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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
11min read


by John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


272 pp. $6.95


by Gore Vidal

Random House, Inc.


430 pp. $8.95

John Updike, in a very long appendix to his new play Buchanan Dying , gives a curious reason for choosing historical drama as the medium for “an imaginative composition…[about] the career of Pennsylvania’s only successful aspirant to the White House.” He had originally intended, he says, to write a historical novel, but then he read President James Buchanan , a biography by Philip Shriver Klein of Pennsylvania State University. That stopped him. Professor Klein, it seems, effectively used “many novelistic touches” in his scholarly work, and “with such an intimate reconstruction already in print, there seemed little the fictionist could do but seek another form.…”

Clearly, in Mr. Updike’s mind the line between history and fiction cannot be sharply drawn. And yet when he did try a few chapters of a novel about Buchanan, it was the stubborn difference between fact and invention that bothered him, so that perhaps the novel might have “aborted” (as he puts it) even had he not encountered Professor Klein’s biography. The problem, he explains, was that “researched details failed to act like remembered ones, they had no palpable medium of the half-remembered in which to swim; my imagination was frozen by the theoretical discoverability of everything . An actual man, Buchanan had done this and this, exactly so, once; and no other way. There was no air. Atoms of the known hung in a vacuum of the unknowable.” And so he wrote a play, which seemed more candidly to present an illusion of historical reality without trespassing surreptitiously upon the domain of documentary history, as a historical novel often does. A play is frankly make-believe; a historical novel can sometimes pretend to be history. Mr. Gore Vidai, in an afterword to a novel about Aaron Burr that led the best-seller list all last winter, claims that the story he tells “is history and not invention.” He has tried, he says, “to keep to the known facts.”

Since Mr. Vidal, speaking through his characters, renders savagely unflattering portraits of some of our most venerated historical figures, this claim has outraged many historians. James Thomas Flexner, whose new biography of George Washington won a National Book Award and a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1973, finds Vidal’s image of the Father of Our Country preposterous. In addition to depicting Washington as stupid and pontifical, it represents him as physically hulking, clumsy, fat, with “the hips, buttocks and bosom of a woman.” This absurdly violates the historical fact, says Mr. Flexner, that Washington was a splendid physical specimen, “one of the greatest athletes of his time.” Dumas Malone, the renowned biographer of Thomas Jefferson, is incensed by Vidal’s “gross misrepresentation” of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In Burr: A Novel Jefferson is seen as a consummate politician, with all of the worst attributes of that breed of American and few redeeming features: he is crafty, unreliable, two-faced, shrewd but shallow, endlessly the calculating opportunist. “Of course,” Dr. Malone comments, “Vidai can always hide behind his fictional devices; he can say, ‘Oh, that’s not my opinion, that’s Aaron Burr’s.’” What he means is that Mr. Vidai tells his story to a large extent through Burr’s mouth, so that the image of Jefferson purports to be a detailed projection of what Burr thought about the great man. “The book is a mishmash of fiction and fact that leaves one in horrid confusion,” Dr. Malone sums it up. “It is a pernicious book; it undercuts the tremendous efforts of scholars to get as near the truth as you can get.”

We thus have, in these current adventures into history by two celebrated American novelists, an interesting case study for an old and not very simple problem. Where does the obligation of the historian and scholar leave off and the license of the fictional artist begin? Is there such a thing as “good” historical fiction? Can a sharp line be drawn between history and fiction, or is the past essentially unrecoverable, so that even the most solemn and scrupulous historian unavoidably writes a good deal of fiction? “I often think it odd that it [history] should be so dull,” Jane Austen makes a character say in Northanger Abbey , “for a great deal of it must be invention.”

