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.