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Inventing A Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson Hardcover – November 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this concise but hardly cohesive effort, the achievements of America's most venerable founding fathers-and a large supporting cast, including Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin-are eclipsed by their personal, psychological and political foibles. Our nation is often portrayed as a finished product, having been birthed by great thinkers and selfless patriots. Vidal illustrates that the new nation was, in fact, a messy, tenuous experiment, consistently teetering on the brink. Vidal sheds light on the shaky alliances, rivalries, egos, personal ambitions and political realities faced by the men who became the first three American presidents. Unfortunately, Vidal's greatest strength, his novelist's flair, runs amok here. At John Adams's inauguration, for example, Vidal asserts that Washington "won his last victory in the Mount Rushmore sweepstakes" by forcing Jefferson, the vice-president, to exit the hall before him, so Washington could claim the larger ovation. This is divined from a record that merely states, "Jefferson was obliged to leave the chamber first." Correspondence is used to support Vidal's acerbic appraisals, but without source notes, readers are left to wonder in what context the extracts were originally penned. Vidal's antipathy toward the "American Empire" and contempt for the American public drips thick from his sentences and shows up frequently in annoying parenthetical asides and interjected screeds. He sneers that the "majority" of Americans "don't know what the Electoral College is" and compares Truman to the bloody Roman tyrant Tiberius. This book was surely intended to be thought provoking. Unfortunately, it provokes more thought about its author than its subjects. Still, one has to appreciate the irony of a noted icon-smasher launching Yale's new American Icons series.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Much of Vidal's contempt for contemporary America may originate in his admiration of how the Founding Fathers handled human nature. At least the founders, Vidal seems to say in this sinuous essay, were not hypocrites disclaiming interest in power; rather, they made an honest attempt in the original Constitution to restrain what they saw as politicians' inevitable appetites for ambition and avarice. Long fascinated with the behind-the-scenes aspects of politics in the 1780s and 1790s, Vidal muses on Alexander Hamilton's machinations against John Adams and analyzes similar political sleights of hand by Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John Marshall, and James Madison. Along with these characteristically brilliant and acerbic reflections on power and personality, Vidal offers a generally positive portrayal of Washington, taking time to note how the Father of His Country looked with his wooden teeth. This entertaining and enlightening reappraisal of the founders is a must for buffs of American civilization and its discontents. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Series: Icons of America
  • Hardcover: 198 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300101716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300101713
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,158,957 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gore Vidal has received the National Book Award, written numerous novels, short stories, plays and essays. He has been a political activist and as Democratic candidate for Congress from upstate New York, he received the most votes of any Democrat in a half-century.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

101 of 115 people found the following review helpful By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on November 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a two-tiered ranking...five stars for Vidalphiles, and three stars for other readers. If you revel in Gore Vidal's witty, often acerbic take on our present-day society, you should find this book a delight. Otherwise, you will probably find it infuriating in places...but at least it's never tedious. On display throughout this book is Vidal's great gift to turn two-dimensional historic personages back into three-dimensional figures of flesh and blood.
Vidal's narrative opens in the fall of 1786 as George Washington prepares to accept the call to lead the constitutional convention. This is a Washington, though revered by his countrymen, who finds himself in serious financial straits. The steady flow of visitors to Mount Vernon is eroding his resources--and demands for money from his mother are making things worse. Of all the Founding Fathers, Vidal perhaps best succeeds in offering a vibrant portrait of this proud, sometimes vain man, always conscious of his unique position in the new nation, sometimes struggling with the mantle of leadership that has been placed on his shoulders but never turning away from it.
The subtitle of the book is "Washington, Adams, Jefferson," and while Adams also emerges as the stubborn, resolute leader who was fully aware of his place in Washington's shadow; and Jefferson lives and breathes as the restless, shambling, somewhat abstract and overtalkative intellectual he must have appeared to his contemporaries, other founders rise from these pages with equal vividness, some for relatively brief cameos, such as Franklin, and others who play larger roles, such as Hamilton.
But Washington is at the heart of this story, as he was at the difficult, sometimes tortured enterprise that was involved in building a new nation.
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Thad Brown on November 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Americans are lucky to have Gore Vidal. Few of our historians (or writers for that matter) have his education, his critical abilities, or his prose. This book is not a history of the early American republic, or postage stamp biographies of the principle players. Instead it's a look at how, pretty much from thin air, a functioning American government was created after the first attempt failed so miserably. From the horse trading at the Constitutional convention to John Marshall's Federalist Supreme Court (which gave us judicial review and saved us from a good deal of Jeffersonian excess), Vidal tells the story of the compromises and conflicts that turned the theoretical government of the Constitutional convention into a living entity.
The not so subtle underlying theme of this book is how perverted those institutions have become. Vidal is on record (and has been for more than 30 years) as believing that by 1950, five years after WW II, our generally evolving to a better version of the original republic was being hijacked by political and business forces intent on maintaining the country on a constant war footing. In the famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1968 he made almost precisely the same argument against the Vietnam war that he made against Gulf War II, the gist of which is that since neither Vietnam nor Iraq gathered armies in Mexico it is not the business of a decent republic to make mishcief inside their borders.
To spotlight some of those issues, Vidal points out at length how our nascent republic survived largely by avoiding war in Europe.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By M. Allen Greenbaum HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on December 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Opinionated, erudite, passionate, witty, and manifestly sure of himself, Vidal makes himself as much a subject of the book as Washington, Jefferson, or Adams. He is everywhere present: in his winking asides, his revolving idealist/cynical stance, and in his time-leaping comparisons of contemporary times with those of the founders. Vidal's sometimes quirky writing style includes unfinished rhetorical questions, an apparent disdain for textbook grammar, references to Shakespeare and the classicists (often in Latin), circuitously long sentences, and a tone alternating between scholarly report, detached bemusement, and profound concern (sometimes combining them into an inventive and provocative alloy).

Citing Benjamin Franklin's written opinion (delivered by a friend to the Constitutional Convention) that our form of government will "eventually end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other," Vidal shifts immediately to a 1996 Franklin biography, "[with] significantly-inevitably?, Franklin's somber predictions cut out, thus silencing our only ancestral voice to predict Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and following that, despotism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around."

All of this will madden those who either disagree with his political views or who expect a traditional historical treatment. Although Vidal obviously knows American history, the book is fundamentally an auteur's extended op-ed page or stage piece. Vidal's portrayals are a synthesis of his vast knowledge, prodigious research, hindsight perspective, and refreshingly unafraid opinion, mixing fact with both conjecture and psychological insight.
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