Between 1967 and 2000, Gore Vidal published seven novels about the United States, covering the period from the Revolution to the current day. The publisher wanted to give them the overall title American Chronicles, but Vidal held out for Narratives of Empire. They don’t form a particularly tight-knit series: each book can be read completely on its own, and it doesn’t seem likely that Vidal considered them a series until at least the third-published book, or wasn’t at that point satisfied with it as a trilogy. Below, I’m going to give a capsule review of each book in publication order, each headed by the book’s title, order in story chronology, and a rating from one to five stars.
Washington, D.C. (6 or 7) *
This is a political novel, published in 1967, about the powerful and intertwined Day and Sanford families. James Burden Day is a United States senator, and Blaise Sanford is a powerful newspaper publisher. The book is full of intrigue, scandal, and politics, with current events (the Depression, World War II and the Cold War) as backdrop. While well-written, none of the characters is particularly interesting, and eventually their interactions begin to resemble a soap opera. One unusual thing that becomes important later: the Sanfords are descended from Aaron Burr, whence they believe their rapacious character originates, though the details of this descent are inconsistent with what we see in the rest of the series.
Burr (1) ****
A masterpiece. The plot is simple enough: Charlie Schuyler, a young and struggling lawyer living in 1830s Washington, D.C, is befriended by the aged, near-penniless, but still charming Aaron Burr. About half the book is Schuyler’s story, but that serves merely as bookends for Burr’s stories of his past, where he dishes about Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers. By some accident of history they are regarded as heroes where the most brilliant and capable of them (i.e. Burr) is considered a villain and a scoundrel. Michelle Bachmann has said that liberal acceptance of Burr‘s attack on the heroes of the Revolution is what made her a conservative, but it’s clear throughout that Burr is lying and rationalizing furiously to impress his young friend. Another character even tells Schuyler so at the end of the book, just for any reader who missed that.
1876 (3) **
Charlie Schuyler, who has moved to Europe and married into the nobility, returns to the States a penniless widower, along with his likewise widowed daughter Emma. He has two goals: First to get back into politics or journalism far enough to support himself. Second, to find a well-off husband for Emma. Emma is drop-dead gorgeous, but being in her thirties with no money of her own, is not considered a catch. Here the entire focus is on Schuyler and his involvement with the Democratic Party all through the stolen election of 1876. This is not fascinating. But the ending of the book is so striking and unexpected that I’ll award it a second star.
Lincoln (2) *****
Even a greater masterpiece than Burr. It tells the story of Lincoln from his arrival in Washington, D.C. after his election until his assassination. It’s told from the point of view of many different characters: John Hay, Mary Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, John Wilkes Booth, etc, though never Lincoln himself. Vidal did an immense amount of research and stuck to historical facts; together with his ability to enter the minds of his viewpoint characters, there’s not a false note in the entire book. Highest recommendation. (The connection to the series is rather thin: a Union officer named Sanford appears briefly.)
Empire (4) ***
This is about the Sanford siblings, Blaise and Caroline, at the turn of the 20th Century. We saw Blaise as an old man in the first book; here he’s a young man, but so stuffy that he might as well be old. Caroline is far more lively and interesting. In this book, they’re founding the family newspaper, with Blaise in charge of the business of printing and distribution, and Caroline handling journalism. (She tells an incredulous Blaise that they’ll need to cover things the average man cares about, like baseball.) They interact with a host of historical characters, both the ones Vidal likes such as Henry Adams, John Hay, and William McKinley, and those he very much does not, like Teddy Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst.
Hollywood (5) ***
Further adventures of the Sanford siblings, this time after World War I. As the title implies, much of the book focuses on the new film industry. The other major plotline portrays the scandals of the Harding Administration, both personal and financial, told through the eyes of a historical character, Harding’s aide Jess Smith. Smith died of a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances a few months before Harding’s death.
The Golden Age (6 or 7) *
This overlaps the first book, again starting with the time leading up to World War II and going through the Cold War, with an epilogue that takes place in the year 2000. Much of the plot concerns a conspiracy Vidal seem to take quite seriously, in which interventionists commit murder to prevent an isolationist from getting the GOP nomination in 1940 (it actually went to the interventionist Wendell Wilkie.) As a result of World War II ending with the other powers either crushed or exhausted, the United States has become the empire which gives the series its name.
While I wouldn’t recommend the series as a whole, Burr and Lincoln are both first-rate books, while Empire and Hollywood are very good reads.