on November 20, 1997
Because the theme of historical writing as myth sits at the center of this, Vidal's meditation on turn-of-the-century American politics, it may be the most interesting of his now six-volume historical novel. Pondering the power of the press is Vidal's core mission, with wonderfully imaginative detours into the lives of prominent figures whose absurd personal impulses often carry global ramifications.
At center stage is the aristocratic (and fictitious) Caroline Sanford, the product of a Parisian finishing school. Arriving in America, she is driven by both the need to reclaim her share of the family fortune from her feckless brother and an idolization of William Randolph Hearst. Intermittently she sips tea with Henry Adams and Henry James, becomes engaged to the son of John Hay (Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt and once Lincoln's secretary) and publishes a D.C.-based newspaper that succeeds through the adoption of yellow journalism.
The carnyesque Hearst and bullying Roosevelt--brought together in the book's final confrontation--are vividly fleshed out and are among Vidal's most provocative recreations. And few authors write about the rich as well as Vidal. When he briefly takes on the characters such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts, his brilliant observations further levitate.
A master of language, Vidal's mellifluous, direct style can nonetheless repel those seeking a more modernistic voice; Hemingway is the last writer he would ever be compared with (mercifully, Vidal would surely say). But few 20th century novelists wade into the confluence of the country's political and social affairs with his assured step. It's difficult to imagine history impressing itself upon readers more vividly than in the best of this novelist's work.
on September 17, 2002
This is a splendidly obtuse look into one of the pivotal periods of American history, when the US was becoming the Empire of the title, in effect attempting to take over the role of the fading British Empire and essentially ending its policy of isolationism. I say obtuse because the formal political action takes place for the most part off-stage. Instead, we are treated to an hilarious novel of the manners of the ruling class, as defined by wealth and pedigree. The protagonists discuss the great decisions being made - which led directly to American involvement in the World Wars and later Vietnam - almost inadvertently, as when they are cutting a wedding cake, and purely in reference to their own careers and selfish aspirations.
The main characters are extremely good. There is McKinley (a political master about whom I knew virtually nothing and hence learned a good deal), Teddy Roosevelt (a buffoon in Vidal's hands who is also a political juggernaut), WR Hearst (a devourer of anything he desires and self-appointed "creator" of history), and John Hay (Lincoln's secretary, TR's secretary of state, and an imperialist). There are also the fictional Sanford half-brother and -sister, who appear in his other American novels, who are very funny as they struggle ruthlessly against eachother for the family fortune as well as for the same man. The peccadilloes of finely drawn characters were the stuff that made empires fall and created war, in particular in the Philippines. There are also the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, and many other giants from the Gilded Age. Finally, Henry James has two brief appearances and goes into long monologues that read exactly like his stuffy prose.
In addition to the theme of the rise of the modern media with Hearst's active creation of news - perhaps literally provoking the war with Spain by manufacturing a crisis to sell newspapers - the reader is treated to the technological changes that are going on as a backdrop (electricity and horseless carriages). It is marvelously evocative, particularly as it occurred at the beginning of the last century and inspired a sense of wonder, which is the greatest achievement an historical novel can aspire to.
Because he grew up in this milieu (his Grandfather, as one of the first appointed Senators from the new state of Oklahoma, makes a sly cameo appearance) Vidal is most convincing as he dissects the casual vanity of people in power: they are just going into the family business of politics, to which they feel entitled, and are apparently not filled with the ideals that we were taught in school, or so Vidal would have us believe. As a subtle and wholly jaundiced take on America, his is a truly original comic voice and the prose is as luminous as ever. While I disagreed with a lot of it, I laughed at least once on every page and I felt like learning more about most of the characters. That to me is another sign of the novel's success. Nonetheless, now that I have read almost all of the series, I am beginning to tire of Vidal's cynicism. There is something so relentless, even facile, about it that it makes me wonder if Vidal is playing with the reader or if the deficiency of vision is in fact his and not the subjects' he chooses to accuse of hypocrisy and demagogy.
on April 19, 2001
I recently reread "Empire" and "Hollywood" and it occurs to me that these two books contain the most explicit elucidation of Vidal's theory of US politics. So what is it? As I understand it, it is this: Sometime between the Civil War and the turn of the century the US political system was taken over by the big money generated by mass industrialisation. Since then, US politics has been essentially theatre in which the Congress and the Executive haggle over the trappings of power. Because the US was the ascendant industrial, and hence military power, not even world war could seriously threaten this cozy, somewhat incestuous situation. I think, in a nutshell, that's about it. There are a few problems with this position, particularly the minimal treatment of economic factors (although Vidal's assessment of finance is usually insightful), but with Dubya in the White House, and the very real threat of US political dynasties (including Vidal's own relative, Al Gore) taking over electoral politics, I'd say Vidal's thesis is looking pretty good.
on May 15, 2006
Although Vidal provides a shotgun approach to character development, Empire is best viewed in the perspective of two primary conflicts; one among fictional characters (Caroline and Blaise Sanford) and the other among two historical players (Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst). Only through fictional characters could Vidal create narrators capable of such convoluted and impossibly rich experiences that they could come into critical conversations with so many historical characters. Caroline and Blaise are half-siblings who rival for the same fortune and unravel a dark secret regarding their respective dead mothers.
