empire series presents an interesting blend of fact and fiction. They draw heavily from recorded history and dabble in all sorts of recognizable historical figures. But as Vidal himself points out in his foreword, there’s a certain amount of imagination required when it comes to exploring the inner life of someone as implacable and mysterious as Aaron Burr. That’s where the book’s true protagonist, fictional journalist Charlie Schuyler, comes in. A middling lawyer and aspiring writer, Charlie is the lens through which we view Burr and his complex life story. Hungry for fame, fortune and a first class ticket to Europe, Charlie begins recording Burr’s memoirs with the intent of publishing a pamphlet proving presidential candidate Martin Van Buren is actually Burr’s illegitimate son. Over the course of their talks, Charlie comes to understand the real person beneath the sardonic exterior and discovers the shocking truth that sparked Burr’s duel with Hamilton.
Sidebar – that plot twist earned Burr no shortage of controversy upon its release in 1973, but it’s certainly an intriguing possibility, regardless of whether there’s any historical basis for it.
These talks also reveal Burr’s thoughts on other Founding Fathers. Surprisingly, Burr seems to hold his old nemesis Hamilton in higher regard than he does men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. According to Burr, the former was an incompetent general who bungled his way into the presidency after losing every battle he fought, and the latter was the worst sort of two-faced, hypocritical politician. Obviously, we can only read so much into Burr’s colorful depictions of his old colleagues. But the book is great about challenging the conventional views of the Founding Fathers and trying to chip away at the legends and myths that have built up around these flawed men.Vidal’s great gift as a storyteller is to make history come alive and feel vital and relevant centuries later. That, ultimately, is what makes Burr such a worthy companion piece to Hamilton. Both stories are less concerned with cold, hard facts than getting to the emotional core of these fascinating historical figures. They help foster a love of history, and that’s something we need more than ever in 2020.
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