Mr. Vidal, like his hero Burr, would rather be found dead than dull, and he has executed some clever ploys to keep things entertaining. The narrator is a young man, Charlie Schuyler, who works in Aaron Burr’s law office in New York. It is 1833, and Burr, at seventy-seven, is three years from the end of his life (which comes before the end of the book). Yearning to be a writer and sucked into the muddy whirlpool of party politics as practiced in the New York of that era, Charlie undertakes to discover as much as he can about Colonel Burr’s connection with the Vice President, Martin Van Buren, and also to write Burr’s biography. There is a thin thread of plot involving Charlie’s odd affair with a prostitute whom he liberates from a bordello and wants to marry, but, as Vidai obviously intended, Burr is the real protagonist. Anyone who reads the book all the way through—and this is quite a job—will have a fairly complete idea of Burr’s tempestuous career. Vidai achieves this biographical compass by interrupting the narrative with long, numbered sections called “Memoirs of Aaron Burr,” a document supposedly dictated by Burr to Charlie Schuyler to promote both a correct version of his life and Charlie’s literary ambitions.

And there’s the rub, when it comes to history versus fiction. An unwary reader could be forgiven for supposing that Burr: A Novel is a kind of literary birthday cake, with layers of fictional frosting alternating between solid slabs of real history, namely, “Memoirs of Aaron Burr.” In the afterword the author gives no hint that he, Gore Vidai, actually composed these “memoirs”; he jauntily waves aside the need for a bibliography, asserting that “it would be endless.…” This gives the impression that he has spent the last ten years, at least, in large libraries researching his novel, but it does not explain where “Memoirs of Aaron Burr” came from.

There is, of course, ample internal evidence in the “memoirs” to suggest that one is not reading the autobiographical reminiscences of any gentleman writing (or dictating) in 1833 or 1834. For one thing, the prose doesn’t ring true, instead resembling that of a stylish modern writer: “As we sat over peach ice-cream, drinking more chilled wine than was entirely necessary, watching the long shadows stretch across the lawn, the first fireflies glow in the shrubbery, Jefferson told us the reason for the dinner.…” For another, Burr has been endowed by Vidai with unusual psychic powers: he seems to know many historical facts that he could not possibly have known at that time; and he reproduces long, complicated conversations that took place thirty or forty years earlier with not a syllable lost. With a mind like that, who needs tape recorders?

This is not to charge that Mr. Vidal invented most of the contents of the alleged “Memoirs of Aaron Burr.” He has read and digested the standard sources and used them, on the whole, ingeniously; no doubt he has also poked an inquisitive thumb into more esoteric documents and pulled out, here and there, a juicy plum or two. One suspects that there could be found among Mr. Vidal’s collection a well-marked copy of the earliest serious biography of his hero, The Life and Times of Aaron Burr by James Parton (1857). This remarkable work, which has fallen into undeserved neglect, enjoyed the advantage of having been written when there were still scores of people alive who had known Aaron Burr and who were more than willing to talk about him. Parton supplied Vidai with some of his best material, not only for livening up the “memoirs” with anecdotes but as grist for some of the scenes involving Charlie Schuyler and his notorious mentor. One of Vidal’s most exciting and convincing chapters describes how Burr and Charlie boat across the Hudson to the exact spot where the most famous duel in American history occurred in the summer of 1804. There on the narrow ledge beneath the Palisades of New Jersey the old man not only retells the story but relives it, making Charlie stand just where Hamilton stood when he took the fatal ball from Burr’s pistol and going through every hair-raising detail of the scene as if it were all happening again. It is extremely well done, with the skill of a veteran novelist—and the source for it is an equally well done passage, albeit in a different narrative mode, in James Parton’s biography. Parton heard the story from the lips of the very man who had gone with Burr to Weehawken for the re-enactment.

