by Gore VidalRandom House. $10.00
The year the nation celebrated its centennial, a flood of “this job for sale” scandals disgraced the Administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The reform Democratic candidate for President, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York, beat his Republican opponent. Rutherford B. Hayes, by 250,000 votes. But that’s not how the story ended. The Republicans still controlled not only the federal government but the remaining Reconstruction governments in southern states. The GOP worked over the popular and electoral votes in those states and squeezed Hayes in. The Democrats’ outrage over the quid was eased by the quo: withdrawal of federal forces from the South, the end of Reconstruction.
Vidal picked a vintage year with which to resume his account of the poisoning of the republic; the sheer brazenness of the corruption of 100 years ago does at times make aspects of our pre-Bicentennial scandals seem petty by comparison. Charles Schuyler—Vidal’s narrator here as in the novel to which it is a successor, Burr— has returned to America, having lived in Europe, first well and then not, since 1837. He meets a champion of 1876 political morality. William Sanford, who complains:
“It’s the Tildens I can’t abide . . . and the whole moaning tribe of old women who think we would have had all this wealth, these railroads and manufactories, just by going to church! Well, damn it to hell, we got these things by cuttin’ each other’s throats and stealin’ whatever wasn’t nailed down. Mr. Schuyler, the strong devour the weak every time, and that’s the way of the world, and the law is just something you buy if you can
“You paint a dark picture, Mr. Sanford.”
“It seems full of light to me, Mr. Schuyler.”
Schuyler, like Vidal, presents himself as a cynic. He thought he had seen it all in the earlier novel when, as Aaron Burr’s secretary, he became privy not only to that shrewd rascal’s secret history of the early years of the country. but to the fact that he (and, as Vidal would have it, Martin Van Buren too) was Burr’s illegitimate son. But narrator and author are not without their hopes and ideals, however shattered history leaves them.
Schuyler has come home because he hopes—not altogether cynically—that Tilden will be elected President, and that his reward for overt and covert campaign aid in his role as a political reporter will be the post of minister to France. But “the compromise of 1877” is a cheat to almost everyone except “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes and unreconstructed southern Democrats. Charlie Schuyler expires—I should say of a broken heart, one way and another—at the book’s end.
As in Burr, Vidal uses the historical record as stage set and plot, sending characters of his own contrivance into the social and political drama to encounter those who lived and wrote the record: Grant, Tilden, Mark Twain, James Gordon Bennett, and such Gilded Age clowns as Mrs. William Astor and her Boswell, Ward McAllister. He takes liberties with fact to write fiction that is wickedly wise, savagely funny, and on the mark.
—Michael Janeway