In his fictional re-creations of our nation's political life--"Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," "Washington D.C."--Vidal first-named his way from the Revolution and the Jackson era, to the Civil War, to the robber-baron Gilded Age, to a stretch running from the later New Deal into the McCarthy days. In "Empire," just published, he goes back for a missing chunk: the expansionist years of the Spanish American War and Manifest Destiny.
We had met Washington, Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, Col. Blennerhasset--footnotes as well as Big Feet--Lincoln, Seward, Stanton, John Hay, William Cullen Bryant in their historical pajamas. Now we are treated to the table talk and table manners of Teddy Roosevelt, William McKinley, William Randolph Hearst and the two Henrys: Adams and James; along with Vidal's Alexandrian notions of what they all represented. Alexandria as the infinitely disenchanted capital of Old Egypt, that is; not Washington's bedroom suburb.
Vidal's Washington novels began as scribbling. "Washington D.C."--the first to be written, though the most recent in its setting--is sprawling and slack; it makes Alan Drury look elegant. Its major characters include an old senator who is both corrupt and idealistic, a cynical newspaper publisher and an ambitious young politician. Even naming them this way is a camp cliche, like Roy Lichtenstein painting comics. They are made up, and making up characters is not Vidal's strength.
Perhaps writing a truly awful book can be useful in clearing the mind. It was about 10 years before Vidal returned to an American political novel; and this time, he was doing something different and more interesting. He was dramatizing--even more than fictionalizing--his acid notions about the meaning of our history and national character, and using real personages to do it.
Using, appropriating, and sometimes even impersonating. Aaron Burr in the second novel, and one of the best, is thoroughly evoked in the historical detail of his scattered life. Also, clearly enough, he is Vidal. The voice of the failed adventurer, debunking the vain and pompous Washington, the piously devious Jefferson, the self-protective John Marshall and the whole uplift of our constitutional tradition--the Founding Fathers come out as so many progeny-gobbling Saturns--is the writer's.
In "Lincoln," Vidal's voice is the angled sophistication of Seward, who considered his President a bumpkin until he came to revere him as a great man. In his new book, the author uses the crabby, gloomy Henry Adams.
All three of these alter egos were much wiser than their times. Unfortunately, Vidal is wiser than his books. This allows them to be clever and entertaining at their best; but it also makes them, by and large, not very good novels.
Only in "Lincoln" does the author, occasionally, go in past his depth. Struggling with what carries him away--Lincoln and the movingly complex Mary Todd Lincoln--he can carry the reader away as well. The power of a novel has less to do with wading in than with swimming ashore.
In "Burr," the protagonist's memoirs are fascinating, at least when they cover the early parts of his life. Eventually, the glittery discourse becomes excessively discursive, but it has told us some provocative things. What works far less well is Vidal's attempt to break it up with a series of fictional scenes involving the compiler of the memoirs, and his life as a would-be New York journalist in the 1830s.
That "Empire," though witty and absorbing in parts, is weaker than its predecessors, although decidedly better than "Washington D.C." is, I think, for two reasons.
The first is that Vidal introduces two entirely fictional characters among his historical re-creations; and they occupy a disproportionate amount of strenuously dead space. They are Caroline and Blaise Sanford, half-siblings and perpetual rivals.
Their rivalry is set off by a quarrel over their considerable inheritance. Blaise, who goes to work for William Randolph Hearst, hopes to use the money to set up his own press empire. Caroline out-maneuvers him by buying up a small Washington newspaper and turning it into a lively scandal-sheet and eventually into a lively political voice.
Vidal works hard to endow Caroline with spirit, imagination and energy. Her devices for upgrading a stodgy and failing paper by downgrading it and later providing depth as well as bite, are interesting and evocative. But she is all spunk and no character. Vidal's efforts to give her life by means of a flaming love affair with a politician simply do not work. Their passion is all bedclothes and no bed.
Blaise is less a character than assorted ill-fitting character fragments. He is ruthless and ineffective; his rivalry with Caroline comes to very little, and he ends up by serving mainly as a foil for Hearst. At one point, for no apparent reason, Vidal has him sleep with Caroline's lover.
The historical figures, some of them at least, are much livelier. There is a provocative portrait of McKinley; bland, sleepy and immensely fond of eating. Vidal needs a touch of the physically grotesque to get really going on a character--he harped on Washington's outsize posterior--and here he uses Mrs. McKinley's epileptic seizures. McKinley calmly throws a napkin over her head when these occur, and goes on with the conversation as if nothing were amiss.
Beyond the detail, though, there is a subtle and convincing picture of the man who was taken for granted as a tool of the political boss, Mark Hanna, and who grows with the presidency. The McKinley-Hanna roles are reversed; the President becomes the power behind the power behind the throne, as well as the throne itself.
Roosevelt is more of a caricature, but an amusing one. Vidal takes his physical and moral bounciness and makes it as much infected as infectious. The flashing eyeglasses and ferocious smiles simply repeat the caricatures of the time, but there is something extra in Vidal's description of Roosevelt marching pointlessly around a room while talking "like a toy soldier that someone had wound up but forgot to point in any particular direction."
Henry James appears briefly as a conversational pastiche of his own convoluted prose. Adams comes across with wry authenticity. John Hay, McKinley's and then Roosevelt's secretary of state, is both a skeptical observer of the policy of expansion--Cuba, the Philippines, the Panama Canal, a bigger Navy--and its diligent architect.
Hay is Vidal's humane, civilized and ultimately futile public man. Hay contrasts the largeness of Lincoln, to whom he was secretary, with the voracious purposes of the new breed of political men. But he can think of nothing else but to agree with them and serve them.
With "Empire," Vidal makes his point that the spirit of American expansion was in conflict with the authentic qualities of the American character, and has tended to extinguish them. The fact that his books on earlier portions of our history found precious few such qualities rather weakens the point.
What weakens "Empire" most, though, is that Vidal's talents need large figures and dramatic events to work properly. American history between 1890 and 1910 lacked the grandeur and moral excitement of the Civil War and of our Revolution and constitutional beginnings.
Vidal is a skillful commentator on public character and characters. He can give an eccentric spin to our notions of the figures in our history, and put their energy to new uses. He needs their energy, though; he himself does not produce very much.