Burr is a historical novel with two interwoven timelines and two first-person narrators. In 1833, Charles Schuyler (not related to the Schuyler sisters), a journalist and aspiring lawyer, befriends the elderly Burr and coaxes him to tell his side of the story. It’s election time, and Schuyler has secretly been hired to get proof that Presidential candidate Martin van Buren is Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son, in the hopes of discrediting his candidacy. But as Burr tells his life story, Schuyler gets seriously mixed feelings.

I was given this book in high school by one of my uncles (I forget which; it would have been in character for either) because he thought it was well-written and I’d appreciate the prose. Despite a near total lack of knowledge and interest in the time period, I not only enjoyed it a lot (the prose is indeed excellent), but got curious about the duel and spent about a month reading primary sources in the library (this was pre-internet) to figure out exactly what was up with it and who shot first. Once I had satisfactory theories for that, I reverted to my previous lack of interest in the period for the next 25 years.

Then came Hamilton. So I re-read Burr. Vidal’s afterword says that apart from inventing Charlie Schuyler and much of the 1833 - 1840 storyline, and moving characters around in a few minor ways, it’s as historically accurate as he could make it in terms of facts and even dialogue as recorded at the time. The opinions, of course, are the characters’.

This is probably true (it’s definitely more historically accurate than Hamilton in terms of what happened to whom when), and yet even apart from opinions, when one writes fiction rather than biography— actually, even in all but the most exhaustive and objective biographies— you still choose which facts to include and which to leave out. (And even those biographies must choose how to phrase their statements of fact, and thus leave different impressions on readers. Simply writing an exhaustive biography makes the statement, “This person was important. Their life deserves to be recorded in excruciating detail.) No story of a real person, whether fictionalized or true, will recreate that person as they really were. Gather them all together, and you get a sort of pointillist painting, a thousand different stories making up a portrait of a man. Look closer, and they fragment again.

Miranda’s Burr and Vidal’s Burr are clearly derived from aspects of the real man, but are very different people. Vidal’s Burr is both more cynical and more playful, charismatic but misanthropic; he flat-out hates Hamilton and is only sorry he killed him, if he is sorry, because it ruined Burr too. Miranda’s Burr is a potentially great man with a fatal flaw, who the misfortune to be inspired by, provoked by, and finally destroy and be destroyed by his opposite and mirror image, a great man with his own fatal flaw. Miranda’s Burr regrets; Vidal’s Burr blames.

Neither of those guys sounds remotely like the deeply weird person who comes across if you read a summary of Burr’s life that includes the stuff that can’t be proven or remains mysterious (supposedly fondled a marble bust of Hamilton post-duel and said, “There was the poetry;” allegedly attempted to secede from the US and make himself Emperor) or excerpts from his diary (in which he accidentally sets himself on fire and attacks someone with an umbrella that has a knife in the handle.)

Vidal’s book has two somewhat unreliable narrators, but the third somewhat unreliable narrator is Vidal himself. Like anyone writing historical fiction and, to some inevitable extent, history, he chooses the events that support a cohesive character of his own imagining, and leaves out or downplays the ones that don’t. And that’s completely apart from the made-up episodes, like his theory on what Hamilton said (or Burr was told that he said) that provoked the duel. (I can see where Vidal got the idea, but there doesn’t seem to be any historical basis for it ever having been said at all, let alone that Hamilton said it.)

Not one of the Founding Fathers comes across well from Burr’s perspective: Washington is lumbering and incompetent in battle, Jefferson is canny but a snake in the grass and nowhere near the genius he’s portrayed, Madison well-meaning but pathetic, and Hamilton brilliant but vicious and hypocritical. The more Burr insists that Hamilton keeps projecting his own worst qualities on to him, and the more he blames everyone else for all the bad things he supposedly did, the more the reader gets the impression that there’s projecting going on, all right, but at least fifty percent of it is coming from Burr.

In an early scene, an actor pulls a friend away from a fight and misquotes Iago, saying, “You know what you know.” (I think at that period actors sometimes modernized Shakespeare’s dialogue, so that may be a nod to that rather than an error. Iago’s actual lines are “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”) This scene does not initially seem to have much to do with anything (it does set up some later stuff) and but mostly seems to be there to get readers thinking about Othello. (Vidal explicitly identifies the quote.)

