Burr by Gore Vidal (1973)

I remember hearing about Burr in the early 70s (when it was first published) from the author himself on the Tonight Show.  I thought it sounded interesting, and certainly as Gore Vidal spoke about it I was intrigued but somehow I never got around to reading it until recently after watching Hamilton on the Disney station.  I thought the musical excellent but with a rather one-sided view of the events and characters.  I’m not  a huge fan of thick historical novels — I tend to read them slowly in order to absorb all the information, keep the characters and timeline straight, and line everything up with what I know or what I want to check on from other sources.  But after the musical, the time had definitely come.

Aaron Burr

Vidal’s portrayal of Aaron Burr was extensively researched over about a decade and gives a very different picture of a man condemned in his time and by history for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in a secluded spot in Jersey; duelling was illegal at the time.  A statue of Hamilton was erected on the spot and he was basically canonized while Burr was vilified although it was a fair duel and fought over a serious outrage.

Famous Duel

The story of Burr is being told by a young law clerk, one Charles Schuyler, in the offices of Burr & Sill beginning in the year 1833 as Burr, age 77, was about to embark on a second marriage.  Schuyler tells the events himself from this point on but engages Burr in his reminiscences of past adventures in the Continental army, legal battles, his love life, politics, land speculations, his time as Jefferson’s vice-president and, of course, his infamous duel with Hamilton.  Surprisingly, Burr appears to have no rancour toward those who have thwarted his ambitions, slandered him, or rose above him through infamy but gives a straightforward, witty retelling of events with great aplomb and often nostalgia.  Certainly, he lived in exciting times and knew all the major players of the founding of the United States of America.

Burr’s (or Vidal’s) views on John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are quite different than what are those commonly held.  An interesting article about Hamilton and Burr can be found here and in part says:

the problem is that in schools in many countries the past is whitewashed, simplified, sanitized and condensed to become just a series of meaningless dates . . .

Certainly, Burr, in this instance, is seen to esteem his nemesis Hamilton higher than those generally considered the great founding fathers.

Gore Vidal 1925-2012

While it took me longer than usual to digest this book, I think that was more due to lack of reading time rather than it being hard to get through.  Schuyler’s activities as a potential contributor to various magazines and pamphlets and his attempt to draw information from Burr in order to establish a parental connection between Burr and future president Martin Van Buren contribute greatly to the colour of the times and the events are well told and not difficult to follow.  This is the first of a 7-volume series, Narratives of Empire that covers from 1771 – the early 1950s, but it’s a great place to start especially if you’ve seen Hamilton.  A thoroughly enjoyable read.  * * * * *

About mysm2000

Having taught elementary school for more than 25 years and been involved in many amazing technology and curriculum projects, I find I've developed a myriad of interests based on literature I've read and music I've heard. I've followed The Wright Three to Chicago, Ansel Adams to Colorado, The Kon Tiki Expedition to Easter Island, Simon & Garfunkel lyrics to New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright to Fallingwater, Pennsylvania, and have only just begun.
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