Burr: A Novel

by Gore Vidal

Hardcover, 1973

Collection

Description

A fictional memoir illuminating Aaron Burr's life and times, highlighting his political accomplishments and fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Rating

½ (438 ratings; 4)

Media reviews

Burr is about the Founding Father who has been airbrushed out of history. Aaron Burr very nearly became America's third president in 1800, when he narrowly lost to Thomas Jefferson. He ended up as Jefferson's Vice-President and, four years later, while still in office, he killed Alexander Hamilton
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in a duel, which killed his own political career. History has painted Burr as a chancer and a rogue. Vidal takes Burr's side to show that he was much better than that: a chancer, for sure, but self-aware enough to know that's what he was, which makes him intensely likable. In this novel, the usual pantheon of American heroes – Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton – come across as various stripes of pompous hypocrite. Burr is the one you want to win.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member dougwood57
Gore Vidal writes historical fiction with a sharp eye toward historical accuracy, but with the freedom granted by the genre to present history with a viewpoint. Aaron Burr provides an ample tableau for the talents of Vidal at the top of his game. Burr lived through the Revolution, serving briefly
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on Washington's staff and later with Benedict Arnold at Quebec. He soon became seriously involved in New York state politics and eventually became Jefferson's vice-president.

Burr seems to have always turned up in the middle of some controversy. He was nearly elected President instead of Jefferson due to a quirk in the electoral system of the day. He killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel while still VP and fled south and west to avoid prosecution in New Jersey. Jefferson soon charged him with treason for an alleged plot to separate the western states from the US. Burr was acquitted in a trial presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall. The reader meets lesser known characters such as James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett among many others.

The story is told through the device of Burr writing his memoirs over a period of several years commencing in 1833 with the aid of Charles Schuyler, the book's only fictional character. This device allows Vidal to move back and forth between the Republic's early days and the end of the Jackson presidency. In the latter period the reader meets Matty Van Buren, the famed New York editor William Leggett, the corrupt collector of the NY ports Sam Swartout, and revisits Andrew Jackson.

Vidal presents the tale from his subject's viewpoint, one which is naturally quite favorable to Burr and somewhat at odds with the standard view in regard especially to the `Burr Conspiracy'. Thomas Jefferson particularly comes out poorly in this telling as does Washington. `Burr' was one of six works in what became Vidal's American Chronicles Series (Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, DC). I can also recommend Lincoln: A Novel and 1876 (Modern Library) to the reader (I've not yet read the others). Gore Vidal's `Burr' is a riveting ride through the early days of the Republic. Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member santhony
This is my first Gore Vidal novel and I’m glad I finally got around to reading his work. This novel, as well as several others in a series (Lincoln, 1876 to name a couple) can best be described as historical fiction, somewhat disguised as biography. In selecting Burr as a subject, Vidal made an
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excellent choice, both from the standpoint of originality and due to the fact that Burr was a fascinating character.

Known primarily for his dual with bitter political rival Alexander Hamilton, many are not aware that Burr was a Revolutionary War hero and came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the third President, tying Thomas Jefferson in the Electoral College and throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Settling for the Vice-Presidency, Burr went West after his duel with Hamilton and sought to invade and conquer Mexico, leading to a politically motivated trial for treason in which he was exonerated by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Quite a life.

Told from the standpoint of a fictional aide to Burr (Charles Schuyler), the story is set during the Andrew Jackson presidency, but reverts to revolutionary America through reference to Burr’s memoirs. The individuals who make an appearance (all the usual suspects- Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, etc.) are presented as normal human beings, warts and all. This is refreshing, as the Founding Fathers are frequently placed on a pedestal, immune from criticism and the foibles of everyday life.

In reality, the period was one of intense factional conflict (why do you think Burr dueled Hamilton?), the presidential races between Adams/Jefferson, and Jackson/Adams being perhaps the most bitter in American history. As a result, Burr has few good things to say about Washington (who Burr portrays as a military incompetent) or Jefferson (who Burr asserts was mentally ill during his second term), as you would expect.

American history from the first half of the 19th century is somewhat neglected in favor of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, but this time of the nation’s establishment and growth is truly a fascinating period, both with respect to historical events and fascinating characters. Burr was an excellent prism through which to examine both and Vidal does an outstanding job in that respect.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
An interesting tale about one of American history's most conflicting figures. The stories and intrigues about Burr are almost too fantastical to believe, but a surprising amount of them are based on historical fact.
LibraryThing member RodneyWelch
Vidal at his absolute best. A page-turning historical novel that is both well-researched and brilliantly re-imagined; rich in character and lacerating in point of view.
LibraryThing member wit10born
Burr is an endlessly engaging historical novel written in the form of a memoir. While the memoir and journalist-narrator are fictional, the rest of the book is based on factual events and clever portraits of the Founding Fathers. Burr himself is a character of great fascination, a shadowy figure
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who shot Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel and was later tried for treason. Burr is a powerful narration that re-creates with accuracy and originality the earliest years of the new Republic.
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LibraryThing member NiteRead
One of the most amusing historical fiction novels I have ever read. This (too short) book tells the story of Aaron Burr from the perspective of his illegitimate (this is where the fictional part comes in - I think) son. The cast of characters is illustrious (Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, etc.,)
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but you get the impression that these characters weren't so illustrious in the eyes of their contemporaries (or at least their peers).

