TS: Fact vs Fiction

‘The celebrated East Room was still unfinished, although Jefferson had recently used it to give shelter to the largest cheese ever made in the United States. This odoriferous miracle of American inventiveness most appropriately furnished that noble chamber until the electorate finally ate it.’ (Burr, Gore Vidal, Bantam Books, 1974, p330

GV likes to salt his historical novels with comical little facts ‘ here I wondered briefly if said cheese wasn’t also the parent of T. Pynchon’s notorious ‘Octuple Gloucester’, in Mason & Dixon (the dates are a bit strained if so, not to mention the geography). Also would I actually be faintly disappointed if it turned out Pynchon nicked his cheese from Burr?

I wz rereading Lincoln and Burr as distraction wind-down get-self-to-sleep material during the frantic final fortnight of finishing the if…. book (bcz no likely crossover => no last-minute total revamping). Lincoln is of course saddled with a cap-G Great cap-P Plot that everyone already knows: our Saintly Hero Dies Freeing the Slaves. GV’s achievement I think is to render the Big Abe plausible and human against the natural pull of momentous hagiography, so that his Lincoln is (among other things) a man with a titanic sense of the absurd, plus the first media politician in the modern sense (he grew his beard to improve his electability!!)

Aaron Burr’s story is much less well-known, even within the US (he’s unknown outside it): which means as a device he’s a somewhat blanker page to fill in and fill out… Vidal’s Burr is a winning rogue, which is fine if ho-hum stuff, and there are solid what-if surprises (the only reason Burr, generally considered a ‘Bad Man’, wasn’t Third President, instead of Jefferson, is bcz Burr chose not to press his advantage in an Electoral College tie in 1800). But the achievement here (apart from a fat and readable book) is I think getting across the seat-of-pants aspect of the United States’s invention of themselves, that this was a nation-out-of-a-notion being juggled into existence by LAWYERS ALONE: a crew of ambitious rivals, not exactly unprincipled, but quite happy to expoit the idea of principle for unprincipled ends, all playing wildly fast and loose with all kinds of ideas about who ‘we the people’ were, and how, and an axiomatic grounding structure they’d JUST MADE UP!!

The thing that occurred to me (for the first time) this time was this: the presence in this story of an old-fashioned 18th-century-style duel with pistols ALSO HAS SIGNIFICANCE within the US conception of law and lawlessness cf pretty much every Western ever!! It always annoys me when anti-US rhetoric yatters on abt cowboys and John Wayne, but only bcz it’s so lamely used (‘cowboys = stupid’ is abt the total extent of it): the question of power and right action, when the frontier is unclear, is of course a very important one in international politics, and there are few places it’s been more deeply explored than in the Western.

In Burr’s time, ‘Western’ meant not-yet states like Tennessee, or ACTUAL OTHER COUNTRIES, like Louisiana and Texas: but this novel isn’t (quite) just an ‘Eastern’ (even though the fatal gun battle happened on Washington Heights overlooking the little Dutch village of New York…

‘Oh, Burr, O Burr, what hast thou done?
Thou hast shooted dead great Hamilton!
You hid behind a bunch of thistle,
And shooted him dead with a great hoss pistol.’
(That’s genuine history, apparently: but it reads like a ‘bad’ Pynchon lyric!)

[Afterword: Well, no, it doesn’t read LIKE pynchon, particularly, it’s actually much better – because much worse!]