The Peripatetic Reviewer

BURR by Gore Vidal Random House, $8.95
History maintains that Aaron Burr, the deadly rival of Alexander Hamilton and of Thomas Jefferson, was an accomplished scamp. True, his courage was repeatedly tested in the Revolution, and in the famous duel with Hamilton it was he who fired second; true also that women found him irresistible and he could sway men. In the election of 1800 when the balloting was in the Congress, he failed by a single vote to defeat Jefferson for the presidency. That was his zenith; the office and the power eluded him and he went down in the books as a disgraced adventurer. That there was another side to the story Gore Vidal discovered three years ago when he purchased a large collection of the Burr papers.
Vidal’s novel, very lively and very disparaging of Burr’s associates, is in the form of a reminiscence, partly written, mostly as if dictated by Burr in the last three years of his life, 1833-1836. He had outlived his contemporaries but forgotten none of his scorn; had survived a stroke but still craved women, claret. and the chance to vindicate himself. His listener, and his amanuensis, is young Charlie Schuyler, a New York journalist, hired to do a job of character assassination but soon lost in skeptical admiration.
The story begins with the elder musing about his youth. Burr’s maternal grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, and his father had been the first and second presidents of the College of New Jersey, and when in 1772 young Aaron graduated from Princeton, as it came to be called, he had a decisive mind, the dark handsome eyes and the impertinent wit that added to his charm. The Revolution gave him an early chance to excel and in his upward course he rarely underestimated himself.
The rivalry with Hamilton begins in Washington’s headquarters. They are of the same age—Burr was a major at twenty—but Hamilton is the favorite; and when Burr imprudently questions the General’s strategy after the British have landed on Long Island, he forfeits Washington’s trust. The rivalry is renewed at the war’s end when for six years Burr and Hamilton share the pick of legal practice in New York City. In their political strife Burr, by reconciling the Clinton and Livingston factions, leaves Hamilton in the shade, and in their amatory pursuits each is renowned but it is Hamilton’s nasty vilification that leads to the final challenge.
Jefferson, in Burr’s view, “was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful.” The story has it that after their tie-vote for the presidency, it was Jefferson who intrigued while Burr made no effort to break the deadlock. (I find this hard to swallow.) In his role as Vice President, Burr resented the “Virginia junto”; he showed his independence, and when Jefferson made it clear that he wished to be succeeded by Madison, their enmity was sealed. Burr quit the capital at forty-nine. Inspired by Napoleon’s example, “I saw myself as the liberator of all Spanish America,” and with a mistaken reliance on General Wilkinson, he spun a conspiracy which was to prove the most reckless, ill-judged intrigue of his career.
Like a bruised apple Burr has long lain ready for peeling and what a fascinating book Vidal has made of him! He was a maze of contradictions: priding himself as a gentleman but in money matters irrational and in dalliance as free as a goat; contemptuous of Washington as a general while admitting that he was the only man who could hold the Army and Congress together; boasting that he was “indifferent to slander,” yet killing his brilliant rival for a despicable remark; quick to perceive the power of the Virginians and resisting the New England talk of disunion, yet himself embracing the idea of separatism in the Southwest when he was desperate for power. Mr. Vidal has satisfied our curiosity on many points; I only wish he could have told us more about Burr’s daughter, Theodosia.
TOWARD THE 21ST CENTURY Education for a Changing World by Edwin O. Reischauer Knopf, $5.95
There are a few men, prudent and farsighted, who can look into our troubled future with a reasonable hope that if we will act now, with our historical development in mind, disaster can be averted. One such is Edwin O. Reischauer, whose long experience in the Orient makes him one of the few Americans who can speculate with authority about the West and the East.
Mr. Reischauer begins with the assumption that war between the two great nuclear nations “would amount to a sort of double suicide.” In the breathing spell which he sees ahead, “we face,” he says, “a mindboggling dilemma between a too slow rate of industrialization in the less developed countries that sets off a slow-ticking population bomb and a run on the world bank of natural resources that bankrupts us all.” The less than one-third of the world’s population (in Communist and non-Communist nations) accounts for five-sixths of the world’s production, while more than twothirds of the human race have only a pathetic one-sixth of the total. With the world’s population doubling every thirty-five years, unless this discrepancy can be ameliorated, says Mr. Reischauer, we are heading for deep trouble. In a terse analysis he traces the ever enlarging groupings, from the tribal federation, to the small city states, and on to the great empires in Egypt, China, and Rome. He shows the temporary binding power of religions and the national spirit and observing the present breakdown of cohesion, he predicts that “today, if we fail to develop a viable world community, the collapse of civilization may be total.”
Our need is to develop strong feelings about a world community among many people and new skills in cooperation. At the moment we obviously don’t have either, but a beginning has been made. The O.E.C.D. (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the Common Market, Reischauer argues, have already been enlarged into “a triangular community” of Western Europe, North America, and Japan. This is one angle, as he puts it, of a future triangle which must include the Communist states as a second angle and the undeveloped nations as a third. The binding force will consist of technology, science, and trade; he indicates in what ways the haves must adjust their trade relations so as to build up the have-nots, and he warns us that for this accomplishment, with its immense psychological and linguistic complications, we have a time span of decades, not centuries.
The excellence of this mind-stirring essay is its clarity, its calm assessment of the imponderables, and its hope, based on the experience of Japan, that West and East can meet.