McKinley and Roosevelt both have imperialistic aims with racist purpose. Both want America to fill the power vacuum created by the decline of the British Empire; both feel it is the duty of the civilized Americans to be stewards for the primitive races of the Asian, Caribbean and Pacific Islands. To the regnant aristocracy, war is the natural state of man. Hearst, McKinley and Roosevelt are portrayed as not only making war inevitable, but also desirable. The respectable and intellectual few, best exemplified by John Hay and the Five Hearts, are more conscientious, but remain low key compared to the dashing and charismatic politicians bent on imperialism and self-promotion.
Hearst is an antihero similar to Satan in Milton's "Paradise Lost." Clearly, Hearst is a manipulative megalomaniac, but he is much more interesting character than the prudent McKinley or the bellicose Teddy Roosevelt. Although the Hearst who instigated the Spanish-American war of 1898 and incited the assassination of McKinley connotes horror and repulsion, Vidal clearly enjoys Hearst's vapidity and ingenuity. Hearst is a cad to the American nobles, but he is able to history on his own terms and to suit his own purposes. Using inaccurate and biased propaganda, Hearst is flamboyant and irresponsible, exploiting the indifferent American masses while inventing heroes to lead them. To Vidal, Hearst created public opinion, while Roosevelt simply rode public opinion. Therefore, Hearst is the inventor of the modern world while Roosevelt simply followed his lead.
on November 30, 2003
Faced with a long and dreary winter? 'Empire' may be just the antidote. Gore Vidal's 1987 epic makes for educational, if sometimes tedious, fireside reading. 'Empire' is a tough one to plow through in one sitting, let alone one month, but in the end it rewards the reader with an informative narration of turn-of-the-century America. The fourth in Vidal's five-part series, 'Empire' features both historical and fictitious characters, who share the plot in equal dollops throughout the novel. A cursory knowledge of early 20th-century American history -- McKinley, Roosevelt, Hay, etc. -- enhances the reading experience. But even without this knowledge, the book is well worth the read. The closing dialogue alone justifies the effort.
on August 28, 2006
This historical novel takes place roughly between the years 1898 and 1906. The novel is seen through the eyes of three characters: one who actually existed, William McKinnley's and Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State John Hay; and the other two are purely fictious, the aristocratic half-siblings Caroline and Blaise Sanford. Vidal uses his immense knowledge of the intricacies of all the political controversies, large and small of the period, and personal conflicts among the elite Americans described here.
Those elite Americans who make frequent appearances in this book include Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Randolph Hearst. However, many of the other prominent characters of the period also make appearances: Mark Hanna, Henry James, William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley, etc. Vidal portrays James, one of his favorite novelists, in a funny way in that James speaks in that long winded wordy way that he wrote most of his novels.
Blaise is a chief lieutenant of Hearst before he strikes out on his own. For most of the novel he is in legal battle with Caroline over the disbursement of their late father's estate. Caroline herself can probably be said to be the main character of this book. She manages to make a modest success as the publisher of the Washington Tribune. However, she gets herself into trouble when she starts an affair with a disconcertingly good looking married freshman congressman named James Burden Day. This affair starts when Caroline is 25 and is her first sexual experience.
The part of the book describing the first sexual encounter between Caroline and the Congressman is probably the worst written part of the book. We see Jim and Caroline at a party in the midst of other aristocrats; then they are talking; then Vidal through the thoughts of Caroline, heaves tedious lengthy metaphors about food and Greek gods at the reader in the midst of which Jim's hand is sneaking towards Caroline's [...]; then we have Jim asking why, if Caroline is a virgin, there is no blood coming out of her frontal private area. Then we have the news that Jim pays a visit to Caroline's home every Sunday for a session in Caroline's bath tub and bed.
Vidal has the tendency to put his own intelligent observations and metaphors about certain characters into the minds of his characters, which makes the latter seem not always 100 percent plausible. When I was reading the book I thought the dialogue between the characters was sometimes a bit wooden but then I when I finished the book I thought maybe it was plausible enough. One or two of the scenes of lofty philosophical conversation between Caroline and Henry Adams, in the latter intellectual giant's drawing room, seemed somewhat implausible and maybe a little pointless for the novel's purpose.
