One of the forces involved in the recent heating up of the perennial American-history wars was the brilliant critical and popular success, during the 1970s and early 1980s, of the first three books in Gore Vidal’s six-volume “American Chronicle” series of historical novels about the United States. Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), andLincoln (1984) were enormous successes. They proved beyond any doubt that the public would not rise up in indignation and smite any author who dared to question the motives and the wisdom of even the most venerated American presidents. They proved that there was, in fact, a substantial market for just such skepticism about the glorious American past.
Partisans of the America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace mythology attacked Vidal’s novels, of course, but Vidal made it quite clear in a couple of detailed replies to his critics (first published in the New York Review of Books) that he knew at least as much about the history of the periods he depicted in his novels as any of them did — PhD’s and members of the professoriate though they might be.
Gore Vidal was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was educated in expensive private schools in and around Washington DC. He grew up around politics. His father was a high ranking official in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, the agency known today as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His maternal grandfather, who lived in the Vidal family home, was the venerable, sightless US senator Thomas Pryor Gore (D-Oklahoma), and Vidal recalls the daily ritual of being
sent with car and driver to pick up my grandfather at the Capitol and bring him home. In those casual days [ca. 1935–1937], there were few guards at the Capitol — and, again, [“Washington was a small town where”] everyone knew everyone else. I would wander on to the floor of the Senate, sit on my grandfather’s desk if he wasn’t ready to go, experiment with the snuff that was ritually allotted each senator; then I would lead him off the floor.
In his 30s, after years as an author of modern mainstream novels, a scenarist for motion pictures and television, and an intellectual journalist, Vidal decided to try his hand at historical fiction. Given his early political background, Vidal might well have been expected to focus his new historical fiction on the politics and diplomacy of the times he sought to depict. And that is precisely what he did. His first historical novel was Julian (1964), a portrait of the Roman emperor who attempted to reverse his nation’s official adoption of Christianity as the state religion, in hopes of reverting to the long-discarded paganism of earlier days. His second historical novel, Washington DC (1967), takes place in this nation’s capital between 1937 and 1952 and depicts the major events of that time — the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Second World War, the death of FDR, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the McCarthy Era — as they might have been seen by politicians and journalists plying their crafts on the shores of the Potomac during those years. This second historical novel has its admirers, but it seems fair to say that its principal importance lies not in its text but rather in what it led to. For it was the first step in the creation of Vidal’s American Chronicle, a series of historical novels whose phenomenal success makes it worthwhile to contemplate at some length. It may fairly be said, I believe, that no success on this scale has been enjoyed by any historical novelist writing with serious artistic and scholarly intent about America since — well, since the days of Kenneth Roberts.
Consider: The first of Vidal’s American Chronicle novels (Burr) was the fifth-biggest fiction bestseller of 1973; it was so successful that three years later the Book of the Month Club acquired its sequel, 1876, “sight unseen” and before the manuscript had even been completed; and the club’s gamble paid off handsomely, for, upon publication, “1876 quickly went to the top of the bestseller list.” In 1984, when the third volume in the series, Lincoln, was published, Vidal found that he was faced with another “huge bestseller,” another “critical success, reinforced by … immense sales.” Four years after its first publication, Lincoln was adapted as a made-for-TV movie. In the ’90s all three of these novels (the first three in the series) were confirmed as modern classics by being reissued in Modern Library editions. The later volumes in the series enjoyed less spectacular sales than the first three, but all the novels have sold briskly, and the entire American Chronicle enterprise has been a profitable one, both for Vidal and for his publishers and producers.
But I get ahead of my story. Let us pause, then, and examine more closely this American Chronicle series of Vidal’s.
I: Burr and Lincoln
Washington DC (1967) was followed six years later by Burr (1973), which covers the period 1775 to 1840 as it was lived and understood by the notorious Aaron Burr. Another three years went by, and Vidal published 1876 (1976), portraying the events leading up to and immediately following the hotly contested presidential election campaign of the US centennial year, which pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.
It was nearly a decade before Vidal would add another volume to the American Chronicle series. That next volume was the celebrated Lincoln (1984), which follows events in Washington from Abraham Lincoln’s surreptitious arrival in the city to be inaugurated for his first term in the White House to his assassination scarcely four years later. Lincoln was followed, in quick succession, byEmpire (1987), which focuses on the years 1898 to 1906, and Hollywood (1990), which focuses on US involvement in World War I and its immediate aftermath — the years 1917 to 1923. Then, after a decade of work unrelated to the American Chronicle, Vidal published the final volume of the series,The Golden Age (2000). Oddly, this volume does not depict a previously undramatized period of years. As Harry Kloman puts it, “Rather than simply taking place after Washington DC — which covers the years 1937 to 1952 — The Golden Age loops back to re-cover the same years, 1939 to 1954.” It also features almost all of the same characters. And, of course, the major historical events in the two novels are the same. As Kloman writes, The Golden Age “is the narrative Washington DC might have been had Vidal written the books chronologically.” Thus “You might think of the new book as an alternative version of the older one.” Kloman points out that “when Vidal published Washington DC in 1967, he had no plan to tell America’s story from the Revolutionary War through the present.” Accordingly, he counsels, “now that Vidal has completed the series, one might just consider it to be six books in length, with Washington DC standing off to the side, in part an accidental beginning to a Chronicle that it no longer fits, and in part an alternative conclusion that’s more literary and introspective than historical.”
In the following pages, I take Kloman’s advice: I use the term “American Chronicle” to refer to the following set of six novels, arranged and discussed in correct historical sequence: Burr, Lincoln,1876, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age.