Two books follow (like a trilogy). My copies of all three books are well worn (and falling apart somewhat). And I continued on with most (or all) of Gore Vidal's other historical fictions.

Read and enjoy.
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LibraryThing member stlaveau
Gore Vidal is very likely America's greatest living writer. Burr is romp through 1830's New York. Mr. Burr appears to be romping himself, recounting an excitng past, living his present with an eye to the future, even though he is @ seventy-seven years of age when Mr. Vidal introduces his Hero.

Or,
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Anti-Hero? This reader prefers the former title. American high schoolers do not meet Mr. Burr - the pleasure of his company is withheld more often than not from teenagers.

When reading this book, we understand that two men died that day in New Jersey - though it took one of them almost fifty more years to die.

Mr. Vidal is a genius. Both he and Mr. Burr are immortals.
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LibraryThing member SimoneSimone
Stuck with so many frauds...here is America's forgotten hero.
LibraryThing member branful
I didn't know Vidal so good at writing a historical novel. I failed to enjoy "Myra."
But this is real good. Makes you feel you are seeing real size picture of historical figures such as George Washington and Jefferson.
LibraryThing member Smiley
One of Vidal's best works of historical fiction and a sly twist on accepted American history of the early republic.
LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
A wonderful novel. Well written, witty and sharp. Aaron Burr is a mythical person in American History. While this is a novel, you still derive insight in the man's character as well gaining an alternative view of American history.
LibraryThing member kbullfrog
I loved Gore Vidal's Justin, but did not so much love this book. At times i got deeply involved in the political intrigue Vidal masterfully pens, and so it is great insight into Vidal's real-life political criticisms, but could not muster the interest for escapist/novelist reading. I will always
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think of Burr though, when thinking of our founding fathers--it's difficult not to once you have read Vidal's historical fiction.
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LibraryThing member 5hrdrive
Interesting look at an extraordinary, largely forgotten man. The parts of the book that are purportedly Aaron Burr's memoirs are extremely interesting, however the choice of using the character of Charles Schuyler as amanuensis is a curious one. If I ever reread this I will stick to the memoir.
LibraryThing member thorold
This does have a very 1970s feel when you read it nowadays, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. We need a bit of refreshing iconoclasm from time to time.

Vidal is out to make us look a bit more critically at some of the sacred cows of US history, which he does by telling the main story through
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the rather Flashmanesque voice of the elderly Aaron Burr. This works well, but I was a bit less comfortable with the structural device of having Burr dictate his memoirs to the young law-clerk and would-be journalist Schuyler, so that we effectively alternate between Burr's voice and Schuyler's. This allows Vidal to give us a bit more perspective about what other people thought of Burr, and what New York was like in the 1830s, but it means that he has to manage a lot of transitions in and out of Burr's narrative, which can't help becoming rather repetitive. We get rather more than we would like of the dull story of Schuyler and his girl, and far too many throwaway jokes for the modern reader about pigs in the streets of Manhattan. I did feel that there's something to be said for Scott's approach of banishing the secondary narrator to the first and last chapters. Sadly, Vidal evidently shares Scott's conviction hat a book has to have bulk on the shelf if you want readers to take it seriously, so we do get quite a bit of padding and recycling along the way. Paper must have been cheap in the seventies.

Structural quibbles aside, Vidal does a very good job of guiding the reader through the complexities of American politics in the early days of the republic without a lot of intrusive explanation. And we do get to have quite a bit of fun on the way. So why not?
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LibraryThing member wirkman
A great romp of a book, dealing with one of the more enigmatic Founding Fathers, the man who did such great service to the nation by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Vidal pulls out all the stops on the last page, and we are left having read a great book, gasping. Thankfully, Vidal offered
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more: several sequels, starting with "1876."
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LibraryThing member ehines
Much like Vidal's Lincoln, his Burr is a compelling figure who puts a new twist on Americans' view of themselves. A very good new way to revisit a familiar story.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
"Although Americans justify their self-interest in moral terms, their true interest is never itself moral. Yet, paradoxically, only Americans - a few, that is- ever try to be moral in politics."
-- Gore Vidal

Vidal takes full responsibility for his perjury. Okay he only admits to errors and
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anachronisms, but sides himself with Richard Nixon in the process. Burr is a wonderful tale, finding delight in skewering the reputations of the Founding Fathers and all the hypocrisy which didn't make its way into elementary school textbooks. Well, the ones I was exposed to during the late 70s. It was also written at the height of Watergate.

