Burr: Scapegoat or scapegrace?

In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”

Cover of Burr shows close-up of dueling piece.
Dueling pistol trigger mechanism is background image.

One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.

Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.

Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.

The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.

Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.

Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).

Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.

Burr by Gore Vidal
Ballantine Books, © 1973, [paper] p. 564 p.
1973 bestseller #5. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Reviewer’s note: Get the hardbound edition. The yellowed pages of the paperback were painful to read.

The Carolinian is saved by its subplot

The Carolinian is a historical novel set in South Carolina in the early days the American Revolution.

Rafael Sabatini’s novel fails as a romance—its loving couple don’t trust each other an inch—but a supporting plot almost makes up for the book’s predictable and silly love story.

The Carolinian by Rafael Sabatini

Grosset & Dunlap, 1924,  414 pp. 1925 bestseller # 9. My grade: C.

Cover of 1925 edition of The Carolinian: title and author name in black type on blue cover.As the novel opens, Harry Latimer’s fiance, Myrtle Carey, has returned his ring upon learning he’s joined the Sons of Liberty.

Harry suspects fortune-hunting, English army officer Capt. Mandeville has inserted a spy into the rebel cell.

That’s the only time in the novel, Harry gets something right: Harry has the psychological perceptivity of a hedgehog, and Myrtle is his soul-mate.

The novel’s real interest is lawyer John Rutledge.

Carolinians select Rutledge to lead them in the defense of Charles Town and the fight for independence from the Crown, despite his tendency to be somewhat imperial himself.

Fearing the town’s residents will be slaughtered by overwhelming odds, Rutledge initiates negotiations for surrender.

While passions flare around him, Rutledge scribbles away with a pencil, oblivious to everything but the document on which he’s working.

Although the Rutledge incident didn’t happen the way Sabatini tells it, it should have: It’s far more exciting than Harry and Myrtle.

 © 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Richard Carvel: Memoir of Macaroni Era

Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel purports to be the memoir of a colonial Marylander. It’s really a formula romance decked in the manners and fashions of the 18th century “macaronis.”

Richard lives with his grandfather, a devout Tory, but imbibes the rebellious spirit growing in the colonies. He also falls for the girl next door. Dorothy’s father whisks the family “home” to London hoping the girl’s looks will win her a rich, titled husband.

Richard’s devious, greedy Uncle Grafton has him kidnapped and sold to a slaver. Richard meets a ex-patriot Scot and accompanies him to London. The two make friends of politicians who later will plead the American cause in Parliament.

When the colonies declare independence, Richard goes to sea under his pal John Paul Jones.

Richard wins fame, fortune, and fair lady.

Churchill tells only those things that Richard was likely to note. His singlemindedness would be welcome if the characters and plot were not stock items from the romance shelf.

Three days after you close the cover, you’ll have forgotten Richard Carvel entirely.

Richard Carvel
by Winston Churchill
Illus. Carlton T. Chapman and Malcolm Fraser
Macmillan, 1899
538 pages
1900 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg Ebook #5373
My grade: C

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

American Revolution Overshadows Janice Meredith

Paul Leicester Ford’s subtitle to his 1900 bestselling romance, Janice Meredith, reveals what’s good and bad about the novel: It’s about the American Revolution, not about Janice Meredith.

As the novel opens, a man calling himself Charles Fownes, newly arrived in New Jersey from England, begins a five-year indenture to Lambert Meredith.

Meredith’s pro-British sentiments and high-handedness with this tenant farmers have made him unpopular with the lower strata of society, which in 1774 is already seething with resentment against King George. Locals suspect Fownes is a deserter from the British army using a false name.

Fownes is immediately enamored of Meredith’s buxom, 15-year-old daughter, Janice, and almost as soon smitten with enthusiasm for the rebel cause. Before long, he’s doing work for General Washington.

Yorktown is under siege seven years later before Ford reveals who the indentured servant really is.

The implausibility of both the fictional characters and the plot makes this long novel seem longer than the Revolution.

