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The Golden Age: A Novel Paperback – September 18, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Since 1967, when he published Washington, D.C., Gore Vidal has been assembling an artful, acidic history of the United States. The Golden Age represents the seventh and final installment of this national epic, covering the years from 1939 to 1954 (with a valedictory fast-forward, in its final pages, to the end of the millennium). As Vidal did in the earlier books, the author sticks pretty rigorously to the facts. Real-life figures--in this case, the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman and that ardent cold warrior Dean Acheson--do what they are recorded to have done. The author also ushers on a cast of invented characters, who are free to paddle in the historical backwash and comment upon their so-called contemporaries. It's here, of course, that fact and fiction begin to blur. But Vidal himself has often cited Tolstoy's famous jab--"History would be an excellent thing if it only were true"--and his reconstruction of FDR's wartime machinations, and the brief interval of Pax Americana, seem persuasively, even alarmingly plausible.

There's one key difference between this book and its predecessors, however. Vidal was alive and kicking in 1939, and thanks to his role as Senator Thomas Pryor Gore's grandson (and occasional seeing-eye dog), he met or at least observed many of The Golden Age's dramatis personae. This fact turns out to have a double edge. On one hand, it gives his portraits of the high and mighty an extra ounce of verisimilitude. Here (the invented) Caroline Sanford observes her old friend FDR at an informal White House mixer:

She felt for an instant that she should curtsey in the awesome presence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a figure who towered even when seated in his wheelchair. It was the head and neck that did the trick, she decided, with a professional actor's eye. The neck was especially thick while the famous head seemed half again larger than average, its thinning gray hair combed severely back from a high rounded forehead.
Like all of Vidal's politicians, FDR is a more or less gifted illusionist, and The Golden Age is one more chapter in the convergence of theater and politics, of Hollywood and Washington, D.C. But the very vividness of these historical actors (in every sense of the phrase) makes the author's invented cast seem a little pale and lifeless. No matter. Even in its occasional longueurs, Vidal's concluding volume is packed with ironic insight and world-class gossip, much of it undoubtedly true. And in the surprisingly metafictional finale, he signs off with a fine display of Heraclitean fireworks, not to mention an encore appearance from his rakish progenitor Aaron Burr--which makes you wonder exactly who created whom. --James Marcus --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The newest entry in Vidal's "narratives of empire" series (which includes Burr, Lincoln and 1876) is a densely plotted, hugely ambitious novel that manages to impress and infuriate in equal measure. A series of historical essays masquerading as a historical novel, it endeavors to present Vidal's philosophy regarding our nation's ascent to global-empire status, from 1939 into the 1950s. The protagonists are Peter Sanford, a prescient young intellectual from a well-to-do family, who helps to found the American Idea, a politically radical journal; his aunt, Caroline Sanford, a former film star who has returned to her D.C. newspaper publishing roots; and Timothy X. Farrell, Caroline's half-brother and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker on the rise in Hollywood. The narrative carries its myriad charactersAincluding FDR, William Randolph Hearst, Tennessee Williams and Vidal himselfAthrough the political machinations that culminate in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the economic boom engendered by WWII, even the dark years of McCarthyism and the Korean War. However, it is in the misadventures of the cynical yet idealistic Peter Sanford that Vidal advances his powerful (if rather familiar) central thesis. Events include Sanford's brush with politically motivated murder at the 1940 Republican Convention, and a bitter clash with golden-boy politico and bogus war hero Clay Overbury years later. In Vidal's view, the U.S. has been manipulated by a dangerously insular governing class for most of the past century, a self-serving and inbred elite determined to use incessant war (be it against drugs, terrorists or other nations) to keep the real decision-making power out of the hands of the masses. Vidal's historical savvy and insider's understanding of the psychodynamics of Washington's power players is constantly in evidence; a feel for the humanity of his characters is not. His protagonists are an arrogant, bloodless lot, and his narrative meanders. Accordingly, what could have been the crowning achievement of Vidal's long career feels incomplete, a philosophical treatise in desperate need of a more human literary framework to stabilize it. Major ad promo; author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 18, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375724818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375724817
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,888 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

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Parker Benchley VINE VOICE on November 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is an old saying that when it's time to go out, go out with a bang. This is exactly what Gore Vidal does in this, the last novel in his "American Chronicles" series. An updating and rewriting of his earlier novel, "Washington, D.C.," "The Golden Age" shifts its focus to the nation as a whole and the chain of events that involved us in World War 2 and the Cold War. Gossipy and inclusive rather than pedantic and exclusive (as many historical novels tend to be), Vidal gives the reader the view of an insider, partially because he had grown up on the fringes of that inside. Among the many historical character the reader meets in the pages of the novel is none other than Gore Vidal himself. This should be no surprise as Vidal is one of the most autobiographical of American authors, his memoir "Palimpsest" reading almost like a novel. Non-Vidal fans may not like the Calvino-esque ending, but those among us who love Vidal's writings will feel more than a touch of sadness at the end. More entertaining than "Empire" or "Hollywood," "The Golden Age" belongs on the shelf of all serious readers.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By C. Collins on June 9, 2005
Format: Paperback
I gave The Golden Age three stars primarily because the book had three tiresome flaws that kept it from achieving the excellence of his novel Lincoln.