Burr is narrated by a fictional character, Charles Schermerhorn (“Charlie”) Schuyler, a young clerk employed in the New York law office of Aaron Burr. Charlie moonlights as a journalist, writing fairly regularly for the poet William Cullen Bryant, in the latter’s capacity as editor and publisher of the New York Evening Post. It is 1833, Andrew Jackson has just begun his second term in the White House, and the political cognoscenti are already debating who should be his successor. Jackson himself favors his vice president, Martin Van Buren, as does Bryant. But Bryant’s assistant on thePost, William Leggett, is not convinced of Van Buren’s suitability. He has heard rumors that Van Buren is one of Burr’s many illegitimate children, and he believes that a book or pamphlet proving the truth of that rumor to the public’s satisfaction would have the estimable effect of ruining Van Buren’s chances for the presidency. He hires Charlie to research and write such a book or pamphlet.
In the course of his research, Charlie will discover that he himself is one of Colonel Burr’s illegitimate offspring. But in the beginning he thinks of the Colonel as merely his elderly boss (Burr is 77 when the novel begins), who turns out to be more than willing to have his brain picked. He gives Charlie his journal of the Revolutionary War period to read. He dictates his further memoirs to Charlie in a series of meetings, some of them at the law offices where both of them work, some of them in Burr’s home. Burr’s narrative is alternated with Charlie’s own so that the reader is gradually filled in on the history of the United States from the beginning of the Revolution to the last days of the second Jackson administration. This history is not, however, the conventional one which most of Vidal’s readers have presumably had presented to them in school. As Donald E. Pease puts it, what Burr presents in these pages is “an alternate American narrative” in which the founding fathers look somewhat different from the way most readers are accustomed to seeing them. “Instead of finding them to be representative of American civic virtue and American democracy, for example, Burr explains Washington’s belief in a strong central government as an effort to protect his vast landholdings in Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson’s espousal of states’ rights simply as a political strategy to win votes.”
Burr is appalled at what he considers to be Washington’s “incompetence” as a military leader. He notes that Washington “did not read books” and that though he “was always short of money, he lived grandly.” He looks back on Washington as having been “defective in grammar and spelling, owing to a poor education” and as having been “most puritanical.” He speaks derisively of our first president as having been “unable … to organize a sentence that contained a new thought.” He tells Charlie that when “in September 1777 the British out-manoeuvred Washington once again and occupied Philadelphia,”
the Philadelphians did not at all mind the presence of the British army in their city; in fact, many of them hoped that Washington would soon be caught and hanged, putting an end to those disruptions and discomforts which had been set in motion by the ambitions of a number of greedy and vain lawyers shrewdly able to use as cover for their private designs Jefferson’s high-minded platitudes and cloudy political theorizings.
Jefferson makes out no better than Washington in Burr’s eye view. “He was the most charming man I have ever known,” Burr tells Charlie, “as well as the most deceitful.” All in all, in Burr’s view (as imagined by Vidal), Jefferson was a prize hypocrite. “Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women, and those entirely without property),” Burr sneers, “Jefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed of a conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to rule New Orleans against the will of its inhabitants.”
Not only did Jefferson betray his supposed individualist ideals, he refused to fight for them when the time came — at least, as Aaron Burr sees it. “I do remember hearing someone comment,” he tells Charlie, “that since Mr. Jefferson had seen fit to pledge so eloquently our lives to the cause of independence, he might at least join us in the army.” But did he? No. Instead, while Washington’s army suffered at Valley Forge, Jefferson “spent a comfortable winter … at Monticello where, in perfect comfort and serenity, he was able amongst his books to gather his ever-so-fine wool.”Later, when the British army closed in on Richmond,
Governor Jefferson fled to Monticello, leaving the state without an administration. At Monticello he dawdled, thought only of how to transport his books to safety. Not until the first British troops had started up the hill did he and his family again take to their heels. Later Patrick Henry’s faction in the Virginia Assembly demanded an investigation, but fortunately for Jefferson the proud Virginia burgesses did not want to be reminded of the general collapse of their state and so their hapless governor was able to avoid impeachment and censure. He did not, however, avoid ridicule; and that is worse than any formal censure.
Not only was Jefferson a coward and a fraud, according to Burr, he was also “a ruthless man” who “simply wanted to rise to the top. Odd how Jefferson is now thought of as a sort of genius, a Virginia Leonardo. It is true he did a great number of things, from playing the fiddle to building houses to inventing dumb-waiters, but the truth is that he never did any one thing particularly well — except of course the pursuit of power.”
The pursuit of personal power is, however, difficult to reconcile with the ideal of individual liberty proclaimed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, according to Burr, Jefferson never really believed very fervently in such individual liberty. Consider freedom of speech and of the press, for example. Burr quotes Jefferson as having told him in late 1803 or early 1804, that
“in 1789, Madison sent me a copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution, and I wrote him that I thought he should make it clear that although our citizens are allowed to speak or publish whatever they choose, they ought not to be permitted to present false facts which might affect injuriously the life, liberty, property or reputation of others or affect the national peace with regard to foreign nations. Just the other day I reminded Madison of that sad omission in our Constitution, and he agreed that today’s monstrouspress is a direct result of the careless way the First Amendment was written.”
Still, as Burr relates it, Jefferson did not advocate federal action against members of the press who published “false facts.” On the contrary. “As usual, Jefferson had a way around the difficulty.… ‘Since the federal government has no constitutional power over the press, the states can then devise their own laws.'”
Perhaps worst of all (at least in the eyes of some), there was the matter of Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings — or, as Burr refers to her, “Jefferson’s concubine Sally, by whom he had at least five children.” Sally was an illegitimate daughter of John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, Burr tells Charlie, “which made her the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.… Amusing to contemplate that in bedding his fine-looking slave, Jefferson was also sleeping with his sister-in-law! One would have enjoyed hearing him moralize on that subject.”
Nor are Washington and Jefferson the only Founding Fathers to rank low in Aaron Burr’s estimate. There is also Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr had met and befriended during the Revolution — or so, at any rate, he tells Charlie. As the years passed, however, the two men not only grew apart but also came more and more regularly into conflict. In the end, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. Burr does not explain to Charlie why he called Hamilton out, but an old friend of Burr’s, Sam Swartwout, the customs collector of the port of New York, does the job for him. Hamilton, Swartwout tells Charlie, had accused Burr, a widower, of living in incest with his lovely, intelligent, and accomplished daughter.