The charge against Gore Vidai is not that he has failed to use good sources but that he has sometimes abused them. There is copious evidence in reliable sources that Aaron Burr was not fond of Thomas Jefferson, for example; but what is the reader to make of a statement like this, attributed to Burr in the “memoirs” concocted for him by Vidai: “Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves”? Jefferson was a strong President, but “ruthless” is a very strong word, and few scholars who have spent their lives studying Jefferson would be willing to approve the epithet. He looked toward a new and better world, to be sure; but to say that he “wanted to create” it raises a vision of autocracy that is foreign to Jefferson’s hopes and expectations. “Led” would be more appropriate than “dominated” when it comes to his ideal of the independent farmer; and “supported by slaves” is simply untrue. Jefferson was a slave owner—a large one—and can be justly accused of a personal failure in never freeing himself from the bondage, so to speak, of slaveholding; but there is no doubt whatsoever that he abhorred the institution and looked eagerly forward to a time when all men would be free. Thus Vidai represents Burr as having said things about Jefferson that (a) Burr never actually said; (b) Burr might not have fully agreed with; and (c) misrepresent the historical Jefferson. The reader is left with false impressions of both Burr and Jefferson, reinforced by a vague notion that valid documents (Burr’s “memoirs”) support these impressions.

Burr was, on good evidence, an accomplished gallant, and Mr. Vidai—although he resists the temptation to paint lascivious scenes with a discretion hardly to be expected of the author of Myra Breckinridge —pegs the whole plot of his novel on the supposition that Martin Van Buren was one of Burr’s illegitimate offspring; he also advances the idea that what finally brought on the great duel with Hamilton was Hamilton’s having accused Burr of incest with his only legitimate child, the marvelous Theodosia. It would be nice to have his bibliography if only to learn the basis for these intriguing bits of alleged fact.

But if Gore Vidal has insufficiently honored the muse of history in Burr: A Novel , it may be that John Updike has been too reverential in Buchanan Dying . His long appendix of “Acknowledgments”—about a third of the whole book—not only gives a full bibliography but discusses at length the value to the author of the principal items in it. At length and, it ought to be said, with great discrimination and sense. Mr. Updike writes so well about history and historiography that you find yourself wishing he had himself tried not a historical novel but a biography of Buchanan. He has the touch of the great writers of narrative history like De Voto and Catton: with all due respect for documented facts, he is given to insights that quicken the facts with life. Here he is, for instance, discussing the likelihood that Anne Coleman, having through a misunderstanding broken off her engagement with the young Buchanan in 1819, committed suicide out of despondence and because she may have been pregnant: ”…in the farm country of southeastern Pennsylvania as I remember it, pregnancy did not disrupt the engagement, it hastened the marriage. Anne and Buchanan were, after all, publicly betrothed; a sudden wedding would have been a harmless scandal. Our rural ancestors could become hysterical over many things—comets and damnation, for two—but not, I think, over fertility.…I imagine her as a suicide, but of the type that half-means it, that in the innocence of egoism thinks to extend a living dialogue through death, and to force a rescue.”

The play itself is a feat of prestidigitation but, unhappily, not quite as successful as the appendix. We find ourselves in a bedroom of Buchanan’s mansion in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1868. Buchanan is there, slowly dying; and as he dies he dreams or fantasies conversations with persons who at one time or another were important to him. They appear singly or in groups: Harriet Lane, Buchanan’s beautiful niece and the old bachelor’s hostess during his White House years; Robert Coleman, the father of his fiancée, Anne (who also appears); John Slidell, once his political crony and later Confederate emissary to France; Buchanan’s mother; the empress of Russia (to whom Buchanan was the American minister in 1832–33); Andrew Jackson; Stephen Douglas; James K. Polk—and many others. The chronology is dreamily capricious; these figures come and go like ghosts to enact the dying man’s feverish reverie of his life. The most poignant and difficult episode of that life, personally, was Buchanan’s unfulfilled love affair with Anne Coleman; politically it was his anguished attempt to hold off the coming of the Civil War while he was President. Updike investigates and illustrates these and other coordinates of Buchanan’s biograph through well-made dramatic scenes, and the whole play thus becomes a kind of life of James Buchanan. “I wanted to seize Buchanan’s life so as to apprehend its shape—his ‘fate’—with my own hands,” the author tells us; and this he has done.

