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1876: A Novel Paperback – February 15, 2000
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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The more things change, the more they stay the same: "The last few days would have brought down any parliamentary government. As it is, the Grant Administration is a shambles, and there is even talk that the President may resign."
Charles Schuyler, the narrator of Burr, returns to the United States after an absence of nearly 40 years, with his widowed daughter, Emma, in tow. While they try to find a suitably rich husband for Emma among the New York social set, Charles concentrates on the scandals in Washington--including accusations of corruption and obstruction of justice against Ulysses S. Grant--and the presidential race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden (Tilden apparently, in fact, won the election, only to have it taken away because of electoral fraud). Cameo appearances by Chester A. Arthur, Mark Twain, Charles Nordhoff, and others enliven the proceedings. --Ron Hogan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Suspenseful and extravagantly decorated. . . . If you think politics are dirty now, you should have witnessed the goings-on a hundred years ago. . . . Impossible to resist." --Cosmopolitan
"Vidal writes so well that you find yourself holding your breath over something that is a foregone conclusion. . . . Vidal's talent makes the bloated characters of Washington live in a way history books don't." --The Boston Globe
Top customer reviews
IMO, Vidal’s work is almost as good when he recreates a contemporaneous version of New York City. In doing so, he shows both the demimonde, in which James Gordon Bennett, the young, reckless, and cavorting publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, is an enthusiastic participant. And he shows Gilded Age New York, as he simulates the social milieu of Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister, her society arbiter. Also in this historical mix is William Cullen Bryant, who was the editor at the Evening Post, a leading Republican newspaper.
Tying these two worlds together is Vidal’s narrator, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, who is a 63 year-old journalist who has returned to America after more than thirty years in Europe, mostly in Paris; and Charlie’s thirty-something daughter Emma, who is the widow of a minor French nobleman. Charlie, who lost his fortune in the Panic of 1873, must both make his living as a journalist and do what he can to find a suitable husband for Emma.
Emma is an interesting character. She is beautiful but practical and realizes she needs a well-to-do husband. Further, she is adept in high society, where she is regaled as a French princess and esteemed guest. At the same time, Charlie believes she is fully aware of the shallowness of society. And near the end of "1876: A Novel", Vidal drops a bombshell and Charlie is forced to confront Emma, who may have done something truly evil.
Charlie Schuyler, in contrast, never really jells as a character. What he is, instead, is a cluster of roles the Vidal had to attribute to someone in order to make his novel work. He’s an experienced journalist who has written from Europe for both the Herald Tribune and the Evening Post. And his daughter is a minor French aristocrat. This gives him access to society, politicians, and the newspapers, which are covering the Grant Administration and the 1876 election. It’s all plausible; there could have been such a person. But Charlie never becomes more than Vidal’s fly on the wall. IMHO, he also suffers from terminal hauteur, which makes him dull.
There is, btw, some inside-baseball in "1876: A Novel" that’s amusing. The best is Charlie on a visit with Ward McAllister to an estate in Rhinebeck, New York. There, the house was “a fine example of the Greek style… Six tall columns form a portico that overlooks a sweep of lawn ending in willow trees and the Hudson River. The house is beautifully proportioned with a north wing consisting of a single octagonal room two stories high and lit by a glass cupola that must make it unpleasantly hot in the summer and impossible to heat in the winter.” And guess who owned that house in 1976, when "1876: A Novel" was published?
Rounded up and sorta recommended.
1876 now comes across is a bit dated: it's ironic that notwithstanding his radical politics and flamboyant lifestyle, Vidal was a fairly traditional novelist. That said, it provides a fascinating portrait of New York and Washington, DC during the Gilded Age. The book is now out of print--thank you, Amazon for working with used bookstores to provide "lost treasures"--I hope that it and the other volumes in Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" series will soon be reissued as a set.
Vidal presents the basic formula that war begets large sums of money changing hands, which in turn incites greed, hence corruption. In the New York City of the post civil war era, a stratification of the classes has begun. The men with the officer titles (Commodore, Colonel, Major, General) divide the spoils of wars, hoarding fortunes, while the common grunts are beggars on the streets, doomed to petty theft for survival.
In Washington DC, Vidal paints a picture of America where democracy has not been a success. The presidential election of 1876 puts America at the verge of another civil war. States are sending conflicting poll returns to the Congress and the Electoral College. Votes are for sale. The Republican Party and troops under the republican President U.S. Grant have openly been trying to reverse the popular vote won by Democrat Tilden. Tilden, portrayed by Vidal as honest with the ill-conceived notion of winning an election by scholarly arbitration and argument of political ideals, is given the dilemma. He ran for president on the platform of reform, but to win the election, he must outspend the incumbent Republican Party.
Vidal's strength is his immense vivid characterizations and poignant observations. Only with fictional characters can he provide a first hand perspective of so many historical events and persons. Although the setting of the book is 1876, and the main narrator is Charles Schuyler, Vidal is clearly providing his critique of modern America. Vidal is obviously opinionated and is not writing as an objective historian. The federal government is portrayed the most corrupt in the western world while the press is preoccupied with idiotic irrelevancies such as the wardrobes of the aristocratic rich. Vidal is at his best when describing the ceremonies of court and the accouchements of power battles. Whether writing about roman emperors or centennial presidents, his views of the current social and political milieu are clearly reflected.