The 1804 duel with Hamilton is perhaps the most famous event in Burr’s life. The second most famous is probably his arrest and trial, four years later, on charges of treason. As Burr tells Charlie the latter story, it reminds him (unsurprisingly) of Jefferson’s hypocrisy and lust for power. According to Burr, Jefferson tried to suspend habeas corpus so he could continue to hold two of Burr’s alleged associates in a military prison and “beyond the reach of the Constitution.” In his defense, Jefferson argued that “on great occasions, every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it.” His political opponents, Jefferson acknowledged, “will try to make something of the infringement of liberty by the military arrest and deportation of citizens, but if it does not go beyond such offenders as Swartwout, Bollman, Burr, Blennerhassett, etc., they will be supported by the public approbation.” Burr’s summary of Jefferson’s view is succinct and unsparing. “In other words,” he tells Charlie, “if public opinion is not unduly aroused one may safely set aside the Constitution and illegally arrest one’s enemies.”
In the next novel in Vidal’s series, Lincoln, another president employs the same tactics, and justifies his actions in a very similar way. It is now more than 50 years after Jefferson’s abortive attempt to suspend habeas corpus. Abraham Lincoln is making war against the Southern states that seceded from the Union at the beginning of his first term in the White House. In his attempt to ensure that Maryland does not join those seceded states, he imposes martial law, orders the arrest of “anyone who takes up arms — or incites others to take up arms, against the Federal government,” and orders further that those arrested be held “indefinitely without ever charging them with any offense.” His justification is reminiscent of the one Burr attributes to Jefferson, who spoke of “the public preservation.” “The most ancient of all our human characteristics is survival,” Lincoln tells his secretary of state, William H. Seward. “In order that this Union survive, I have found it necessary to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, but only in the military zone.” As Lincoln sees it, he is merely exercising what he calls the “inherent powers” of the presidency when he takes actions of this kind. And, as he tells Seward, “An inherent power … is just as much a power as one that has been spelled out.”
Lincoln is not narrated in the first person as Burr is. Rather it is narrated in the third person — not an “omniscient” third person, but one whose point of view hops around among a short list of important characters: Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay; Secretary of State Seward; Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase; First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; and David Herold, the pharmacist’s clerk and Southern sympathizer who was later convicted of conspiring successfully with John Wilkes Booth and others to assassinate Lincoln early in his second term in office.
The Lincoln thus presented might well be expected to resemble the proverbial elephant as observed by several different blind men. But in fact Vidal’s Lincoln is much more coherent than that, for his observers are not blind. They differ widely in their opinions and interpretations of what they see, but what they see is identifiably the same man. Harold Bloom looks at Vidal’s Lincoln and sees “a minority President, elected with less than 40 percent of the total vote.”
Though his election committed him only to barring the extension of slavery to the new states, and though he was a moderate Republican and not an Abolitionist, Lincoln was violently feared by most of the South. Vidal’s opening irony, never stated but effectively implied, is that the South beheld the true Lincoln long before Lincoln’s own cabinet.… The South feared an American Cromwell, and in Vidal’s vision, the South actually helped produce an American Bismarck.
Vidal’s Lincoln, says Donald E. Pease, is “interested mostly in self-aggrandizement,” though his interest in sex was sufficient in his younger years that he “contracted syphilis from a prostitute and communicated this disease to his wife and children.” To Fred Kaplan, Vidal’s Lincoln is “a pragmatic and manipulative politician with one overriding vision: to save the Union and by saving it to transform it into a modern, industrialized, national state so powerfully and tightly coherent that nothing can tear it apart again.”
This mania for “saving the Union” cannot be overestimated as a central factor in the motivations and behavior of Vidal’s Lincoln. As Bloom notes, Vidal’s Lincoln is “a respecter of neither the states, nor the Congress, nor the Court, nor the parties, nor even the Constitution itself.” Pease makes the same point when he writes that “Vidal’s Lincoln is a political heretic who believes in none of the political instruments supportive of union (the Congress, the Courts, the Constitution) except insofar as they can supplement his will to absolute executive power.”
Vidal’s Lincoln is also no Great Emancipator. Vidal’s Lincoln, as Pease points out, “believes the emancipation of slaves entails their exportation to the West Indies or Liberia.” For, as Kaplan notes, though he is “opposed to slavery, Lincoln does not believe slavery an issue worth fighting about.” Vidal’s Lincoln tells the assembled delegates of the Southern Peace Conference that met with him shortly after his election that “I will do what I can to give assurance and reassurance to the Southern states that we mean them no harm. It is true that I was elected to prevent the extension of slavery to the new territories of the Union. But what is now the status quo in the Southern states is beyond my power — or desire — ever to alter.” “I have never been an abolitionist,” he tells his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. To a delegation of black freemen that comes to meet him at the White House, Vidal’s Lincoln declares that “your race is suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves you are still a long way from being placed on an equality with the white race.” His secretary, John Hay, sitting in on the meeting, reflects that the president “was unshaken in his belief that the colored race was inferior to the white.”
The fact that Lincoln had always found it difficult to accept any sort of natural equality between the races stemmed, Hay thought, from his own experience as a man born with no advantage of any kind, who had then gone to the top of the world. Lincoln had no great sympathy for those who felt that external circumstances had held them back.
Early in his second term, Vidal’s Lincoln informs Congressman Elihu Washburne (R-Illinois) of his intention to “reimburse the slave-owners” for their freed slaves. This, he tells Washburne, “will … be a quick way of getting money into the South for reconstruction.” In addition to the money he’ll need for that plan, he adds, “we’ll need money to colonize as many Negroes as we can in Central America.” Washburne is somewhat astonished that the president still favors such a plan. “When you get hold of an idea,” he says to Lincoln, “you don’t ever let it go, do you?” Lincoln replies: “Not until I find a better one. Can you imagine what life in the South will be like if the Negroes stay?”
