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
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