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Tom Chaney: 1876

Of Writers And Their Books: 1876. Tom says this story of politics in 1876 tells of a stolen election when Rutherford B. Hayes 'beat' Ben Tilden. Votes from Florida were involved. This column first appeared 7 June 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "What We Need Is Here" --Wendell Berry

By Tom Chaney


There are some authors whose books I should never get around. If I spy one out of place in the store, I am apt to pick it up and re-re-read for the umptyleventh time. Those authors go on my senility list I'm keeping of the books I want to read again for the first time.

Such a writer is Gore Vidal and such a book is 1876 his centennial novel for the bicentennial. It was written to complete his trilogy which covers the history of the republic between his Burr and the later Washington, D.C. -- George Washington to F.D.R.

Some critics did not like 1876 when it appeared in time for the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976. I take issue with those folks.

I have written here about a couple of other Vidal novels, Julian and Lincoln. Don't worry. There will be no test over them -- ever.

When I found a bedraggled copy of 1876 kicking about on the shelf, I decided to read it once again.

I had forgotten just how relevant rereading it would have been in 2000 at the time of the hanging chad business in Florida which was also resolved in the Supreme Court -- a matter which involved candidate Al Gore, a distant cousin of the author.

1876 deals with another stolen election at the time of the Centennial. Ben Tilden, governor of New York, was the Democratic candidate for president. Rutherford B. Hayes, senator from Ohio, was the Republican. Tilden won the popular vote. Republicans challenged the results in Oregon, Louisiana, and, yes, Florida knowing that the reconstruction administrations in Florida and Louisiana could be counted on, for a price, to swing the votes to Ruther"fraud" B. Hayes.

Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler narrates 1876. At 63 he has returned to America after a much extended stay abroad where he had married a Swiss lady and produced a lovely daughter, Emma. Emma wed Prince Agrigente of France. The prince and Charlie's wife have died. Emma in her mid thirties has left her sons with her mother-in-law and has come with her father, Charlie to America.

Both are nigh penniless. Charlie has returned with hopes of writing of the nation's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and of the upcoming presidential election. He hopes to secure a diplomatic appointment to France in the new hoped-for-but-not-to-be Tilden administration and to secure a son-in-law who can support Emma.

Charlie has the same clear eye and sharp tongue he delighted us with in Burr. He is, after all, the illegitimate son of that novel's title character.

Charlie touts himself as an historian. In one delightful exchange among himself, Garfield, and Baron Jacobi the topic of the believability of history comes up.

" Garfield is a devoted reader of the classics. Baron Jacobi has read the classics but is not devoted to them as history -- 'only as literature. Who, after all, believes a word that Julius Caesar wrote? His little History was simply a sort of leg up for his political career.'

" 'But if we can't believe those classical writers whose works have come down to us, then how can we ever know any history?' Garfield is passionate on the subject.

" 'I think, General, the answer to that is very simple. We cannot know any history, truly. I suppose somewhere, in Heaven perhaps, there is a Platonic history of the world, a precise true record. But what we think to be history is nothing but fiction. Isn't that so, Mr. Schuyler? I appeal to you, perversely since you are a historian.'

" 'And therefore a novelist? . . .'

" 'I agree, Baron. There is no absolute record.' "

One critic notes that Vidal has Democratic Governor Tilden say, "those gentlemen [the Republicans] have only one real interest, and that is the making of special laws to protect their fortunes," it is equally true, he observes, that the G.O.P. has often gained and maintained power by the patriotic appeal, by putting out more flags than anybody else.

After the disappointment of the election Charlie takes a contract to do a book on it. Emma ends her engagement to a member of the New York Apgar attorney clan, and marries one of the recently widowed robber barons, departing with him on his yacht for Europe.

As history, 1876 is a fine novel -- getting us as close to the bone and sinew of the buying and selling of America in the gilded age as any historian could achieve. With the same wicked, rapier-like wit as in the novel Lincoln which took us into the unknowable heart of the man.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-06-08 04:42:30
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