Vidal’s Lincoln is firm in his belief that slave-owners should be compensated for their loss and that the freed slaves should be deported. He is also firm in his belief that both these issues are merely tangential to the war raging between the United States and the Confederate States. Late in 1861, when the rogue Union general John C. Frémont declares martial law in Missouri (a border state) and announces that he will “confiscate the property of all secessionists, including their slaves, who were to be freed,” Vidal’s Lincoln declares “with anguish, to Seward, ‘This is a war for a great national idea, the Union, and now Frémont has tried to drag the Negro into it!'” As Vidal sees it, this understanding of the war was not only Lincoln’s, but also that of other prominent Americans of the time. Early in 1863, for example, not long after the president has delivered his annual message to Congress, Vidal’s John Hay finds himself in conversation with the lawyer, diplomat, and newspaperman Charles Eames (1812–1867), who assures him that “what the war is about” is “the principle that the Union cannot be dissolved, ever.” Later that year, when Union forces under General George G. Meade finally won a decisive victory over Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Meade telegraphed the White House, according to Vidal’s account, that he now looked “to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” Vidal’s Lincoln does not like Meade’s choice of words. “Of course, Pennsylvania is our soil,” he tells Hay. “But so is Virginia. So are the Carolinas. So is Texas. They are forever our soil. That is what the war is about and these damned fools cannot grasp it; or will not grasp it. The whole country is our soil. I cannot fathom such men.”
Fully in keeping with this understanding of what the war is all about is Lincoln’s view of how reconstruction should be handled once the war is won. The Radical Republicans take the formation of the Confederate States of America at face value: “the states in rebellion were out of the Union and should be treated as an enemy nation’s conquered provinces.”
But Lincoln’s line was unwavering. The Union was absolutely indivisible. No state could ever leave it; therefore no state had ever left it. Certain rebellious elements had seen fit to make war against the central government, but when those elements were put down all would be as it was and the Southern states would send representatives to Congress, exactly as they had done in the past.
But, of course, after the war, nothing was as it was before the war. Not only had 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict, but another 400,000 were wounded, many of whom were crippled for life. Altogether, nearly 1,000,000 Americans were casualties of the war, out of a total population of a little more than 31,000,000. If 3 percent of the current US population were to be killed or wounded in a war, we would be looking at nearly 9,000,000 casualties. There was also extensive property damage, particularly in the South — damage so extensive it would be many decades before anything resembling a full economic recovery could be said to have taken place there. Perhaps most important of all, in Vidal’s version of the years 1861–1865, a series of precedents was laid down by the Lincoln administration which, in the years ahead, would justify the steady erosion of individual liberty in the United States.
For Vidal’s Lincoln does not limit his assault on the Constitution to the suspension of habeas corpus. He tells Seward not long after his first inauguration, “Yesterday, at three in the afternoon, I ordered every US marshal in the country to seize the original of every telegram that has been sent and a copy of every telegram that has been received in the last twelve months.” Seward wonders aloud about “the legal basis for this seizure,” and Lincoln answers, “The broader powers inherent in the Constitution.” Vidal’s Lincoln censors the press, locking up editors who oppose his policies. Vidal’s Baron Gerolt, the Prussian minister to Washington, tells Seward that his own boss, Otto von Bismarck, “very much admires the way that you arrest editors but he dares not do the same in Prussia because he says that, unlike you, he is devoted to freedom of speech.” That Vidal’s Lincoln is not in fact devoted to freedom of speech is made evident by his action against the former Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, who “held that Lincoln’s war measures were illegal and unConstitutional [sic] and so far worse than the defection of the Southern States.” Vidal’s Lincoln has Vallandigham arrested and forcibly exiled to the Confederacy. Vidal’s Lincoln threatens to place New York City under martial law to suppress opposition to the nation’s first military conscription law. Vidal’s Seward reflects in 1864 that there is now “a single-minded dictator in the White House, a Lord Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted” and that “Lincoln had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid backwoods lawyer.” Charlie Schuyler, the narrator of Burr, reappears briefly in a couple of scenes in Lincoln, and, in the novel’s closing pages, observes to John Hay that Bismarck “has now done the same thing to Germany that you tell us Mr. Lincoln did to our country.”
II: 1876, Empire, and Hollywood
1876, the third novel in Vidal’s American Chronicle series, is once again narrated in the first person by Charlie Schuyler (now in his early 60s), who has returned to the United States after spending 30 years in Europe, first as a member of the diplomatic corps, then as the husband of an independently wealthy member of a noble family. His wife is now long dead, Charlie’s money has run out, and his wealthy son-in-law’s recent, unexpected departure from this world (followed by the discovery of his carefully concealed penury), has left him responsible once more for his accomplished daughter, Emma, whom he had thought well married and safely provided for. Charlie has continued to dabble in journalism over the years, has even published a book or two. So he and Emma come back to the United States in 1875 on a triple errand: Charlie will attempt to earn a sufficient amount from freelance writing for newspapers and magazines to support the two of them in decent style; Charlie will meanwhile do what he can to help New York Governor Samuel Tilden get himself elected president in the upcoming 1876 election (and to persuade Tilden to send Charlie right back to Paris as US ambassador to France); and Charlie will also see if he can find another, comparably well fixed husband for his daughter. In the course of covering both the presidential campaign and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and in the course of marketing his daughter to financially qualified suitors, Charlie meets and profiles numerous luminaries of the period — Tilden, Republican congressman and presidential aspirant James G. Blaine, Republican senator and presidential aspirant Roscoe Conkling, Chester Alan Arthur (the customs collector of the port of New York), President U.S. Grant, journalist Charles Nordhoff, and Mark Twain among them — but the emphasis here is not, as it was in Burr and Lincoln, on the sayings and doings of these actual historical figures. Nor does Vidal’s vision of these famous people conflict with the conventional understanding of them in the way that his vision of Lincoln and the Founding Fathers does. He presents the Grant administration as riddled with corruption, but this is a commonplace. He portrays Tilden as the legitimate winner of the 1876 election, who was defrauded of his rightful presidency by the Republican Party and the US Supreme Court — but this is another commonplace. The emphasis in1876 is on the imaginary characters, on Charlie and Emma and on the rich new husband they find for her, William Sanford.