CHILDREN OF THE LIGHT: The Rise and Fall of New Bedford Whaling by Everett S. Allen Little, Brown, $10.00
In the 1850s, the sale of whale oil, candles, and whalebone, and the craftsmanship that went into the outfitting of its superb whaling fleet, had made New Bedford the richest city per capita in the world, for a time. It was only five decades—not a long time as wealth goes. During the Civil War the rebel cruiser Alabama destroyed forty-six whalers, twenty-five of them out of New Bedford, and afterwards the overkill of leviathan had driven the shy bowhead whales to the north, forcing the shipowners to take the gamble of hunting in the short risky season of open water in the Arctic. A single bowhead was worth $10,000: four big ones made for a good trip. On their way north the whalers paused for an indiscriminate butchery of the walrus, females and pups, regardless of the famine they were imposing on the friendly Eskimo communities.
Everett Allen has spent thirty years in and about New Bedford, and the graphic nature of his readable chronicle derives as much from oral accounts as from the printed word. His father is an authority on whaling and he himself interviewed the last of the great shipmasters, and whalemen like Amos Smalley of Gay Head, “who inherited the Indian’s traditional skill with the harpoon and who ‘ironed’ a white whale.”
He begins his narrative with a description of the Arctic “grounds,” from Point Barry to Icy Point, and of the “Innuit,” the small, light, hardy natives on whose generosity the whale men depended whenever their ships were frozen in. Then for contrast he shifts back to New Bedford. to the “Children of Light,” the Quaker brothers, George and Matthew Howland (“George led, Matthew followed”), respected, dedicated owners who had enlarged the fleet inherited from their father. Since it was now “the Arctic or nothing,” the Howlands decided to send their vessels north with not a penny of insurance; not even on their beautiful new Concordia, the preparation of which the author depicts as a model of the fleet.
In 1871 New Bedford was still basking in its prosperity, as in a haze, unmindful of a shipmaster’s protest, in the local Republican Standard, of the cruel destruction of fifty thousand female walrus in the previous year, and unaware of the Eskimos’ warning that the weather would be unusually bad that summer. The Arctic fleet did its hunting as a unit in the compact area of open water close to shore where the bowhead were spouting, and where they must be swiftly dispatched before they could escape under the ice. That August, as predicted, was unlike any within memory: an inshore gale with snow, “waves of formidable heaviness,” spray turning into instant ice; and as the flue broke, ponderous blocks, bigger than houses, came “charging toward the land.” By the twenty-ninth, thirty-two ships, including three of the Howlands’, were jammed in shoal water close to the beach and their skippers took counsel on what to do. They were responsible for more than a thousand lives, including three women and five children; could they be ferried in the open whale boats through the miles of ice to the seven ships waiting offshore? There was no panic and their resolution is best and bravely told by Mr. Allen and in the stark, strong prose of the shipmasters. It was the heroic last act of a most hazardous calling.
THE PLUNDERED PAST by Karl E. Meyer Atheneum, $ 12.95
The plunder of art objects begins in a big way with the Romans; and although Lord Elgin when he transplanted the marbles from the Acropolis probably provided a safer resting place than they would have had if they had remained where they were, the question of whether antiquities should be restored to their place of origin will probably never be decided. When Edward Herbert Thompson in Chichén Itzá began dredging up treasure from the Sacred Well, he was serving as our American consul, and his shipments to the Peabody Museum at Harvard were unknown to Mexico until his first book appeared. When an Austrian grand duke had collected along the Adriatic a rare assortment of Illyrian relics, it too went to the Peabody because, seemingly, there was no one in Europe interested.
The postwar art boom, as Karl Meyer tells us, started with an auction in Paris in 1952 at which record new price levels were set by Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, and the astronomical increase since then has stimulated the theft of masterpieces (every day, an important work of art is stolen from somewhere), and the plundering of archaeological monuments in a way that is shocking—and, I must add, great fun to read about.
Mr. Meyer, for fifteen years a staff member of the Washington Post, became interested in archaeology on an extended trip through Latin America, and his book ThePleasures of Archaeology gave him the status of a tolerated outsider when he penetrated the inner circle of illegal importers. He speaks of the more daring anonymously, and as one of them remarked to him, “You must not forget one thing. I am a pirate. I enjoy piracy. I like the moment at the airport when they look at my passport [he carries several] and glance at my bag, for I take the very best pieces with me, on the airplane. . . .” His early pages have to do with the pillage of the Maya ruins and his story of how the famous mask of the Maya god finally landed in the Bliss Collection is a honey. The harvesting of illegal treasures from Turkey comes easier because there are so many more sites (some forty thousand, ranging from scattered burials to the remains of sumptuous cities); and because the Turks who are professionally involved in archaeology, whether as guards or as museum directors, receive such a piteously low wage. “More ancient treasure has left Anatolia in the past generation than at any time since the fall and sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.”
For their cloudy acquisitions and for their policy of “de-accessioning,” the author holds the American museums and particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art responsible. The competition which developed in 1970 when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan were each celebrating their centennial resulted in a scandal that was mutually damaging. Boston was obliged to return to Italy the smuggled, over-painted portrait attributed to Raphael; and Thomas P. F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan, after a blanket denial had grudgingly to admit that the Metropolitan in twenty years had secretly traded or sold some fifteen thousand works. The accusations came thick and fast, prompting Allen Wardwell. curator of primitive art at the Art Institute of Chicago, to propose a twoor three-year moratorium of acquisitions for all American museums so that the directors could rethink their policy. But the argument has another side to it: the Icelandic sagas, in dilapidated shape, were removed to Denmark and carefully preserved. Today when Iceland can care for them they have been returned.