No Accident

Zachary Leader

  • The Golden Age: A Novel by Gore Vidal
    Little, Brown, 467 pp, £17.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 316 85409 3

‘Of course I like my country,’ Gore Vidal has written. ‘After all, I’m its current biographer.’ With the publication of The Golden Age, the biography draws to a close. The novels which comprise it, to list them in order of the historical periods they cover, are Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976, of course), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1989), Washington, DC (1967) and now The Golden Age. According to Vidal’s biographer, Fred Kaplan, it was while at work on Lincoln, in the early 1980s, that Vidal conceived of the series in its totality (though there were earlier links, 1876 being a sequel to Burr, and both introducing characters who are ancestors of those in Washington, DC, or whose surnames allow characters in Washington, DC to become their descendants). Lincoln is ‘the linking centrepiece’ (Kaplan’s phrase) of the sequence, though it is also, according to Vidal, ‘set somewhere apart’ from the other volumes, mostly because of how few and marginal are its shared fictional characters; Empire and Hollywood take the story up to the 1920s and the rise of the cinema, ‘the key to just about everything’; the first written of the novels, Washington, DC, covers the years of the Depression, New Deal, Second World War and Korea; and the final volume, The Golden Age, takes the story to the millennium, though for most of its almost five hundred pages, oddly, it covers the years from 1940 to 1950, reworking and amplifying the historical material covered by Washington, DC.

Of the six preceding novels in the series Burr, Lincoln and 1876 are published in an unaltered form, while Empire and Hollywood were, in any case, written with the full sequence in mind. Washington DC, however, has been revised in places, ‘in order to bring together all the strands of the story’. This revision is perfunctory and sometimes awkward. In the original, the bullet that passes through the left eye of a portrait of Aaron Burr now passes through the left eye ‘of our great-granddaddy Aaron Burr’, words spoken by a sister to a brother (who presumably knows who his great-granddaddy was – or who his father, wrongly, claims his great-granddaddy was). In the unrevised version, an elderly Senator, James Burden Day, a recurring character, is surprised to discover himself still capable of arousal: ‘at a time when he thought himself altogether free of the demands of the flesh, he had become like a boy again, or almost.’ In the rewritten version, ‘it was, suddenly, as if he were once again with Blaise’s sister, Caroline, thirty years earlier, the two of them in that rare collusion, a mutual passion that had produced a highly unlovable love child, who had become a nun.’ Neither Caroline nor the unlovable love child appears in Washington, DC or affects its plot or characters.

The Golden Age is full of such crammed sentences:

While Frederika dozed, Blaise went into the men’s section of the pool house, where Peter had observed his sister, Enid, being made love to by Clay Overbury, now her husband, as well as aide to Senator James Burden Day, whose daughter, Diana, was becoming, more and more, the center of Peter’s daydreams.

Readers of the earlier novels will find such sentences irritating in part because they are familiar with the episodes alluded to; those who haven’t read them will find them irritating in part because they aren’t. Nor is it story alone which clogs Vidal’s prose. He and his characters are tireless explainers and theorisers. For example: ‘If the Canadians had the military and economic power, might they not have had an equal right to save their southern neighbours from two European world wars on the grounds that an American minority, armed with great wealth, could so subjugate the American political process as to oblige the many to go glumly to war for the benefit of the few?’ Vidal can be a brilliant stylist, but in The Golden Age the writing labours under the enormous task he has set himself.

This task is several tasks, all of them worthy. To reimagine in a series of linked novels, now given the title ‘Narratives of Empire’, the defining moments in the history of the United States, mixing fictional with historical characters (‘What the real people say and do,’ we are told in an afterword to The Golden Age, ‘is essentially what they have been recorded as saying and doing, while the invented characters are then able to speculate on motivation’). To depict the domestic politics, foreign policy, social customs, fashions, interior decoration, popular culture, high culture and eating habits (Vidal is very good on food, as in The Golden Age, with its descriptions of the disgusting fare served at FDR’s White House) of the eras in which each of the novels is set. To debunk the ‘breathtaking lies’ of received opinion, academic as well as popular. To trace a great theme: America’s rise (or fall) from ‘flawed republic’ to ‘murderous empire’. Finally, to address as wide an audience as possible, for pedagogical as well as pecuniary reasons. ‘I would never have written this series had American history not been so badly taught in the schools,’ Vidal recently declared. To most Americans, he claimed, ‘our history is nothing but the ongoing absorption of happy minorities into a more perfect whole.’ That The Golden Age takes several swipes at Frank Capra should come as no surprise.

In the volumes written before Vidal had conceived the sequence as a whole, the demands of history and imagination are for the most part equally addressed. Though the central fictional character of Burr, the narrator, Charles Schuyler, is fairly one-dimensional (his guilt about betraying Burr, for example, is reiterated rather than developed), the novel’s principal historical figures – Burr, Jefferson and Hamilton – are vividly imagined. Burr is the Vidal figure (in the later novels, it sometimes seems, everybody is the Vidal figure); Hamilton is motivated by a mixture of personal and psychological as well as political factors; and Jefferson, the most memorable character in the novel, is charming, deceitful, self-deluding, sexually unscrupulous (‘Jefferson liked only the sort of pretty woman who was safely married, preferably to one of his friends’) and hypocritical. For all his opposition to cities, banks, manufactories and taxes, he is as much an imperialist as Hamilton or Burr (who hoped at one point to become Emperor of Mexico). ‘You must understand that it was Jefferson’s dream to annex Canada, Cuba, Mexico and Texas,’ Burr tells Schuyler. ‘He also favoured some form of dominion over South America, as did Hamilton, as did I.’

For Vidal’s Founding Fathers, James Madison excepted, democracy is a pious fiction. No political party ‘fretted particularly over the Constitution’s limited franchise … Needless to say, no one was allowed to vote directly for President. That was considered much too dangerous a privilege even for our small propertied electorate. They could vote for state legislators who in turn would select a President.’ One melancholy pleasure of reading these novels after last year’s election is fully to appreciate the consequences of this indifference. In terms of plot, the duel that matters is figurative rather than literal, less Burr’s with Hamilton than Burr’s with Jefferson. The lies the novel exposes are chiefly those of reputation, in particular of Jefferson’s reputation. Its headline-grabbing ingredient is Jefferson’s fathering of children with the slave Sally Hemmings, as controversial at the time of publication (and still controversial, in fact) as the assertion in The Golden Age that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor or that imperial ambitions underpinned Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb.

In Lincoln a single figure predominates: that of the brooding President. As with the depiction of Jefferson in Burr, the portrait is revisionist, but it is also sympathetic. Lincoln emerges as both sincere and manipulative, a principled pragmatist (opposed to slavery but reluctant to go to war over it, a civil libertarian perfectly prepared to suspend civil liberties). Though full of ‘folksy charm’, he is also ‘as cold and dense as the Ohio River in February’. Vidal’s willingness to present this most beloved of American Presidents in the raw, or round, is the novel’s inciting ingredient (it is suggested, for example, that he considered colonising ex-slaves outside the United States, and that his later melancholy and bad health resulted from treatment for syphilis). As for the imperial theme, it is sounded from the start. ‘If we let our erring sisters – poor foolish ladies – go in peace,’ urges Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, an old friend of Lincoln’s, ‘then we can turn our attention to Canada, to Mexico, to the Indies.’ Lincoln’s increasingly mystical and illogical determination to preserve the Union is presented as heroic, but it is also questioned. ‘Curiously enough,’ Schuyler tells Lincoln’s secretary John Hay on the novel’s last page, Bismarck ‘has now done the same thing to Germany that you tell us Mr Lincoln did to our country’.

Of all the novels in the sequence, Lincoln pays most attention, though not very elaborate attention, to characters from the lower social orders. The focus throughout the sequence is on the rich and powerful, or as Vidal recently put it, ‘on what has been done to the people by the 1 per cent through its mastery of the national wealth and made-in-the-house, as it were, Opinion’. The aims of this 1 per cent are seen as self-aggrandising, which makes them, in Vidal’s eyes, like Homeric heroes; at bottom, Lincoln’s defence of the Union served personal rather than communal interests. In the 1998 essay ‘Lincoln and the Priests of Academe’, Vidal identifies an extraordinary passage from a speech Lincoln gave in 1838 at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield as the basis of his portrait:

It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true to suppose that men of ambitions and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passions as others have done before them. The question then is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot … Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored … It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving free men.

In 1876, in contrast to Burr and Lincoln, fictional characters and their personal concerns take centre-stage. Charles Schuyler, now a famous historian, returns to the United States after almost forty years in Europe. This absence allows him, like Rip Van Winkle, to record his ‘sense of the country as it is today’, a task of urgent practical import, since he’s broke and hopes to sell his impressions to the newspapers. He also hopes to find a wealthy husband for his widowed daughter, Emma, the Princess d’Agrigente, who is beautiful, charming, clever and scheming. Corruption is everywhere, nowhere more obviously than in the disputed election of 1876, which Schuyler covers. The parallels between this election and the election of 2000 were much remarked on last year, and they are startling. The media jump the gun and get the result wrong. Oregon and the Southern states are pivotal (‘if “doubtful” Florida should go Republican, Hayes would be elected by one vote in the Electoral College’). The end result is worryingly protracted. The loser, Samuel J. Tilden, is said at one point to have taken the popular vote by a majority of 250,000, precisely the majority attributed to Al Gore for a time. When the election looks as if it will be decided by the Supreme Court, Schuyler sees ‘no reason’ to exempt its jurists from bias. The echoes go back in time as well: as the disputed election heads towards the House of Representatives, the precedent evoked is that of 1800, ‘when Colonel Burr and Thomas Jefferson each received the same number of votes’.

The most interesting historical figure in 1876 is Tilden, whose principled refusal to cheat the process (or work it) is viewed by Schuyler with equal measures of respect and impatience. Tilden is one of several lesser historical figures Vidal sympathetically reassesses (others include Warren Harding in Empire, Hoover in The Golden Age). To Schuyler, Tilden’s ‘fatal flaw’ is ‘the curious notion that men can be compelled by good argument to be honest, to show disinterest where there is only interest and greed’. The strains of supporting a position he knows is both right and doomed bubble forth in Tilden in a string of sour little burps (recurring tics or tags mark many of the characters in the sequence). When the intrigues of Emma and her father involve them in their own temptations and compromises, the fictive strand comes together with the historical. Lincoln and 1876 are the strongest novels in the series in part because of this interweaving.

In Empire, on the other hand, Vidal’s polemical and pedagogical purposes obtrude and distract. The central characters are Emma’s daughter, Caroline Sanford, and Caroline’s half-brother, Blaise. The most important historical figures are Hay, Henry Adams, William Randolph Hearst, and Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, though there are cameo appearances from many others, including Adams’s brother Brooks, author of the imperialist manifesto Law of Civilisation and Decay (1895), and Henry James, as well as a passing reference to Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Gore, Senator from Oklahoma, the first of several relations to appear in the sequence (if one excepts Burr, a distant relation of Vidal’s stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr). Caroline serves the narrative as her mother and grandfather serve the narrative of 1876: as wide-eyed outsider. Having lived most of her life in Paris she returns to America aged 20, an orphaned heiress. Like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (‘as nearly perfect a work as a novel can be,’ Vidal has written), she is determined to be free and to see the world. Hay is a version of Mr Touchett, his son Del the doomed Ralph. Del’s perfunctory demise is something of a joke, but Vidal’s witty depiction of the Master himself is deeply respectful, more engaged and engaging than his versions of other literary lions in the series (Washington Irving, Whitman, Twain, Proust, Tennessee Williams).

Vidal has Caroline resuscitate, by taking downmarket, a staid and ailing Washington daily, the Tribune, thus putting her in touch with a new and ominous presence in the land: the popular press, source of a power ‘no ruler could … exercise’. Blaise works for Hearst, whose papers shape foreign policy (‘they envenomise all dangers and reverberate all lies,’ was how Henry James put it). Though Hearst belongs to a rising class, he’s no more a democrat than the aged oligarchs he replaces. These oligarchs are Vidal’s heroes, admired for their intelligence, irony (‘I hate irony,’ Teddy Roosevelt is baited into admitting) and knowledge. ‘They are the last,’ Caroline says of Hay, Adams and their circle at the end of the novel. ‘Last of what?’ a friend asks. ‘Last – believers.’ But what it is they believe in is hard for Caroline to identify. When she admits to Adams that she’s always wanted to be part of his circle, what she says is: ‘I wanted to – know.’ ‘That is it,’ says Adams. ‘That is all there is, to want to know.’ The characters Vidal admires are often unsuccessful, but they are meant to understand themselves and the world, and to enter into history without illusion. In The Golden Age Adlai Stevenson, another loser, is likened to Hamlet: ‘Yes,’ Peter Sanford comments, ‘he couldn’t make up his mind but at least he had one to make up or not.’

Empire is almost six hundred pages long. In draft, under the title ‘Manifest Destiny’, it was much longer. The cut material became the core of Hollywood, itself more than five hundred pages. As Vidal explains to Kaplan: ‘I knew I had to stop at the end of Empire at a good point, which I found with the showdown between Theodore Roosevelt and Hearst. But I was doing the story really from Caroline’s point of view and I couldn’t let her go. Since I was going to take her up in Hollywood, that would then get me through Woodrow Wilson … So in a way these two are really one book.’ But there are differences, deteriorations. The Caroline of Empire is an assemblage of Jamesian prototypes: part Isabel Archer, part Maggie Verver, part Madame Merle. In the next novel, appropriately enough, she’s pure Hollywood. The movies draw her, as they draw Hearst – and immediately she’s a star (at forty) and the owner of a powerful studio. In Empire, Caroline’s role as newspaper tycoon prevented the novel from splitting into fictive and political sections. But in Hollywood the two sections split, in part because much of the action takes place outside Washington, in part because the power of film is conceived of as deeper and more diffuse than that of journalism. Though Hollywood serves specific political purposes (demonising Germans, then Communists), its chief power lies in its relation to dream, which is ‘subtle – universal, unnoticeable’. Only towards the end of the novel is this deeper influence identified with the self-dramatising tendencies of the political characters, tendencies that will produce Ronald Reagan, Vidal’s ‘Acting President’ (who was in office when the novel was being written). By the early 1920s everyone in the book, not just Caroline and her Hollywood cronies, is meant ‘to think like a movie’.

The chief political characters in Hollywood are Presidents Wilson and Harding, and the flanking Roosevelts, bellicose Teddy, all ‘tombstone’ teeth and tireless bustle, and the ultra-smooth FDR. Both Wilson and Harding are more compellingly imagined than the fictional characters. Wilson’s problems derive in part from ill health (a stroke, the effects of which he and his inner circle try to hide), ‘blind zealotry’ and a formidable list of antagonists, including Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Clemenceau. Harding is presented as surprisingly astute, for all his cronyism and compulsive philandering. But characterisation in general takes second place to ‘background’ (movie background, political background, family or fictional background). Every two pages or so a new famous person is introduced, on occasion in the manner of Irving Stone (whose novels contain such sentences as ‘Sighing, he lighted a fresh cigar, and wrote his title: The Interpretation of Dreams’). Tics and tags proliferate, the sentences begin to balloon.

Revised passages aside, Washington, DC contains few such sentences. Its manner is that of a Douglas Sirk movie. The novel opens in a melodramatic summer storm (the scene in which Peter observes Enid being made love to by Clay). There are dynastic struggles, betrayals, lurid sexual intrigues (incestuous, homosexual), blackmailings, a politically motivated committal (Enid, messily drunk and promiscuous, is locked away in an asylum), an attempted parricide. The opulent settings are those of Vidal’s own childhood and adolescence: both Laurel House, home of Blaise Sanford and his dysfunctional family, and Senator Day’s house in Rock Creek Park, are thinly disguised versions of places where Vidal lived. Blaise’s son Peter shares many of his creator’s qualities and interests (when Peter and Vidal meet in the coda to The Golden Age their speeches are virtually interchangeable). Clay Overbury, a John F. Kennedy figure, triumphs over more reflective and sympathetic characters – Burden Day, his betrayed mentor; Enid and Peter; Day’s daughter Diana. What marks the novel as an early one is the intensity of its disillusion and of its hatred of Clay and what he stands for (will, ambition, image). Yet he’s nothing new. When the defeated and compromised Senator Day attempts to refute Peter’s cynicism he does so by pointing to a portrait of Jefferson: ‘We had our golden age … I admit it was brief and that like all things human it went wrong, which was no one’s fault … The good is rare, that’s all, and not easy for us to live with.’ Peter, ‘radiant in his despair’, protests: ‘There was never a golden age. There will never be a golden age and it is sheer romance to think that we will ever be what we are not.’

Peter’s view is the view of the sequence as a whole, minus the radiant despair (perhaps as much Vidal’s, writing in 1966, as his character’s). Towards the end of The Golden Age, Peter is interviewed by a plodding academic who presents him with a manuscript by the best and brightest of Peter’s colleagues on The American Idea, the magazine he and Day’s daughter set up as a rival to the corrupt press. The author, another eventual sell-out, has titled the manuscript ‘The Golden Age: 1945-1950’. Peter chuckles at the title, recalling something Randall Jarrell had written: ‘how, in the most glorious of golden ages, there would always be someone complaining about how yellow everything looked’. In the coda, Peter and his creator return to this question (they have been brought together to tape a television programme directed by the latest offspring of the Burr-Sanford line, Aaron Burr Decker, b.1960). Vidal picks up the manuscript: ‘Hard to recall just how serious we were when we thought we could turn all those VE and VJ Days into something new under the sun … Well, we did have five years of peace. That’s quite a lot, really.’ Peter remains adamant: ‘After that, we went to war fulltime. We had to save everyone from Communism. Then Communism went away, so now we have to save them from drugs. From terrorism.’ Vidal cuts him off, has heard it all before. ‘You should have constructed a better universe for us,’ Peter protests. ‘One works with what one has and knows,’ his creator answers.

Vidal’s case against FDR, whose domestic policies he largely approves (despite the eloquence he allows Hoover in warning against them), centres on FDR’s deliberate provocation of the Japanese. ‘Eighty per cent of our people don’t want us to go back to Europe for a second world war,’ declares Senator Gore, ‘and nothing will ever persuade them, no matter how many of our ships the Germans sink … But to get the Japanese to strike first is true genius – wicked genius.’ FDR is like Lincoln, masterly and unknowable, his ‘vast depths of benign insincerity could never be entirely plumbed by any mere mortal’. The scale of his ambition recalls Jefferson: ‘he wants to be President for life,’ his cousin Alice Longworth declares, ‘and if it takes a war to keep him in the White House for ever, a war we shall have.’ Nor is it only Americans FDR seeks to rule. ‘This war could complete the New Deal,’ Peter tells Wendell Willkie (it is early in the novel and Peter still parrots received opinion). ‘Who cares?’ Willkie replies. ‘Because this war will give us the whole world this time. That was Uncle T.’s dream. I think it’s Cousin Franklin’s too.’ After the war, Truman, through Dean Acheson, stakes America’s claim: ‘from this moment forward the United States could and would interfere in the political arrangements of any nation on earth.’ Throughout the novel, Vidal presents the imperial ambitions of America’s leaders and opinion-makers as conscious and explicit. He also claims to write from personal experience: ‘I had the good fortune to be brought up in a political family at the capital of the country and I knew first-hand, or at interesting second or third-hand … what the politics had been that had resulted, say, in the Second World War.’ Little room is given to oversight, muddle, contingency (what, say, was going on elsewhere in the world), and even less to idealism, misguided or otherwise.

For example, Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb is depicted as having less to do with saving American lives than with scaring Stalin. ‘Peter had now solved the mystery – literally a mass-murder mystery set in secret motion in Potsdam to intimidate the Russians and keep them out of the war in the Pacific.’ The Cold War is seen as an American not a Soviet creation; after Yalta, Vidal has elsewhere written, Stalin ‘had expected to live in some sort of reasonable balance with the US’. The later Red Scare is ‘calculated’: though McCarthy appals the establishment, tapping directly into ‘a streak of madness’ in the American character, ‘part of the famous scaring hell out of the people has been our own Government’s prompt interference in everyone’s life.’ The Government begins to enjoy an ‘un-American power’ over its people in the 1950s and ‘it will never ever let go.’ This sense of the Government as malignly intrusive, un-American, is common to Vidal and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, with whom Vidal has been corresponding.

Almost all Vidal’s creative energy in The Golden Age has been reserved for its provocations, particularly its account of FDR’s goading of the Japanese into war. Little has been expended on difficulties of plot or structure. What, for example, does one do with JFK if one already has Clay (very little, it turns out)? Why introduce Vidal if one already has Peter? The duplication distracts, and isn’t overcome by the coda’s Post-Modern jokiness. Caroline’s Hollywood lover, the director Timothy X. Farrell, and her Red-baiting daughter Emma, are never properly integrated in the novel, despite their usefulness in some sections. The significant events in the personal lives of the fictional characters most often occur offstage – that is, in previous volumes. Uncharacteristic mistakes creep in: Hubert Humphrey is introduced as the mayor of Milwaukee, which, as Erik Tarloff, a reviewer for Slate, has pointed out, is ‘not merely the wrong city, but it’s in the wrong state’. (Tarloff also notes the introduction of ‘a tall man of middle age and middle height and middling appearance’.) Crucial historical issues are omitted – issues of a sort likely to affect the decisions and attitudes the novel does depict. Very little, for example, is said about the New Deal, Axis and Soviet atrocities, the fate of the Jews (for Vidal ‘the fate of the Jews had no more to do with American policy in 1941 than the ideals of democracy had to do with the First World War’). The novel implicitly endorses the conclusion of a 1993 essay ‘Making a Mess of the American Empire’, that ‘all in all, the famed good, great war that gave us the empire that we then proceeded to make a mess of was hardly worth the death of one Private James Trimble USMCR’ – Vidal’s boyhood love, mourned ever after – ‘much less the deaths of millions of others’: an astonishing claim given what we now know of Hitler’s regime. The period from the 1960s to the millennium remains largely a blank, a damaging omission given the spacing of previous volumes, and a curious one, too, given Vidal’s first-hand knowledge of the Kennedys and the witty acuity of his non-fictional writing about Nixon (once described as having an ‘eerie and touching propensity to fuck up’). Nor does the novel offer much in the way of grand summary or prophecy. What form the corrupt, restless energies of the United States will take in future years remains mostly unspecified, except for Peter’s warnings about surveillance and the growth of what Vidal calls the ‘national security state’.

These warnings again recall McVeigh. Aaron Burr Decker is puzzled at Peter and Vidal’s obsession with Pearl Harbor. ‘Why are you two so much concerned with what Roosevelt did or did not do at Pearl Harbor? … Didn’t it all end well? We won the war. We got the world. We saved as many of Hitler’s victims as we could.’ When reminded that three thousand men died at Pearl Harbor, were ‘set up’ by an American President to die, he blithely replies: ‘Drop in a bottomless bucket.’ Vidal winces: ‘The fact that you take all this so casually is the principal fallout.’ Well, yes, but questions of proportion remain – as on a more obvious and terrible scale they remain with McVeigh’s response to Waco (the events at Waco have been described by Vidal, in an essay of 1996, as revealing ‘what a paranoid federal apparatus, forever alert to any infraction of its stern prohibitions, was capable of when challenged head-on by non-conformists’). Vidal is right to press the issue of Pearl Harbor, but its centrality in The Golden Age not only unbalances the series (causing it to end with two novels on pretty much the same period) but distorts the final volume’s picture of the age. Though American motives in the Roosevelt years may not have been golden, it is hard to accept them, as Vidal seems to wish us to, as entirely brazen, powered exclusively by imperial ambition. It ought to be possible to say this while also deploring illusions, myths and lies.