Having generals Washington, Howe, and Cornwallis pour their top-secret plans into Janice’s shell-like ear beggars belief. She’s a brainless bimbo, with a mental age of about 4.

Janice Meredith would have been a much better book without Janice Meredith in it.

Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution
By Paul Leicester Ford
Mary Mannering Edition
With a Miniature by Lillie V. O’Ryan
and numerous Scenes from the Play
Project Gutenberg EBook #5719
My grade: C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Oh, say, can you see any great Revolutionary War novels?

In honor of Independence Day, I thought I’d pull a list of vintage bestsellers about the War for Independence. I was surprised at how few novels were written about the American Revolution and even more surprised by how unmemorable those few are. In nearly every case, the historical information is more interesting than the invented plot and characters.

Here’s a short list of some long novels about the American War for Independence with links to reviews on this site.

Oliver Wiswell by  Kenneth Roberts (1940) is a story of the Revolution told from the perspective of an English loyalist, and the best of the five novels.

The Tree of Liberty by Elizabeth Page (1939)  is a slow-moving story of the political in-fighting among the colonists attempting to free themselves from the rule of the Crown.

Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds (1937)  is a tale of pioneers in upstate New York who spent most of the Revolution fighting off Indian raids and waiting for Congress to pay them the money it owed them.

Stars on the Sea by F. Van Wyck Mason (1940) is a fictional account of how America got her Navy.

Alice of Old Vincennes  by Maurice Thompson (1901) is the story of a pro-colonist pioneer lass at Fort Vincennes, which changed hands several times during the Revolution.

Photo credit: “Stars” uploaded by Patwise http://www.sxc.hu/photo/581534

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Historical fact renders Alice of Old Vincennes implausible

Maurice Thompson got the idea for Alice of Old Vincennes from a scrap of a letter by Gaspard Roussillon dated 1788. The letter aroused Thompson’s curiosity. His research stirred his imagination to plug gaps in the historical record.

Roussillon, a wealthy and influential French trader, has adopted the lovely orphaned Protestant child, Alice Tarleton, and is bringing her up as his daughter.

When the colonies declare war on the Crown, the French at Vincennes side with the colonies against the British and their Indian allies.

Colonel George Rogers Clark sends the rough Lt. Helm and the suave Lieutenant Fitzhugh Beverley to take charge of the miliary post at Vincennes.

The British under Hamilton take the fort, but they don’t get the American flag: Alice takes it down and has it hidden. Hamilton determines to break “the frogs” of Vincennes.

Beverley escapes and heads for Clark’s encampment, surviving torture by Indians and torture by the elements of nature. Clark, though outnumbered, outsmarts Hamilton and retakes Vincennes.

Alice and Beverley marry and go to live with their kin in Virginia.

The facts Thompson unearthed were sufficiently romantic that little embroidery was necessary to create a plot. Unfortunately, the historical facts appear totally implausible when presented in novel form.

Literature demands plausibility that life does not produce.

Alice of Old Vincennes
by Maurice Thompson
1901 Bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg e-book #4097
My grade B-
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

History Swamps Storytelling in Stars on the Sea

Stars on the Sea is F. van Wyck Mason’s novelized account of how American got its Navy.

Tim Bennett, son of a prosperous Newport merchant, takes lunar leave from the army defending Boston at the urging of his fiancé, Lucy. He’s just getting home when Redcoats burn Newport, beggaring the family. In the skirmish, Tim’s sister’s   Redcoat lover is killed and her affair made public. Desire flees Newport to live as best a beautiful teenage girl can on her own.

Lucy’s family hustle her off so she won’t marry Tim. He takes off to the Bahamas in hopes of getting letters of marque and using one of his father’s ships there to restore the family fortune—and harrass the British.

Van Wyck Mason falls into the trap that catches so many historical novelists: he puts in too much history. In fact-dense fashion, he tries to show maritime events from Maine to Trinidad. The result is a tenuous patchwork of events, people, places.

