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The Smithsonian Institution Hardcover – February 24, 1998

2.8 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Having astutely explored several historical periods in his fiction (Lincoln, etc.), Vidal has now produced an eccentric novel about a literal time machine and a boy who uses it to save the world (or one version of the world) from within the headquarters of Washington, D.C.'s public museum complex. On Good Friday, 1939, 13-year-old T. is summoned from his D.C. boarding school to the Mall for a mysterious meeting. It seems the outwardly average (if unusually attractive) young man has scribbled, in the margins of a math test, an equation that may be essential to the upcoming war effort. Cloistered with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, the Founding Fathers and other historical personages who have been kept alive in the Smithsonian's magical exhibits, T. struggles to solve the mysteries of space-time, prevent the coming war (in which he is doomed to die) and hold on to cradle-robbing Frankie Cleveland, the immortal 22-year-old version of Grover's First Lady. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Twain's Mysterious Stranger, part fictionalized autobiography, this bagatelle reintroduces many of the characters and themes already treated in Vidal's historical novels and memoirs. T. bears at least enough resemblance to Vidal's well-publicized great love?a St. Albans classmate who died at Iwo Jima?to explain the novelist's obvious affection for him. If the tale of T. remains a mostly private, somewhat rueful joke, it will no doubt charm Vidal's most devoted readers.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

YA-T. is 13 in 1939 and possesses, albeit unknowingly, the secret formula that will complement Einstein's theory and possibly alter the outcome of history as we know it. Because of his doodles on an algebra exam, the powers that beAand readers are never quite sure until the end who the powers areAarrange for him to be deposited at the doors of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Once inside, he is seduced in the Native American exhibit by a charming young thing he calls Squaw, but who turns out to be Frankie Cleveland, one of the womenAa very young oneAfrom the First Ladies exhibit. He soon realizes that the Institution contains many exhibits that come alive when the doors close, as well as laboratories for secret experiments. In his travels, he soon understands that he can visualize mathematical possibilities and respond to Einstein, Oppenheimer, and other scientists who are closed up in the museum along with a lobotomized Abraham Lincoln and even a statue representing T., killed in action during World War II. Obviously, much belief must be suspended and the time-travel episodes and glances at history both as it was and might have been are convoluted, but Vidal does know his American history. Through this disjointed, lightweight page-turner, readers pick up a historical awareness, especially of the presidents, almost painlessly. T.'s coming of age and subsequent romps with Frankie are risqu?, but all in fun and might be a further inducement to read on. An intriguing introduction to Vidal as well as enjoyable historical fiction.
Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (February 24, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375501215
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501210
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,258,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Centering around a main character named T., The Smithsonian Institution is part science fiction and part historical fact. T. is a child blessed with a gift for mathematics, and is enlisted by the government to help with the Manhattan project in the early 1940's. T. soon finds himself immersed in a world of greater fantasy than reality. He is hamming it up with Abe Lincoln, and discussing physics theories with Albert Einstein. As he searches for a way to end the war and create a nuclear bomb, T. finds that stranger things than normal are happening at the Smithsonian. T. soon finds himself consumed with time travel and changing history to stop a war that he knows will have a deadly outcome for himself. Gore Vidal has written a wildly entertaining book but it is not for the unimaginative. The reader must be willing to follow Vidal on his sidetracks and accept whatever strange conclusion they may have without using the historical reality available for judgement. Anyone who enjoys history and science fiction will enjoy this book, as long as it is not looked to for strict historical accuracy.
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Format: Audio Cassette
The secret to enjoying this book is to leave all preconceived notions about narrative form, literary propriety and the space/time continuum at the door of THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION. Vidal has built a long and respectable career on such well researched, highly detailed and finely wrought historical novels as JULIAN, LINCOLN, 1876 and EMPIRE, but the imp in him periodically runs off the rails and turns out a MYRA BRECKENRIDGE, a DULUTH ... or this nifty little thing.
The plot follows its own outre inner rules of logic. It involves the mannequins in the Smithsonian's First Ladies exhibit, along with their not-so-dummy husbands; Charles Lindbergh; a seriously cracked Abraham Lincoln (now Curator of Ceramics); and an attempt to change history and head off World War II. It defies further description or condensation.
All those carefully-crafted novels about American political history serve Vidal well here. His Presidents pulse with life and (historically accurate) personality. A confrontation between George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt proves riveting, and Grover Cleveland - one of the book's chief delights - behaves exactly as Grover Cleveland reconstituted as part of a museum exhibit and helping to avert nuclear catastrophe.
Vidal writes for the most part with a cool and polished aloofness -- sardonic rather than impassioned. His sharp, shrewd wit gleams and glints throughout, sometimes with gentle, bemused humor; sometimes like a knife. But he holds strong views about what he terms the `American empire', and he drops the mask of unengaged bystander on one point: the tragic waste of young people killed in war. He makes THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION not merely clever but powerful.
[I am reviewing the unabridged audio cassette edition, read by the excellent Grover Gardner.]
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Format: Paperback
This book is Vidal comment on the american society and how it came to be - and could be, and it is about presidency and running the country - and overall, quite philosophical and insightful view on the american condition. I think the other reviewers fail to see the depth of the work.
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By A Customer on January 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Unlike all the previous reviews of this novel I am not going to dwell on the time machine aspect. Instead I would just like to highlight the love story weaved through the text between Gore Vidal and the main character T....as Jimmie Trimble (Gore Vidal's friend whose was killed on Iwo Jima March 1 1945...one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific). But in this time domain Vidal saves his lover.
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By C. Morris on December 21, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great book, full of history yet far more accessible than his other books. Good choice for a high school student (though there is a small amount of sex, but it is lighthearted), especially before a trip to the Smithsonian.
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By A Customer on November 1, 1998
Format: Hardcover
A clever "museum-based" book is Gore Vidal's 1998 novel, The Smithsonian Institution. In this fictional invention, set in 1939, Vidal imagines a Smithsonian where the exhibits come to life each day at closing time, and where the museum staff is working with the exhibit characters and real-life scientists, such as Oppenheimer and Einstein, to develop the atomic bomb. Into all this steps T., a teenage boy from St. Alban's School who has absentmindedly scribbled the key equation for the bomb in the margins of his algebra final. When the exhibits come to life, T. joins them in their time. Thus, his first after-hours wandering finds him in an old west exhibit, where he is nearly roasted alive by a group of native americans (The woman who rescues him, who, it turns out, is Mrs. Grover Cleveland, calls him "Veal" for the remainder of the story). In the course of his work, T. discovers a means successfully to time-travel. (A previous, unsuccessful, attempt at time travel by Smithsonian staff rescued Lincoln from Ford's Theatre the moment he was struck with the bullet, with the result that a slightly addled Lincoln now presides in the bowels of the musuem as curator of ceramics). T. takes on himself to alter events so that the world wars do not happen; he prevents wars in Europe, but succeeds in moving Pearl Harbor forward by two years. As always, Vidal is incapable of writing a dull sentence, and this short (260 pgs.) novel marvelously combines great humor, clever conundrums, and serious questions. Vidal has no sacred cows, so some part of his impressions of historical figures and events is sure to offend any reader. Very enjoyable!
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