With 1876, by Gore Vidal, I complete the TBR Pile Challenge for 2013. I am actually glad that both The Leopard and The Sweetness and the Bottom of the Pie turned out to be duds for me, because had they not, I might have put off reading this marvelous book even longer. It's been on my TBR shelf for decades--it was first published in 1976--and I think I got my copy sometime in the 1980's.
It is the third book in Vidal's Narratives of Empire series, which is a heptalogy of historical novels that chronicles American history from 1775, with Burr, to 2000, with The Golden Age. I read Lincoln, the book before 1876, and enjoyed it and have been meaning to read the rest of the series, but you know how that goes!
1876 is about the last days of the Grant administration and the much-contested election that brought Rutherford B. Hayes to the White House. The protagonist is Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, fictional illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, who has just returned to the U.S. after spending decades in France. Having lost his money in one of the many scandals that rocked the Gilded Age, he is working as a political journalist, primarily for the New York Herald. Because his daughter Emma, who has accompanied him, is a widowed Princess, all of New York and Washington societies are open to them.
Vidal really was a superb writer. In 1876, he explains the issues of the day, the political machinations, and the nuances of society beautifully and seamlessly in the context of his story. I felt that I learned so much about the Gilded Age, which has been one of those black holes in my knowledge of American history, and I found myself constantly using my iPad to look up people, places, and events that Vidal brushed up against in the course of the novel.
I particularly enjoyed Charlie's absolute disdain for Mark Twain. I felt that Charlie was definitely speaking for Vidal, and I have to say that I agreed with him. Of course, 1876 took place before Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--I wonder what Charlie would have thought about that book, which is, in my opinion, Twain's one redeeming work.
1876 is truly excellent historical novel and one that I wholeheartedly recommend, particularly for readers who enjoy Edith Wharton's novels. The world of 1876 is the one in which Wharton was a young girl, and the New York of 1876 is the New York she grew up in.
Edward Harrison May portrait of Edith Wharton