Unlike most historical fiction, Burr breathes. The sighs it emits are laced with bourbon. I loved this book, though the royal ear grew weary with too many notes. That remains my problem, not Vidal's..
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Vidal writes great historical fiction and this is a great one for him. Character motivation makes for a wonderful focus.
LibraryThing member amelish
Surviving the gloomy, gothically unhumorous Cloudsplitter has left me with little patience for “true historical fiction,” but Burr is all right, I guess. His character is never really fleshed out, mostly used as a foil for the impressionable, melodramatic Charlie, or as a conduit for an unusual
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portrayal of the founding fathers and whatnot. I suppose said portrayal is meant to be in character, since Vidal's afterword disclaims any personal espousal of Charlie's and Burr's stances.
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LibraryThing member librken
Absolutely fantastic. It gives a penetrating look at the frailties of our new republic and also serves as a touchstone to our current times.
LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
I read Burr many years ago and enjoyed the irreverent attitude Burr (and others) had towards the Founding Fathers. I recently decided to re-read this before reading the rest of Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire historical fiction books. I enjoyed it this time around also.

Here's how Burr sees
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General Washington: "the small dull eyes in their vast sockets stared at me with wonder". Not even good ol' George escapes Burr's scathing and sardonic observations.

While reading this the second time around, I noticed that this book is very male-centric -- females are very much minor characters here. Yes, it's true that much of history is examined through the male gaze, that women's part in history has a tendency to be overlooked. The next book in this series is Lincoln; it'll be interesting to see if the almost all male history continues in this way. With Vidal as the author, it may very well be.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
Gore Vidal's Burr: A Novel represents the best type of historical fiction. Vidal does not bind himself to historical fact except where it enhances the narrative, at times moving people through time or space to better his story, but using the dynamism of the history he describes to drive his tale.
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He even creates a fictional protagonist, Charles Schuyler (not of the Schuylers into whose family Alexander Hamilton married), in order to allow him access to the object of his focus. Though Vidal appears to attempt a rehabilitation of Aaron Burr's reputation, he describes him as "a monster, in short" (pg. 4). Vidal's descriptions of Burr return continuously to diabolic imagery. He writes, "Aaron Burr has made an arrangement with the devil. Every dark legend is true" (pg. 69). Vidal's Burr continually reclines near a fire, unable to stay warm even in summer. Vidal's protagonist writes of Washington City, "If this is not Hell, it will do. I have never been so hot. I can see why Colonel Burr wanted to be president - to revel in the stifling, damp heat of this depressing tropical swamp" (pg. 409). Even his desire to keep his word evokes Milton's Lucifer. Vidal writes, "In politics, as in life, one ought to do what one has promised to do. This has been my Quixotic code" (pg. 194). This foreshadows the concept of honor that historian Joanne B. Freeman later argued prevented Burr from dropping his campaign for the presidency when he tied with Jefferson in 1800. Despite these literary touches, Vidal delights in accurately describing individuals as they might have appeared to Burr as well as the locations in which they worked and lived. He even tells the story of Helen Jewett, who had faded from notoriety by the 1970s and would not experience a resurgence of popular interest until Patricia Cline Cohen's 1999 biography. Historians, both professional and casual, of the colonial and early Republic periods will find much to enjoy in this novel.
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LibraryThing member Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr
This is a magnificent novel. While not as good as his Lincoln (what could be?) it is a humorous and sarcastic venture through early American history. I watched an interview of Mr. Vidal a while ago and he said something to the effect that one would have to be inept to write of early American
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history and not make it interesting. Certainly Mr Vidal doesn't fail with this one.
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LibraryThing member a1stitcher
This is a peek at the political life and legal adventures of former Vice President Aaron Burr, told from his own point of view. I was quite interested in, and sometimes amused at his opinions of two of our most sacred founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Burr was also not very
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fond of Alexander Hamilton, but we already know this!
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LibraryThing member EricRosenfield
A stunning novel, in which Vidal uses the cannily chosen Aaron Burr as a hatchet to take apart the founding fathers and our various myths about them and show how all their human frailties are embedded in the nation and its direction. Burr, and his Boswell, Charles Schuyler, are an impeccably drawn
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pair of unreliable narrators who take us down the river of the creation of the United States and show us nooks and crannies in it we never even suspected.
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Publication

Random House

Original publication date

1973

Pages

430

ISBN

0-394-48014-4

Language

Original language

English
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