1. About a year ago I determined to read Gore Vidal's Narratives of Empire. I had been collecting them piecemeal for a while--watching Amazon for sales on the Kindle editions (being overseas has made me an unapologetic ebook reader) and--having finally started reading Vidal's fiction after years of devotion to his essays--it seemed, in that distant January, a good idea to read his magnum opus. And so I read them--in publication order, not chronological, which means that I started with Washington D.C. (1967) and read Lincoln (1984) and 1876 (1976) in reversed order, since I was interested in seeing how Vidal slowly came to the realization that he had a series on his hands.
2. I am breaking no new ground when I say that the best books in this series are the three chronologically-earliest: Burr, Lincoln, and 1876. This is because all three are based either around a single figure or around a limited span of time. Later books--Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000)--grow progressively less disciplined, more sprawling. Washington D.C.--the first book written but occupying the same time-frame as The Golden Age--is an odd fit in the series since it is entirely focused on fictional characters.
3. I say The Golden Age is less disciplined, but that's only partly true. The first half of the novel, like the three best books in the series, is tightly focused around a single person--FDR--and leads to a single event--the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But that event occurs about in the middle of the book and then Vidal lets the narrative wander off into descriptions of the arts scene in New York following the War (largely enjoyable) and characters monologuing on the national security state (largely unenjoyable).
4. Late in his life, Vidal grew increasingly conspiracy-minded, and that shows in the final books of the series--particularly The Golden Age which is centered around the (to my understanding, historically doubtful) claim that FDR not only allowed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but maneuvered them so that attacking Pearl Harbor was their only choice. As with most conspiracy theories, this whole narrative requires more government machinery and more secrecy from more people than is practical--besides setting up FDR as the most brilliant mind of the century, something I suspect Vidal (who preferred Eleanor) did not intend.
5. But the thing about conspiracy theories is that they make terrific narratives. Consider JFK, which is absolute nonsense but which is also a wholly engrossing thriller.
The same thing is true of The Golden Age. Vidal's allegations may be nonsense, but they make for a terrific story.
6. Vidal is very canny here, by the way; in the afterward he asserts the total truth of his claims, but within the novel he hedges it with multiple contradictory perspectives--leaves in doubt exactly how much FDR actually did.
7. Regarding the other books: I place Lincoln pretty high, recognizing its quality, I don't actually care for it as much as some folks seem to (certainly not as much as Harold Bloom did). It is the first of the books (besides Washington D.C.) to be told in third person and Vidal's handling of point of view seems somewhat shaky. It's also the book that's least concerned with his fictional descendants of Aaron Burr, which might have something to do with its feeling of fitting oddly with the rest of the series.
8. Except for Burr and Lincoln, pretty much all of the books could be thought of as variations on the international theme in American literature. I am not original when I say that 1876 simply reverses the direction of the narrative, with innocent (ish) Europeans finding an already-corrupt America. The thing is, I can't remember where I read that; probably in Altman or Neilson. Vidal did speak kindly of Henry James (as did James Baldwin) and you can see the Jamesian fingerprints on these books from Empire onward.
9. Narratives of Empire is Vidal's preferred title for the series; his publishers apparently preferred The American Chronicles--and one can guess why. Either series-name is fairly portentous and the reader could be forgiven for not expecting humor. But these are pretty funny books; one book opens with William Randolph Hearst breaking a chair. So there's physical comedy--there's also the humor of the "typical American" approach to things rubbing up against the always-delightful Caroline Sanford, who first appears in Empire and proceeds to carry the series away under her arm.
10. Personal ranking:
The Golden Age
Yes, I was fairly down on The Golden Age above, but that first half really sings and I'm interested anyway in postwar culture, so....
Next up for me is The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. And then I have to decide if I want to tackle another long-and-slow reading project (probably finally committing to The Dream of the Red Chamber or else girding my loins for Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series).
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Nathanael T. Booth. All views are my own.