America's Founding: Another Story

I just finished the first volume in Gore Vidal's "American Chronicle" series--a set of historical novels which tracks the history of America from the revolution up to the 1980s, largely through the variegated and bastardized legacy of America's greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Thus the first novel, Burr, tracks the revolutionary emergence of the Republic through the adventures of Aaron Burr, Edwards' grandson and most famous for the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton. (Edwards appears in the story through the figure of Mrs. Townsend, the moralist proprietor of a brothel who is an avid reader of Edwards, particularly on the so-called Freedom of the Will. But the Reformed tradition of the great Edwards does not fare well with his wayward grandson. En route to what would be his final home, accompanied by the Reverend P.J. Van Pelt, Colonel Burr confides to Charlie Schuyler: "If you should hear that I have died in the bosom of the Dutch Reformed Church, you will know that either a noble mind was entirely overturned at the end or a man of the cloth has committed perjury.")

As I was reading this, my oldest son was getting his first dose of the "canonical" account of America's historical mythology from his junior high history book. Being a Canadian, I didn't receive this "orthodox" indoctrination, so I wasn't in much of a position to judge Vidal's slant, but a historian colleague of mine assured me that my son would be better served by Vidal.

Having now read Burr, I can now see that Vidal's Inventing a Nation was a non-fiction (?) return to old haunts in a new context. In Burr, Vidal offers an entertaining, iconoclastic account of the invention of a nation which, for a long time, had ambiguous relations with imperial, monarchic dreams. The "heroes" of American faith--Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton--are cast in less than flattering terms, while the villains of the canonical story (Jackson, even Benedict Arnold) are given a chance to tell their side of the story--particularly in Burr, who variously suffered as the murderer of Hamilton, a traitor to the union, and a would-be emperor of Mexico. But it's hard not to love him.

One of the most fascinating subtexts here is the early republic's continued flirting with monarchy (Washington was addressed as "His Excellency" and held court in Philadelphia) and empire (Bonaparte was admired far and wide, and many of the key players here spent time in France). It is undoubtedly the contemporaneity of these themes which brought back these figures with such force in Vidal's more recent Inventing a Nation. In an age of Newspeak and Thought Police, Vidal's fiction might be the best place to get at "the truth." So I'm looking forward to diving into Lincoln.