A new book review today! This time I am taking on the classic work of historical fiction, Burr by Gore Vidal. If you love the musical Hamilton, you will love this book.
You can check out my other book reviews (both for WKAR’s Current State and this website) here.
If you want to check out Burr for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.
Burr by Gore Vidal
Historical fiction is a dangerous genre.
In the wrong hands it can change a person’s perception of a real event or historical figure, tainting the truth for readers and the public. Debates and controversies in our world have been created out of less! But in the right hands it can inspire a reader to see something from a new light, possibly break out of their normal mindset. Easily the most dangerous, and possibly exciting, historical fiction I have ever read is Burr by Gore Vidal. In it, Gore Vidal tries to make a hero out of Aaron Burr, one-time vice president and killer of Alexander Hamilton.
I discovered the book when my family (including my kids) became obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fantastic musical, Hamilton. While Hamilton puts many of the heroes of the American Revolution in the wonderful glow of the spotlight; Gore Vidal instead adds a lot of filters and a smoke machine. In Burr, Vidal seems to take a glee out of spoiling our history and understanding around the American revolution. This is not your normal 1776.
In Burr, George Washington is an incompetent general more worried about his image and politics as compared to victories. Alexander Hamilton is shady and driven by power. Even French military hero Marquis de Lafayette comes out as a little bit of a buffoon. Only Aaron Burr steps forward as a hero, and possibly the true father of our country.
Aaron Burr is the voice of reason and all of the decisions he makes are for the good of the country. He rarely thinks of his own self-interest, as he weaves each of his plots that he is certain will help grow the new country he loves. Everything seems to make sense from his perspective, but history will never know.
The novel Burr is told through the voice of Charles Schuyler, one of the few fictional characters in it. He spends his time hobnobbing with the political elites, dating questionable women, and meeting with important members of the New York literary circle, including Washington Irving. Charles is determined to write a book on Aaron Burr and is able to get him to open up and share his experiences. It is through those recollections that both the book and the character do not hold back. For Aaron Burr has a strong opinion about everyone in our revolutionary history and few walk out of his recollections unscathed.
I can’t help but imagine Vidal smiling throughout the writing of this book. Most of it seems to be built out of the rumors and gossip of that period as compared to what our historians will focus on. It is because of this fact that I find the book so dangerous. Yet, even I, a fan of nonfiction and Ken Burns documentaries felt a sense of horror and scandalous pleasure in the reading of it.
Even without Vidal’s wonderful writing, Aaron Burr is a fascinating and complicated character just waiting for a novelist’s pen. Besides the duel with Hamilton, he was once tried for treason, was quite the lady’s man, and was almost President of the United States. The question though is he an American hero? Vidal tries to present him as one and I can’t help but think the idea is a little… well… brilliantly dangerous.