In terms of historical chronology, Sanford made his first appearance in the American Chronicle in the pages of Lincoln, where he was seen as a wealthy young Union captain, an aide to General Irvin McDowell, who devoted his spare time to romancing Kate Chase, daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. “I plan to leave the army the first of the year,” Sanford tells Kate late in 1862. “We could go to France. There is a house there I’ve had my eye on since before the war. At St. Cloud, near Paris. We could have a wonderful life. I’d study music. You could be at court, if you wanted that.”
Kate doesn’t take Sanford up on his offer. Instead she marries the equally wealthy, if somewhat drunken, senator from (formerly governor of) Rhode Island, William Sprague. Sanford moves on, then meets and marries another woman, who turns up in 1876 as the delightful Denise Sanford, another of the imaginary characters whose sayings and doings dominate the pages of this third novel in Vidal’s series. Denise becomes pregnant, then dies in childbirth; the Sanfords’ infant son Blaise is spared. Within weeks, Sanford has wooed and wed Emma. Within a year, she herself is dead in childbirth, leaving behind a daughter, Caroline de Traxler Sanford, the illegitimate great-granddaughter of Aaron Burr.
As the fourth novel in Vidal’s series, Empire, opens, the year is 1898 and Caroline is 20. She attends a luncheon party which also includes John Hay, Henry James, and Henry Adams. Hay and Adams are familiar to us from Lincoln, in which Hay functioned as one of Lincoln’s two secretaries, and as an important point-of-view character, and in which Adams functioned as Hay’s young friend, scion of the famous Adams family but determined to make it on his own as a journalist. Hay is about to be appointed secretary of state by Republican president William McKinley, who has just led the nation to victory against Spain in the Spanish-American War. We learn that Caroline’s father has just died and that she and her half-brother Blaise are quarrelling over the estate. In an effort to gain leverage over her brother, Caroline appropriates some valuable paintings from their family home, sells them, and uses the proceeds to buy a dying daily, the Washington Tribune, which she proceeds to transform into a journalistic success story. She does so, in no small part, by carefully following the lessons never spelled out but always implied by the successive triumphs of Blaise’s employer, William Randolph Hearst. Thus, though Blaise works as Hearst’s personal assistant, and though he lusts to own a paper in his own right, it is his half-sister who proves to be Hearst’s more talented student.
Caroline runs the Tribune alone for seven years, during which time she becomes pregnant by a young, married congressman, James Burden Day, and quickly marries an impecunious cousin to provide her daughter Emma with an official father and herself with an official mate, sparing Day a scandal that might ruin his career, settling her husband’s many troublesome debts, and never revealing, either to her husband or to her daughter, the identity of Emma’s actual father. After she finally collects her inheritance, Caroline brings Blaise into her newspaper operation as copublisher. She decides to invest in real estate in Georgetown, despite the fact that it is “still mostly Negro,” because “here and there, 18th-century townhouses were being restored by the canny white rich. Caroline had taken two row houses and knocked them into one.”
It is not long, however, before Caroline is living only part time in Georgetown. By 1917, asHollywood, the fifth novel in Vidal’s series, opens, she is adopting a new identity, as silent film actress Emma Traxler, and a second part-time home, this one in Los Angeles. Blaise, meanwhile, has also married and produced children, the younger of whom, Peter Sanford, will follow his father into journalism, except that he will eschew the world of newspapers for the world of magazines, devoting his career to a journal of analysis and opinion called The American Idea. In the epilogue ofThe Golden Age, the sixth and final volume of Vidal’s American Chronicle, it is the turn of the 21st century and the now elderly Peter Sanford is being interviewed, along with his friend Gore Vidal, at Vidal’s home in Italy for a TV documentary. The producer-interviewer who is putting the documentary together is Aaron Burr (“A. B.”) Decker, grandson of Caroline’s daughter Emma and thus great-great-great-great-grandson of the original Aaron Burr, with whose story the series began.
The last three novels of the series focus more attention on the sayings and doings of the Sanford family, James Burden Day, and other imaginary figures, and comparatively less on the historical events and personages of the times in which they take place. The three are, in fact, all of a piece with respect to this issue. Fred Kaplan tells us that Vidal had originally planned for the first two of these three novels to be a single book:
Through much of 1985–86 he had worked on Manifest Destiny, the tentative title of the next novel in his American history series. When the manuscript became too long, he used much of it under the title Empire … published in June 1987.… The remainder became the core of Empire‘s successor, Hollywood, which was published in February 1990.
Harry Kloman suggests that Empire is overly “concerned with frivolities, name-dropping, and gossipy historical deconstruction,” and Andrew Sullivan faults The Golden Age in very similar terms:
The characters in the novel — writers, senators, proprietors of political magazines and their countless relatives — are all so well-heeled that their conversation … amounts to little more than chatter.… At times the book reads like one of those interminable Vanity Fairpieces about cocktail parties in the 1950s given by society hostesses no one but a complete snob would give a hoot about.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that all this frivolous chatter and gossipy name dropping is not entirely irrelevant to Vidal’s purpose in the American Chronicle series. For a large part of that purpose is to make certain points about journalism — as a shaper of the historical record, as an influence on public opinion, and as a center of social power. Journalism is a prominent presence throughout the American Chronicle, as are individual journalists, both real ones like William Cullen Bryant, Henry Adams, and William Randolph Hearst and invented ones like Caroline, Blaise, and Peter Sanford. The sayings and doings of these journalists do have thematic significance, however frivolous they may seem at certain times and to certain readers. Indeed, it might be argued that their very frivolity and superficiality are meant to tell us something about journalists and journalism in the abstract.