Vidal's fiction is always a pleasure to read. In this book, he demonstrates his usual genius mastery in describing the buildings, people, streets and other details in the historical epoch in which the novel takes place. His prose is always clear and graceful, sometimes really extraordinarily so. The way he portrays American politics at the turn of the Century is really quite effective. The American people were restless under the extreme corruption and brutality of the big businessmen who controlled politics. Vidal effectively shows the sordidness of all this towards the end of the novel, with the conflict between William Randolph Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt. Hearst, who is excluded from the drawing rooms of most aristocrats because of his uncouth journalistic practices, finds solace in posing as a champion of ordinary people, a reformer and progressive. Of course, what he really wants is political power and he is willing to make alliances with anybody, including the bosses of New York's Tammany Hall, to whom he is theoretically in opposition. Theodore Roosevelt similarly poses as a Progressive, but his substantive gestures towards seriously regulating corporate power and political corruption are not much. The climax comes when Roosevelt gets wind that Hearst has obtained copies of numerous letters from the man who disperses bribes for John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil to politicians, to those politicians. A letter from this man to Theodore Roosevelt is in this file but its meaning is unclear. Hearst wants to print these letters in his newspapers at politically opportune times during his own quest for political offices such as New York governor and President. The last scene in the novel is a meeting between WRH and TR at the White House where each man gives to the other, very unflattering opinions about the other. Vidal says at the end of the novel that WRH and TR really did have a meeting at the White House relating to Standard Oil corruption and Roosevelt's link to it, but no one one really knows for sure what was said in it. Nonetheless, the dialogue Vidal places in the mouths of the men, are accurate renditions of what they really thought, he explains.
on November 8, 2000
Lincoln, Burr, 1876, Washington D.C, Empire, Hollywood and his newly published and last-of-the-series, The Golden Age place Gore Vidal as one of our finest writers of historical fiction. This penultimate book focuses on the earliest part of the 20th Century with Vidal taking the reader into arenas that stict historians can only conjecture upon. The author once again seemlessly weaves his historical family, begun with an illigetimate child of Aaron Burr, through a time when an isolationistic nation somewhat unwillingly takes on the demensions of a true empire. Vidal has a gift at grabbing a reader and placing them into a time period and facinating them with both his historical and well researched knowledge along with a perverse imagination. He seems to delight in his unbridled arrogance but does so in a difficult to describe charming way. With this series now complete, new readers have the ability to read this chronologically which can only add to the enjoyable experience Vidal gives us as he weaves his various webs of fact, historical guesses, and downright enjoyable fiction. One can only learn from this master of the genre. Read all but at the very least read Burr and Lincoln. Both masterpieces.
on May 4, 2014
As one who loves historical fiction, I am amazed at just how clever Gore Vidal is in his use of language and description. His stories are remarkably complex and give unique insight into the characters of the day. I really enjoyed Empire and Hollywood, and have ordered the other books in the series.
on September 23, 2013
I pity my poor family that has probably been torn from their sleep from my exclamations of laughter and thunderous sighs as I most joyfully charged through this wonderful novel. The narrations of Caroline, granddaughter of "Burr"'s Charlie Schuyler and John Hay, last seen as Lincoln's secretary in the novel of the same name, are detailed, provocative and absolutely hilarious all at the same time. From descriptions of the sexual act that are so ornate as to be obscene, but not dirty, to the crystal clear assumption made throughout that all politicians by their very nature are hypocritical, Gore Vidal shows once again that he was truly one of the greatest authors of his or, perhaps, any time.
I loved the relationship between Caroline and her half-brother Blaise as well as the undoubtedly great friendship that was shared by John Hay and Henry Adams. Teddy Roosevelt, who we went so far as to immortalize on the face of a mountain in the lands of people he would have considered filthy, ignorant savages, worthy only of routing and subjugation, and his relationship with his rival(creator?) William Randolph Hearst will, if you are even a little like me, having you laughing and teetering on the edge of your seat whenever the two are involved in the same chapter.
Most of all, this book provoked the deepest depression in me, thinking about how blithely we thought(think?) to subjugate people, who we didn't even consider people at the time, and the greatest delight at realizing how far we have come, while remaining so much the same, since then. I cannot recommend this novel enough. You shouldn't read it only because you are a fan of American history or even because you are a fan of Gore Vidal. You should read it because the book is a revelation and we all deserve to have such an in-depth, exhaustive and complicated view of the point on our nation's history, when we went from rural republic to imperial superpower.
on January 5, 2014
This is the only book I've read by Gore Vidal; some of his other books have pretty good reviews.
I thoroughly enjoyed Gore's portrayal of the United States at the turn of the century, circa 1900. As you read this book you quickly begin to see how Gore views this country; as an Empire that refuses to call itself an Empire. We got there in a unique way, but in the end that is what we were becoming in the early 1900s, and indeed what we became.
I only gave 3 stars, to be honest, because I am comparing Gore to other historical fiction authors as a writer. Gore does a great job of creating characters you can identify with and provides a story you can follow. But I did not find this book to be an exciting, turn-the-page, type of novel. That being the case, I still found this to be an entertaining read that I loved all the way to the end. Gore does a good job of telling his story and bringing it all to a close.
Overall a pretty good read.