That patchwork quality is the novel’s salvation. The characters are too sketchy, the plot too dependent on coincidence for the story to withstand concentrated attention on any one character.

Stars on the Sea
By F. van Wyck Mason
J. B. Lippincott, 1940
720 pages
My grade: C

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Loser Oliver Wiswell’s View of Revolution Is a Winner

In Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts explores history from Bunker Hill to Yorktown from the perspective of a Loyalist historian who views the revolution as “the American Civil War.”

Oliver Wiswell rescues Tom Buell from a mob of the Sons of Liberty who turn the pair and Oliver’s dying father from their Massachusetts home.

Oliver and Tom wind up as British spies. Their spying takes them to England and France, but Oliver never forgets the girl he left in Massachusetts.

Later Oliver and Tom go back to the colonies to see what’s happening to the Loyalists. The two are in New York when Cornwallis surrenders to Washington.

Afterward, the Loyalists have to flee. Some go south to the Caribbean. Oliver and Tom lead an emigration to Canada.

This novel’s historical detail is more interesting than either its plot or its fictional characters. Roberts makes the usual points about both sides in a war being bad, equally disillusioned, equally disgusted by incompetent leadership.

Where the novel shines, however, is in showing how both rebels and loyalists were insulted by British criticism of Americans. Perhaps if American diplomats were to read Oliver Wiswell, they’d have better insight into contemporary events in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Java.

Oliver Wiswell
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, Doran, 1940
836 pages
1940 Bestseller #7
My Grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tree of Liberty Moves Slower than Congress

In  The Tree of Liberty, Elizabeth Page uses the family of Matthew Howard as a lens through which to view American history from 1754 through 1806.

The Howards had kin and connections throughout the colonies and among the political elite of the Revolutionary era. Page doesn’t have to invent situations to show the political turmoil of those days.

Page follows Matt as he grows up hearing tales of the frontier, adoring Colonel Washington and going to school with Tom Jefferson.

Matt marries a Tidewater aristocrat, Jane Peyton, who instinctively distrusts “the common people” as much as Matt champions them. Their political differences carry on through two more generations.

The novel really isn’t about the Howards, though.  The main character is really the American political system, the “tree of liberty.”

Page’s novel moves almost as slowly as the actual events she describes.

I felt as if I should care, that reading the novel was good for me, but that didn’t make me enjoy it.

The novel might have a salutary effect on Americans fretting over the slowness of the Iraqi government to achieve democracy, but, quite honestly, reading about the growth of the tree of liberty is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

The Tree of Liberty
By Elizabeth Page
Farrar & Rinehart 1939
973 pages
1939 bestseller # 8
My Grade: C +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

History Steps Lively to Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the Mohawk is an historical novel of New York’s Mohawk Valley during the Revolution.

In 1776, Gilbert Martin and his bride, Lana, set up their new frontier home in the Mohawk Valley west of Schenectady. British troops and their Indian allies attack repeatedly, wiping out settlements, taking scalps, leaving survivors to starve. Gil and Lana lose a baby as their farm goes up in smoke.

Unable to farm his land, Gil takes over running a wealthy widow’s farm. Even her wealth is no defense against the enemy’s scorched-earth policies.

Congress compounds the settlers’ misery by imposing taxes, issuing worthless currency, and paying the militia poorly, if at all.

Faced with starvation, the farmers fight back.

Drums Along the Mohawk is an easy way to get a grasp of the Revolution as seen from the man-in-the-field perspective. Walter D. Edmonds drew heavily on contemporary documents, inventing only the major characters to tie the facts together.

Edmonds accuracy is both bane and blessing. As long as he keeps his focus on Gil and Lana, the story is compelling. When he shifts focus away from them to national politics, the novel implodes. We’re left with just a pile of historical notes.

Drums Along the Mohawk
By Walter D. Edmonds
Little, Brown, 1936
592 pages
#5 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni