Like many who have seen or are familiar with the popular musical Hamilton, I’ve become interested in the titular character’s primary nemesis: his friend, rival, and ultimate murderer Aaron Burr. Yet I knew little about Burr save for him being once Vice President and the duelist who felled Hamilton.
Historical fiction isn’t the best place to learn about someone; I went down a wiki wormhole a few years ago and found the man lived a fascinating life on his own. I had tried Vidal’s work with little success once but after enjoying Hamilton when it came out on Disney+, I figured I’d give it another shot. And I’m glad I did. It’s an absorbing tale.
This book is the start of Vidal’s examination of America through the lens of historical people and/or events. He couldn’t have picked a better character. Burr was really the last living founding father, rubbing elbows with all of the greats, maneuvering and scheming like the rest of them.
What I appreciate about Vidal’s approach is the ambiguity to which he assigns Burr’s character. Burr was a mystery in real life, his motives not always clear. Vidal uses the framing device of a young man writing a biography on Burr to try and suss out the Patriot/Traitor/Hero/Murderer’s story. He finds more than he bargained for but he never quite seems to get a grasp on the man himself. All as well as it made for a more compelling tale than if he had “figured out” Burr.
Because this story at the heart of it is less about Burr and more a comedy of manners about the founding of the United States. Famous figures are presented as flawed, power seeking glory hounds, the country itself is racist and almost not worth uniting, and ambition is only a problem if it doesn’t work. The story of Burr is interesting; the story of the nascent country he helped to found and which eventually cast him out even more so.
The framing device doesn’t always work. The would-be writer’s backstory is interesting in the beginning but is only intermittently dragged out for reasons unclear until the end, which I’m not sure yet if I was a fan of or not. But overall, this book works well for what it is and it has given me yet another series to dive into.