From Burr, by Gore Vidal, 1973. (Novel 1 in the 7-novel "Narratives of Empire" series, named the American Chronicle(s) series by Vidal's publisher.)
Burr begins in 1833, New York City. In the novel, observations of the protagonist, Charles "Charlie" Schuyler, a young man apprenticing in Aaron Burr's New York law office, are combined with passages from Aaron Burr's memoirs, fictionalized by Vidal, which focus heavily on Burr's fellow Revolutionary War heroes and the Founding Fathers. The novel's events span 1775–1836.
Leggett [chief editor of the Evening Post] looked at me with--well, amused scorn, as the English novelists say.
"Too long?" I had [written for him] a straightforward two-page description of [Aaron Burr's] wedding.
Leggett sighed. "We are interested in destroying Mr. Biddle's [national] bank, in promoting free trade, in the gradual abolition of slavery, in workers' unions. We are not interested in a retired whore's wedding to a traitor."
I was obliged to defend...Colonel [Burr.] "Aaron Burr is not a traitor, as far as we know. Madame Jumel is not a whore but a respectable and rich widow no matter what she might have been years ago. And this is damned interesting. The two most notorious people in New York have got married."
Leggett gave a long wheeze, to dignify disgust.... He failed [years ago] on the stage. Yet of course he is an actor.... As a journalist he has taken all politics and literature for his field, and is famous.
The curtain-raiser to Leggett's continuing drama occurred when he was cashiered from the navy for fighting a duel. At the court-martial he insulted his commanding officer with a tirade of quotations from Shakespeare.... Now he is a power in [New York City.] Yet he is plainly dying: a once solid frame shattered first by yellow fever in the navy, then consumption.
Leggett feels that to be excitingly right in general is better than to be dully accurate in particular. That is why he is such an effective journalist.
[From Aaron Burr's journal:] Towards the end of July, [1775,] I was watching a ragged company of New Yorkers at drill when General Washington approached. . . .
As Washington returned my salute I looked up into his face: the yellow pock-marked skin was lightly covered with powder; the gray eyes sunk in cavernous sockets were lusterless; the expression was grave but somewhat vacant.
[He] walked towards [two drunken soldiers fighting savagely]. For a large, rather ungainly man (he had the hips, buttocks and bosom of a woman), Washington could move with brutal swiftness.
[From Aaron Burr's journal:] Although Washington was always short of money, he lived grandly. Later in the war, we were all startled and amused when his mother put it about that son George had robbed her of everything and so, being destitute, she was forced to apply to the Virginia Assembly for a pension.... When word came for her son's "victory" at Trenton, the virago was quoted as saying, "here is too much flattery."
[From Aaron Burr's journal]: [Thomas Jefferson] had the fortunate gift of believing implicitly anything he himself said at the moment he said it.
[From Aaron Burr's journal]: [Thomas] Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves. It is amazing how beguilingly he could present this contradictory visions. But then in all his words if not deeds Jefferson was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers.
[From Aaron Burr's journal]: Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton never lied about issues, only men.
[After the Great Fire of New York, December 17, 1835:] Like everyone else in the city, I was awake the whole night. Half the First Ward has burned down.
It was Dante's Hell: ice and fire together. A horrible racket of bells pealing, of fire-engines clattering, of houses collapsing. At midnight the sky was like a red dawn. Today every New Yorker who knows how to read mentions The Last Days of Pompeii.
I am thankful that I won't be required to describe what I saw. Memory too crowded with fiery images. Wall Street in flames. A freezing wind full of fire--an anomaly.
Suddenly the new Merchants' Exchange vanishes in a long wave of flame. A moment later I was able to see through the walls to the statue beneath the dome of Alexander Hamilton [in the church graveyard.]
From nowhere, a half-dozen young sailors raced into the building and tried to save the statue. They pulled the figure off its pedestal but then the police forced them out of the building just in time for with a hissing sigh the dome fell in and Hamilton was seen no more (his would-be rescuer was a young officer from the Navy Yard--a banker's son, who else?).
A group of Irish approached [Leggett and I] and said, "They'll be making no more of them five-per-cent dividends, with they now?".... Leggett grinned and gave [the speaker] a thumbs-up.
In the side streets the shopkeepers were gloomily digging among the ashes to see what the fire had spared. In Pearl Street there are miles of scorched cloth stacked on the side-walls. In Fulton Street furniture. Nearly every street like an open bazaar of ruined good. The poor steal whatever they can, particularly food...as do the pigs, who have declared themselves a national holiday and are now rampant.... The only contented sound in the city is their squeaking and snorting as they turn up delicacies where once were taverns, grocery shops, homes."
Copyright © by Gore Vidal
Image (top): Nicolino V. Calyo. View of the Ruins after the Great Fire in New York, 1835. Gouache (bodycolor). Hirschl & Adler Galleries/Hirschl & Adler Modern. New York, New York. From here you can download a 1008 × 704 pixels JPEG of the painting.
Image (lower): Aaron Burr (attributed to Gilbert Stuart), c.1792-1794. Oil on canvas. From The Collections of The New Jersey Historical Society, Newark. From here you can download a 324 x 400 pixels JPEG of the painting.