Also, though the last three novels in the series do focus to a greater extent than the first three on the sayings and doings of imaginary journalists, they are by no means limited entirely to depictions of these journalists. The politicians who figured large between 1898 and 1954 are depicted also, and in ways that differ markedly from more conventional accounts of the period. Secretary of State John Hay, for example, minces no words in describing the frank racism and imperialism behind the foreign policy he recommends to President McKinley, when the latter seeks his guidance on the matter of the Philippines, newly “liberated” from Spain. “I have always thought,” Vidal’s Hay says,
“that it was the task of the Anglo-Saxon races, specifically England, now shrinking, and ourselves expanding, to civilize and to,” Hay took a deep breath and played his best if most specious card, “Christianize the less developed races of the world. I know that England is counting on us to continue their historic role, and they believe, as I believe, that the two of us together can manage the world until Asia wakes up, long after we’re gone, I pray, but with our help now, a different sort of Asia, a Christian Asia, civilized by us, and so a reflection of what was best in our race once history has seen fit to replace us.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Vidal’s Hay also assures the president that he has mercantilist as well as racist and imperialist reasons for believing the United States should hold onto the Philippines. “The European powers are getting ready to divide up China,” he tells McKinley. “We’ll lose valuable markets if they do, but if we are entrenched nearby, in the Philippines, we could keep the sea lanes open to China, keep the Germans and the Russians and the Japanese from upsetting the world’s balance of power.”
Hay’s views are shared fully by the bellicose governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, who is destined to become McKinley’s second vice president a scant two years later, and, after McKinley’s assassination only a few months into his second term, the youngest man ever to have assumed the American presidency up to that time. “Have you read Admiral Mahan on sea-power?” Vidal’s Roosevelt demands of Blaise Sanford during an interview. “Published nine years ago. An eye-opener. I reviewed it in the Atlantic Monthly. We are fast friends. Without sea-power, no British empire. Without sea-power, no American empire, though we don’t use the word ’empire’ because the tender-minded can’t bear it.” Then the governor really gets going.
Roosevelt was now marching rapidly in a circle at the center of the room. He had been seized by a speech. As he spoke, he used all the tricks that he would have used and [sic] had Blaise been ten thousand people at Madison Square Garden. Arms rose and fell; the head was thrown back as if it were an exclamation mark; right fist struck left hand to mark the end of one perfected argument, and the beginning of the next. “The degeneracy of the Malay race is a fact. We start with that. We can do them only good. They can do themselves only harm. When the likes of Carnegie tells us that they are fighting for independence, I say any argument you make for the Filipino you could make for the Apache. Every word that could be said for Aguinaldo could be said for Sitting Bull. The Indians could not be civilized any more than the Filipinos can. They stand in the path of civilization.”
“I speak now only of savages,” Vidal’s Roosevelt insists.
“When Mr. Seward acquired Alaska, did we ask for the consent of the Eskimos? We did not. When the Indian tribes went into rebellion in Florida, did Andrew Johnson offer them a citizenship for which they were not prepared? No, he offered them simple justice. Which is what we shall mete out to our little brown brothers in the Philippines. Justice and civilization will be theirs if they but seize the opportunity. We shall keep the islands!“
Later, after he has become president and asked Hay to stay on as secretary of state, Vidal’s Roosevelt defends the diplomatic and military chicanery by means of which he obtained the right of way through Panama to build a canal in that Central American country. “The point, John, is that we have done something useful for our country. Our fleets can go back and forth, quickly, between Atlantic and Pacific.” Hay is perplexed. “You see a future so filled with war?” he asks the president. And Vidal’s Roosevelt replies, “Yes, I do.… I also see our own mission, which is to lead where once England led, but on a world scale.”
Still later, when President Woodrow Wilson has led the United States into involvement in World War I, Vidal’s Roosevelt shows up at the White House to offer to lead a volunteer division in France. While there, he takes the opportunity to offer the president some advice on his conduct of the war. He points out to the president that “the German-language press … has been, from the beginning, disloyal to this country. I would, as a military necessity, shut all those papers down.” Wilson is taken somewhat aback. “Isn’t this — arbitrary?” he asks Roosevelt. “Surely, they are guaranteed the same freedoms –” But Roosevelt cuts him off. “This is war, Mr. President. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, shut down newspapers, and we’ll have to do the same….” Nor is this all he recommends to the startled president. “Many would-be traitors — German sympathizers — pretend to be peace-lovers, to be — what’s their phrase? — ‘conscientious objectors.’ Well, I would treat them conscientiously! I would deny them the vote. If they are of military age and refuse to fight for their country, then they must forgo their citizenship.”
Vidal’s Wilson, for his part, a “professional historian, who preferred the British parliamentary system to the American executive system,” is not at all averse to the idea of helping the British with just about anything they might want to undertake. Once he decides to intervene in World War I to aid the British, he follows Roosevelt’s advice and harshly censors the press. But he finds to his sorrow that, even with his critics silenced, there is insufficient public support for his war. As a result, there are “too few volunteers.” He has a solution, though: “We must conscript the young men. Draft them. Find a new word for draft, if necessary, but no matter what the word, there is so little time to do so much in.” Accordingly, Vidal’s Wilson wastes no time in making sure that “conscription was … swift and absolute and under another name. On June 5, ten million men between twenty-one and thirty had been registered under the National Defense Act for ‘selective service’ in the armed services, which sounded rather better than, say, cannon fodder in France.”
III: Hollywood and The Golden Age
Wilson’s successors in the White House, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover, are both much more wary of foreign entanglements. (Vidal pays short shrift to Calvin Coolidge, who served between Harding and Hoover, perhaps because Coolidge merely carried out Harding’s foreign policies.) Blaise Sanford looks at Harding and muses that
the fact that Harding’s career had been one of astonishing success could not be ascribed solely to brute luck or animal charm. Without luck and charm, Harding would probably not have had a political career. But he had had the luck and the charm and something else as well, hard to define because he was so insistently modest.