Miranda’s Burr sings in the closing lines of the song “We know,” “We both know what we know.”

Those are both common phrases, so Miranda’s use may not be meant to echo either Vidal or Iago… but on the other hand, the Iago line is extremely famous and Miranda certainly would know it from Othello even if he wasn’t also inspired by Burr. (I would guess that he has read Burr; it’s pretty famous.) It’s the moment when you realize that Iago’s stated motives (way too many stated motives) were probably all lies or rationalizations, leaving the audience with a mystery never to be solved. What we know, we know… and we still have no idea why Iago destroyed Othello and, in doing so, destroyed himself. Remind you of anyone?

More subtly, it reminds us of a major theme of Vidal’s book, which is the unreliable narrator and the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what really happened in the past. We know what we know… but is it true? Who told us what we know? Should we believe it? Did they have a hidden motive, like Schuyler coaxing Burr to tell his stories, Burr hoping to vindicate himself, Schuyler hoping for the dirt on Martin van Buren, and both lonely men unwilling to admit that they want a friend? Who wrote our history books, and what did they think we should believe? Vidal and Miranda’s Burrs both know that they’ve been painted as villains, and try to tell their side of the story. And both Vidal and Miranda consciously re-tell history to hold a mirror to the politics of their own times.

Back to Othello letters are very important in the play. They also are in the real-life story of Burr and Hamilton, and furthermore play more of a role in both Burr and Hamilton than is required to just tell the story. The duel letters are obvious, but letters to Theodosia are important in both works (in very different contexts) and there’s also the letter-burning in “Burn.” (Which also involves infidelity, which of course is a huge plot point in Othello, though there the accusations are false.) The Othello motif is for sure intentional in Burr; not sure about Hamilton, but it’s interesting to consider.

There’s much more of Iago in Vidal’s Burr than in Miranda’s, but Miranda’s Burr is certainly acting in a Machiavellian manner in “We know.” Finally, though obviously concepts of race were different then, Iago is white and Othello is black, and that is important in the play. While Vidal’s Hamilton is white, “Creole bastard” comes up, just as it does in Miranda’s play; Hamilton wasn’t a racial minority as we think of it now, but people did have issues with where he came from. In Hamilton, of course, the most significant use of race is actors of color playing white people; Othello was often played by a white actor in blackface up until relatively recent times.

The characters in Hamilton are, by and large, infinitely nicer, better, more idealistic, and more likable people than in Burr… but then again, Vidal’s Burr has a vested interest in making everyone else look bad to make himself look good in comparison. Miranda’s Burr states his own case, but also narrates Hamilton’s story with honest admiration when that’s what he feels, even if he hates feeling it.

Othello aside, it’s fun to see where Vidal and Miranda were drawing inspiration or even lines from the same historical source, but did completely different things with it. For instance, you can see that they both thought the historic Jefferson was a giant racist and decided to take him down a peg or hundred.

Vidal’s Burr is charming even in decay— you can tell that you’d like him if you met him— but beneath that still-sparkling surface, human feeling is reserved for only a precious few. Everyone else is held in witty contempt. However, there is real feeling between Burr and Schuyler (much to Schuyler’s angst, given what he’s supposed to be doing), which keeps the book from feeling too grim or depressing. It’s cynical and sometimes quite dark (and contains period-accurate racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) but also well-plotted, gripping, and witty.

Burr
starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)

From: [personal profile] starlady


Recently I've had cause to argue with some people who seem to feel that, because Hamilton is the protagonist of the musical, Burr must have been a totally great guy in real life. I don't think that's how it works, particularly given certain undeniable facts about Burr: he was also the only one of the Founding Fathers arrested for treason! Given all that, I tend to read the fact that Burr corresponded with Mary Wollstonecraft about gender equality as part of his general weirdness, though if there's period accurate sexism in the novel from Burr, that's probably Vidal's biases showing rather than Burr's.

