“Burr” by Gore Vidal – a look back at my novel of the month thirty years ago in March 1985

Decades ago, before sites like goodreads and booklikes existed, I used to keep a book listing what I read when. Flicking through the list recently,  I realized that some books have left no trace in my memory while others still whisper to me when I say their names. I decided to do occasional reviews of some of the ones that still speak to me.  Here’s the first one.

BurrThis post covers March 1985, when “Born In The USA” was the album I was most pleased with, “Breakfast Club” was the hot movie, Madonna had transformed herself into a material girl and the miners had just ended their year-long strike in the UK.

The stand-out book from my just-read list that month was “Burr” by Gore Vidal.

In 1985 Gore Vidal was famous for being an American patrician with progressive political views that he broadcast widely and fearlessly.

In “Burr”, Vidal did something new and daring, he portrayed the Founding Fathers, (people that, in my Brit view of history, I’d always seen as self-seeking rebels, oath-breakers and slavers who had betrayed their King) as real people with flaws and feuds and personal ambitions, rather than as the A Team that created America.

It’s hard now to understand how new this was at the time. You just weren’t supposed to talk about the Founding Fathers that way.

“Burr” is a fictional account of Aaron Burr who, in real-life  ran for President  in 1800 , losing to Thomas Jefferson, who made him Vice President. While in office, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and left politics.

I’d never heard of Burr when I read the book. I thought Vidal had made him up. Perhaps, in most important senses, he did.  This is a novel about history and politics, not a history book. What matters is how it reads and the impact of the story.

What I remember most about “Burr” was how realistic it seemed and how well written it was. Gore Vidal is a wonderful story-teller, with an unfailing insight into people and their weaknesses and a first-hand knowledge of the dirty-dealing side of American politics. Some may find the novel cynical in the hypocrisies it exposes in those shaping America. I felt it showed how human they were and that something new and powerful can be created without the creators having to be perfect.

I went on to read a number of Vidal’s novels. Almost all of them sparkled.

If you like books that bring history alive and make you think about it,without ever being boring, give this one a try.













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