So modest is Vidal’s Harding that he publicly gives all credit for his administration’s triumph at the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference in 1921 to his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes. In fact, as Vidal tells it, all Hughes had done was “read off the particulars of Harding’s secret plan,” under which “the United States was willing to scrap thirty capital ships” and “Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy were invited to rid themselves of close to two million tons of war-ships.”
Harding had figured that if any word of his plan were to leak to the press, military expansionists everywhere would have time to rally public opinion against disarmament. Hence the thunderbolt, hurled by Hughes in the presence of the benign presidential author. It was Harding’s theory that once world opinion was appealed to, there would be no way for the various governments to back down.
Harding’s theory proved correct. His “gamble paid off. The world was enthralled, and in the course of a single morning Harding became the central figure on the world’s stage, and the most beloved.”
Herbert Hoover, who entered the White House as president six years after Harding’s sudden death, attempted to continue his predecessor’s peace-loving foreign policy, only to be brought up short by the machinations of his own secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson. Stimson, according to Vidal’s Hoover,
“wanted to make all Asia our responsibility. That means if the Japanese would not let go of Manchuria, we would go to war with them. When I realized what he was up to, I called a Cabinet meeting and read Henry the riot act. I agreed that although Japanese behavior on the mainland of Asia was deplorable, we were in no way threatened, economically or morally.”
Making war under such circumstances is repugnant to Vidal’s Hoover. “I would never sacrifice any American life anywhere,” he states forthrightly, “unless we ourselves were directly threatened.” “People forget,” Vidal’s Hoover complains, “that when I was elected president we were occupying most of Central America and the Caribbean. I pulled the Marines out of Haiti, out of Nicaragua, and then when our war lovers insisted that we invade Cuba and Panama and Honduras, I said no.”
After 1932, Hoover is helpless to prevent war so easily, for he has been voted out of office and replaced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a distant cousin of the earlier, Republican Roosevelt, who had been so bellicose and eager for hostilities. The new, Democratic Roosevelt “goes on and on about how he hates war because he has seen war,” Vidal’s Hoover declares with evident contempt. “As usual, he lies. He toured a battlefield or two after Germany had surrendered. And that was that. He saw no war. Does he hate what he has never experienced? Who knows? But I had to feed the victims of that war and I don’t want anything like that to happen ever again. But Stimson does. Roosevelt does. I find them unfathomable.”
By the time Vidal’s Hoover utters these remarks the two unfathomable creatures at whose motives he so marvels are busily working together, for Roosevelt names Stimson his secretary of war just after winning an unprecedented third term in the White House in November 1940. And thereafter, Vidal’s Stimson and Vidal’s FDR conspire to turn American public opinion around 180 degrees so that it will favor the course they themselves fervently advocate: US intervention in the European war that began in 1939. Another of their co-conspirators is Harry Hopkins, the former social worker turned presidential confidante and adviser. “A principal architect of the New Deal, as the president’s largely unsuccessful plan to end the Depression was called, Hopkins was the man in the shadows, forever whispering into the president’s ear, as they experimented with programs and secretly manipulated friends and enemies.” And, as luck would have it, Hopkins also becomes a close friend of Caroline Sanford, who returns to Washington in 1939, at the beginning of The Golden Age. She is 60 and has spent the last decade in Europe, but is now bent on playing an active part once again in the daily publication of the Washington Tribune. Her friendship with Hopkins makes her privy to much interesting information.
There is no way,” Hopkins tells Caroline,
“that we — this administration anyway — will let England go down. We can always handle the isolationists here at home … with some protective camouflage for Churchill, for England. The fact is they haven’t been a great power since 1914. But we all kept pretending they were until Hitler came along. Up till then the whole thing has been a sort of bluff. That’s why we keep going on about a special relationship between the English-speaking nations … disguising the fact that we are the world empire now and they are simply a client state. A bunch of offshore islands. Certainly they are close to us in many ways, but they aren’t necessary to us. To be blunt, we can survive — even thrive — without them, which is the wicked wisdom of the intelligent isolationists who are not just for America First, as they like to say in their speeches, but for Amerika über Alles.”
The question is how the president is going to involve the United States in the European war, coming to the aid of the British, when most Americans clearly oppose such an intervention. Former US senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, the blind politician turned out of office in 1936 by his constituents (perhaps for his outspoken criticism of the popular, if “largely unsuccessful,” New Deal), remains in Washington, where he has spent so much of his career, practicing law, talking politics with his numerous friends in and around the District, and relying on his grandson, Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr. (who will later become famous as the novelist, playwright, and essayist Gore Vidal), as an assistant and guide around the Capitol. In a conversation with the fictitious Senator James Burden Day, Vidal’s Gore declares unequivocally that “the President has a plan, even some sort of timetable,” and that he is “provoking Japan into attacking us so he can live up to his campaign promise that, if elected, no sons of yours will ever fight in a foreign war — unless, of course, we are attacked.” In that event, if the attacker were Japan, not only would “the nation … be willing to enter the war,” but the United States would also be involved in the European conflict, “because Germany and Italy would have to honor their military treaty with Japan.”
“It’s a very clever game.” Gore’s one glass eye had strayed northward, while the blind eye was half shut. “Eighty percent of our people don’t want us to go back to Europe for a second world war and nothing will ever persuade them, no matter how many of our ships the Germans sink. So we at least learned that lesson from last time. But to get the Japanese to strike first is true genius — wicked genius.”
Hopkins instructs Caroline on the wisdom of this plan. “It is wisest for the President to let them make the first move. We think they’ll attack Manila, and if by some miracle they should manage to blow up that horse’s ass MacArthur, our cup will truly runneth over.” Even if they don’t blow up MacArthur, however, “there’s no going to war unless all your people are united behind you. Well, they are nowhere near united even though we keep losing ship after ship to the Nazis and no one blinks an eye. So we must take one great blow and then…”
Hopkins pauses and Caroline prompts him by asking, “Then what?”