The first weakness of this book is that Gore Vidal was far less subtle in controlling his own political philosophy in The Golden Age, possibly because the era in the novel was one in which Vidal lived, whereas in Lincoln, there was enough distance in time that Vidal was able to show more objectivity. For fans of Gore Vidal, of which I am one, his political philosophy is no secret. He believes that the Civil War allowed Lincoln to consolidate power into the presidency at the expense of the legislative branch. He thinks that we turned from the values of the republic and adopted the values of empire. During wartime, the power of the US President is heightened even further, thus becoming an incentive for a US President to declair war. He places both FDR and Truman into this category of expanding the power of the presidency through World War II and the Cold War. Vidal believes that the country has always been ruled by an wealthy elite group of citizens. As the technology of communication has evolved, this power seeking elite has learned how to control the media. The elite controlled first the printed press, then Hollywood in the 1930-1950s, and then television. Through mass media they shape the perceptions of the common American family. Vidal also believes that the Cold War and the search for Communism is also a strategy used by the powerful elite to evoke fear in the common family, thus keeping taxes high to pay wealthy defense and security contractors.

I actually also believe this to be true, however Gore Vidal is so heavy handed in The Golden Age that he ruins the novel by over emphasis of his political agenda.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In his historical novels, Gore Vidal brings the solemn marble statues of American history to brilliant life by letting them talk. And talk. His books are long, sometimes lacivious conversations, and his characters distinguish themselves -- sometimes extinguishing themselves to the reader-- through their own words.
For instance, in The Golden Age, a large helping of World War II era spilled beans, a young man at a New York party responds to the idea that America needs a new civilization to go with its new global ascendancy by saying, ''Do we really want a civilization?... We've done awfully well as the hayseeds of the Western world. Why spoil it?... No, we've got to stay dumb.''
Yes, that signature cynicism is uttered by the author himself, making a brief cameo. So if you won't find gore, you will find Gore in this 100 percent action free wartime novel, the seventh and last in the linked sequence of American history novels that begins chronologically with ''Burr'' (although Vidal wrote what's now volume 6, ''Washington, D.C.,'' way back in 1967) and adds up to a talkative masterpiece.
Also in captivity, among a mob of mid century American potentates, are Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, Cary Grant, and Tennessee Williams.
As usual, the conversation's good. Vidal's animated historical figures aren't farcically pompous, but they are, like Vidal himself, trenchant, sporadically wise, and routinely malicious. He delivers verbal stilettos to just about every eminent back that appears.
The more ominous conversations are about America's backing into the war and its lurching role in the postwar world. If you've been following the story through previous novels like ''Empire'' and ''Hollywood,'' you know the anti imperialist gospel according to Gore.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on August 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I must confess that I feel ambivalent about this book. I greatly admire the other volumes of the series, not only for their value as iconoclastic evocations of American history, but as novels in themselves with vibrant and fascinating characters. Vidal is, simply put, one of America's greatest living artists. His voice is unique and unmistakable. In other volumes, his personal views are hidden and cryptic, which is great fun as the reader is kept guessing. Alas, in this one, I found his views to be baldly plain and that the characters were used as vehicles to serve these ideas. This terribly weakens its value as a work of art. Instead, it often reads like one of his essays.

In my reading, Vidal is arguing that FDR saw WWII as the only way to stay in power, a life-saving decision as there was nothing else of intimate value in his life. To do so, he took a giant step in creating the "national security state," which upon his death in office an unwitting Truman completed. Now in my view, this is a simplistic reading of a bewilderingly complex period, a watershed if you will.

Nonetheless, Vidal succeeded in getting me to question my assumptions, and that I think is of the greatest value and the unique contribution that an historical novel can relate. That saved the reading experience for me, which was more wooden than Vidal's previous accomplishments. Perhaps it is Vidal's talent that got him to create this as a crucial moment in American foreign policy, in which our involvement in such places as Irak are under scrutiny and our ideals are distrusted by the very allies that are supposed to benefit from them. It is an age of the most profound disillusionment and Vidal is providing the art that reflects this period.
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