Does it come off? In choosing Buchanan, Updike forgoes a comfortable advantage that falls to novelists and playwrights whose central figures are men like Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, or even Burr: we know them pretty well to start with. Buchanan needs explication if not identification; many otherwise well informed people can barely remember who he was. Moreover, in any play the characters are on their own, without the help of the author’s narrative to introduce them, place them, relate them to the rest of the story. Buchanan Dying will baffle and probably defeat a substantial number of readers—unless they read Mr. Updike’s appendix first .

This problem is intensified by Updike’s great care for the historical validity of the play. In spite of the somewhat surrealist techniques he uses, by and large (as he says), “the historical record has not been knowingly distorted or skimped.” One way that he pays his dues to the record is by often giving his characters speeches that are in great part words they actually said in history. Since Mr. Updike is an imaginative and poetic author, capable of nearly Shakespearean eloquence, these “real-life” passages (for instance, a long and rather paralyzing speech made by Buchanan shortly before he left office) contrast flatly with those he has composed himself. The reader is left wondering whether Updike’s Buchanan, a subtle, perspicacious, and allusive speaker who talks like King Lear and Hamlet combined, is not in unfair competition with the more mundane Buchanan who was our fifteenth President.

It is easy to understand the irritation of the scholarly community with books like Burr and perhaps with Buchanan Dying (although Mr. Updike distinctly emerges as more concerned with historical truth than Mr. Vidai). But is there no respectable place, then, for historical fictions, novelistic or dramatic? Not, according to Professor George Dangerfield, who reviewed Burr very sourly in the New York Times , unless “the characters are all imaginary,” as in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . Yet it seems likely that however it may besmirch the memory of Washington and Jefferson, Mr. Vidal’s novel will give a vivid and generally accurate idea of Burr’s character to most readers, as well as a striking and historically sound picture of New York City in the 1830’s. And surely Mr. Updike’s play affectingly vivifies the stick figure of James Buchanan and makes us sympathetically understand his exquisite dilemma over slavery and secession.

“All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance,” Dr. Johnson informed Boswell. But isn’t it possible to overestimate the reliability of contemporary evidence? We all have a kind of naivete about this: we know very well that today’s newspaper is full of lies and errors; that last week’s newsmagazine, while possibly a little more dependable, is an incomplete and unbalanced summary; that even our own diaries and letters fail to tell what really happened last weekend. But documents pick up an aura of truth as they grow older. Let the newspaper be dated a hundred years ago, the summary of events appear in an issue of Harper’s Weekly for 1857, or the diary and letters be found among the effects of our great-great-grandfather, and we treat them with enormous respect—these are, we think, the real clues to the past.

And in truth they are nearly all we have, such documents. Ultimately the past is unrecoverable, and any history will indeed be fiction to some extent. Still, the line between history and historical fiction can be meaningfully drawn. Dr. Johnson was right: the criterion is documentation—that plus reasonable interpretation of what the documents tell us. Some novels and plays will come closer to historical truth than others, depending upon how faithful the authors are to “contemporary evidence.” Beyond that, as the examples of Vidai and Updike demonstrate, it makes a difference how unpretentious the author is, how openly he indicates what he has invented and what he has not.

We have always eschewed historical fiction in this magazine on the ground that our readers want, as nearly as possible, the truth about the past. Yet we know they also want colorful narrative history, and the writers we prefer are those who can make a documented narrative read with the flow and body and vividness of fiction. We are not about to open a fiction department in A MERICAN H ERITAGE or relax our taboos against made-up dialogue and invented décor. At the same time we are quite willing to let people who enjoy novels like Burr or plays like Buchanan Dying have their pleasure, and—taking along a bag of salt—we may happily join them when we are not wearing our editorial caps. The important thing is to know as well as one can when one is reading history, and when fiction. Caveat lector .


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