“Then we go for it,” Hopkins replies. “All of it. And get it.”
“What is it?” Caroline demands, frustrated.
“The world,” Hopkins tells her. “What else is there for us to have?”
Vidal’s Roosevelt succeeds in provoking the Japanese into an attack on Pearl Harbor. He succeeds too in concealing his foreknowledge of this event from the naval command in Hawaii, thereby insuring that the “one great blow” his nation must take is a great one indeed — great enough, devastating enough, to bring about the complete turnaround in public opinion that is necessary for the president to take the nation into a foreign war without committing political suicide in the process. However, FDR does not live to see the end of the war he leads his nation into. That pleasure falls to his successor, the unassuming Missouri haberdasher Harry S. Truman. And Truman minces no words in making it clear that he favors precisely the sort of United States–dominated world envisioned by Roosevelt and Hopkins. When Blaise Sanford’s son Peter covers one of Truman’s early speeches on foreign policy for his magazine The American Idea, he finds that
the President not only briskly assumed for the United States global primacy but made it clear that from this moment forward the United States could and would interfere in the political arrangements of any nation on earth because “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressure.”
On the other hand, this is not to say that everything in President Truman’s foreign policy would have met with the approval of either Roosevelt or Hopkins. On the contrary. As Hopkins puts it to Caroline,
“Henry Wallace says Harry will agree with you before you’ve actually said what you mean. Then he’ll go around telling everyone he gave you hell. Now it looks like he wants to give Stalin hell. That’s bad news. The Boss was always willing to treat Stalin in a normal way. As the head of the other great world power. That’s why Stalin trusted him, to the extent Russians ever trust anybody. Then Harry goes off to Potsdam and starts to renege on every agreement we made at Yalta. All because he’s got the atomic bomb and they don’t. So we’re going to have a very expensive arms race and trouble everywhere.”
In summary, then, Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle novels tell a tale of American history that would seem passing strange to anyone whose understanding of the subject is confined to what has long been conventionally taught in American public schools and colleges. In Vidal’s American history, the Founding Fathers are not graven saints, but fallible mortals driven as often by vanity, greed, and lust (whether for power or for the flesh of attractive slave girls) as by any belief in the nobility of their cause, and more often bent on benefiting themselves and the members of their social class than on benefiting Americans in general. In Vidal’s American history, Abraham Lincoln preserved the Union at the cost of destroying everything about it that had made it worth preserving — the protections supposedly afforded by the Constitution to the inalienable individual rights of American citizens. In Vidal’s American history, a cabal of racist imperialists had seized control of the federal government within scarcely more than a hundred years of the Constitution’s ratification, and sent its young men on a rampage of international meddling and mass murder that culminated in the total destruction of two Japanese cities. In Vidal’s American history, it was the United States, not the Soviet Union, that launched and then prolonged the Cold War.
Jeff Riggenbach is a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines asReason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach has also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available in Mises Media. Send him mail. See Jeff Riggenbach’s article archives.
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Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.
 As Harry Kloman writes, The Golden Age “is the narrative Washington, D.C. might have been had Vidal written the books chronologically.” Thus “You might think of the new book as an alternative version of the older one.” Kloman points out that “[w]hen Vidal published Washington, D.C. in 1967, he had no plan to tell America’s story from the Revolutionary War through the present.” Accordingly, he counsels,
now that Vidal has completed the series, one might just consider it to be six books in length, withWashington, D.C. standing off to the side, in part an accidental beginning to a Chronicle that it no longer fits, and in part an alternative conclusion that’s more literary and introspective than historical. (Harry Kloman, “Gore Vidal’s American Chronicles: 1967-2000.”)
I take Kloman’s advice: I use the term “American Chronicle” to refer to the following set of six novels, arranged and discussed in correct historical sequence: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age.
 Gore Vidal, “At Home in Washington, D.C.” in At Home: Essays, 1982-1988 (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 6.
 Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 686-687.
 Ibid., pp. 738, 740.
 Donald E. Pease, “America and the Vidal Chronicles” in Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 269.
 Gore Vidal, Burr (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 14.
 Ibid., pp. 55, 56, 58.
 Ibid., p. 83.
 Ibid., pp. 154, 160.
 Ibid., pp. 58, 87.
 Ibid., p. 177.
 Ibid., p. 219.
 Ibid., p. 257.
 Ibid., p. 196.
 Ibid., p. 351.
 Gore Vidal, Lincoln (New York: Random House, 1984), pp. 153, 152.
 Harold Bloom, “The Central Man: On Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” in Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 223-224.
 Pease, op.cit., pp. 272-273.
 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.
 Bloom, op.cit., p. 224.
 Pease, op.cit., p. 272.
 Ibid., p. 272.
 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 740.
 Vidal, Lincoln, op.cit., pp. 38, 556, 356, 635.
 Ibid., pp. 240, 391-392, 447, 448.
 Ibid., pp. 430-431.
 Ibid., pp. 126, 273, 389, 421, 437-438, 457-458, 459, 656.
 Ibid., p. 347.
 Gore Vidal, Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 18.
 Kaplan, op.cit., p. 766.
 Kloman, op.cit.
 Gore Vidal, Empire (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 73.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 127.
 Ibid., p. 129.
 Ibid., p. 130.
 Ibid., pp. 373-374.
 Vidal, Hollywood, op.cit., p. 70-71.
 Ibid., pp. 33, 69, 82.
 Ibid., p. 376.
 Ibid., p. 366.
 Ibid., p. 367.
 Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 166.
 Ibid., pp.166-167.
 Ibid., p. 167.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
 Ibid., p. 172.
 Ibid., p. 173.
 Ibid., p. 195.
 Ibid., p. 307.
 Ibid., p. 262.