Amid the Tall Ships and fireworks, parades and historical pilgrimages, bedazzled Americans preparing to celebrate their country’s bicentennial received a curious gift. “Burr,” the highly entertaining 1973 novel by Gore Vidal, asked them to consider whether the Founding Fathers were really the plastic saints that all the bicentennial hoopla made them out to be. Vidal did this by building a book around the one leading figure of the Revolutionary era who was cast out of the historical pantheon: the disgraced former vice president, Aaron Burr, who killed the better-remembered Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Vidal offered a version of history that could have been true, and in his telling Burr was a hero while Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and the rest were merely shrewd politicians and image makers.
“Burr” was a memorable post-Watergate spitball, redeemed in every way by Vidal’s cleverness and sincere love of American history. It remains his finest achievement.
Vidal, who died last week at 86, was part of a “Mad Men”-era cabal of public intellectuals whose witticisms and political barbs may have eclipsed their literary standing. Vidal, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and a few other writers enlivened the talk-show couches of their era with vaguely sexist, larger-than-life personalities; they were like a Rat Pack whose members didn’t like each other.
Despite a revered position among conservatives for Buckley and major book awards for Mailer, it’s unclear whether any of them will be read in 50 years — least of all Vidal. But nobody can say for sure. At his death, Vidal had an unlikely hit revival of his 1960 play “The Best Man” on Broadway, and even “Burr” itself made a cameo appearance in the 2012 presidential campaign. It turns out that Michele Bachmann read the book in her 20s and was so disgusted by its depiction of the Founding Fathers that she became a Republican. Vidal may have died just when the need to challenge historical orthodoxies was greater than ever.