Anyway, thanks for the write up! Sounds pretty interesting.
brainwane: My smiling face in front of a brick wall, May 2015. (Default)

From: [personal profile] brainwane

on Iago


Your mention of Othello & Iago reminded me to go reread Max Gladstone on Iago as systematizer and I was wondering what thoughts you might have on that, and on that archetype specifically as compared to the Burrs you've read/heard.
skygiants: Enjolras from Les Mis shouting revolution-tastically (la resistance lives on)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


well, I am now probably going to read Gore Vidal's Burr

(even though my favorite Burr, when you take Leslie Odom's voice out of the equation -- which is hard to do! -- is definitely the SUPER WEIRD, AWKWARD, MESS of a Burr one gets from his private diaries. Do we know if he ever intended those to be read posthumously, by the way?)
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


I dunno, I mean, I do wonder about this, because SUPER WEIRD AWKWARD BURR is indeed (to me, at least) extremely charming, in a hashtag-relatable sort of way. Affection for an attractive human disaster can't be a totally modern thing, right?

He's like -- you know what the comparison for Diary Burr is, he's like a character from a kdrama. US media tends to go either full comedy or full serious drama, but kdrama has exactly that whiplash-balance of sitcom farce that can turn to tragedy on a dime.

(Although, like, anachronistically ... the reason I ask about the diaries is because some of the stories he tells really do feel like LJ posts or tumblr posts. You can absolutely imagine him having an "it could only happen to Burr" tag. And, like, as someone who writes a fair number of 'lol yes OK I did leave the oven on for a week' 'lol yes OK I got locked in my own apartment' posts about my own life, those stories are definitely true! but also, obviously, phrased in such a way as to be entertaining etc.)
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


I dunno -- I mean, comedians do kind of the same thing, right? "Here is a story about what a failure I am, presented in a way that makes me look funny and charming, and makes you relate to me." And celebrity personalities -- look at the cults around 'awkward adorable Chris Evans,' for ex. I mean, I mostly see that play out in fandom culture, which is a skew, but ... fandom culture is not small.

(Also, I mean. Awkward Aaron Burr seems legitimately 100% more charming than ALMOST ANY of our current crop of presidential candidates. Would I vote for the would-be Emperor of Mexico in this election? MAYBE.)

I DESPERATELY WANT THE MANGA ABOUT AARON BURR. At the very least, I'm looking forward to takarazuka Hamilton.

Ha, no, I only wish I had read the complete diaries! SOMETIME SOON. My knowledge is only drawn from the excerpts I see floating around tumblr, which, admittedly, may be why they remind me of Relatable Tumblr Posts.
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


I have no idea either! I guess there's always "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams, who seems to have made a political career out of being a huge interpersonal failure ... though that's kind of a different angle on the 'how DID this man see any popular success?'

It's kind of interesting, though, especially in light of the whole 'legacy' thing that Hamilton hammers so hard -- like, so many of these men did clearly, consciously build a legacy with their personal papers, and expected their loved ones to turn their writing into a monument to them after they were gone, and then there's ... Aaron Burr's diaries?

Takarazuka is just me spitballing, but surely it will be a thing someday, right? (I mean, it would be remarkably difficult to make it a thing -- translating that level of lyrical density would be a challenge even without the sheer referential allusiveness of it -- but I firmly believe people will try.)

PLEASE REPORT BACK IF THEY ARE READABLE *__* I'm going on a trip this week, I would absolutely pay $2 for the opportunity to spend my train journey reading about Aaron Burr Failing At Life.
dafna: (Default)

From: [personal profile] dafna


"We both know what we know" is also a call-back to Jefferson's taunt of "if you don't know, now you know" which is explicitly a Biggy reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JZom_gVfuw

From: [identity profile] lady-ganesh.livejournal.com


That sounds great. On my list after I plow through Chernow (which is also excellent but SO MUCH BOOK).

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Rufus Wainright meets King Herod! (I would have said Paul McCartney meets King Herod, but close enough.)
ext_6284: Estara Swanberg, made by Thao (Default)

From: [identity profile] estara.livejournal.com


Relevant to your interests, Julie Dillon just reblogged this on tumblr and I thought of you right away - http://juliedillon.tumblr.com/post/140331878363/euclase-a-dot-ham-drawn-in-ps
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