Okay, so for my selection of reading about Burr, I ended up with a historical novel rather than a straight up biography. Why? Well, uh, that’s what I found at the library book sale and from what I’ve seen on http://aaronburrssexdungeon.tumblr.com/ * the author wasn’t into any one book about him being the definitive work, but they did seem to like the Gore Vidal novel. So there you go.
*yes, that URL just looks terrible. As far as I can tell, it’s a Burr fan website, as there’s a fair amount of historical discussion about him on it, defending him, recounting ridiculous things he did in his journal, etc. No actual sex dungeon content found so far.
Anyway, the basis/plot of this book is that a young law clerk(?)** named Charlie Schulyer—not one of THOSE Schulyers***--wants to be a writer, but being a writer about any subject that isn’t political doesn’t make you money in 1833. He works for Aaron Burr and is pretty in with “the Colonel” and after writing up an account of Burr’s second marriage to Eliza Jumel for publication, gets hired by the editor of the Evening Post to do some more writing about Burr. He’s specifically hired to use his connection and find out if future president Martin Van Buren is really one of Burr’s many bastard sons.
** I think he’s some kind of clerk? He hasn’t taken the bar, though.
*** though really, if you’re gonna write about the Burr/Hamilton duel, why the heck do you use that last name for someone fictional?
Anyway, even though Burr already has an official biographer working on a biography of him—Matthew Davis—somehow both Burr and Davis are cool and froody with Charlie presumably writing a competing memoir. (Possibly because I attempted to read the Davis biography and glazed over with boredom REAL fast. The author was apparently bored too, saying, “These are the facts for those years and Mr. Davis simply puts them all down, pasting an occasional platitude over the Colonel’s wax-life effigy.”) Charlie found that suspicious and I do too—really, the only way it’s not suspicious is if you know Charlie isn’t real and thus isn’t going to be a rival, har har.
So Burr cheerfully dictates the details of his political life to Charlie, and occasionally Charlie talks to other personages during that time to get details about Burr. Meanwhile, Charlie dates a hooker named Helen Jewitt and puts her up in a hotel and their romance goes…weirdly. At any rate, he’s going to need the money that comes from his writing one way or another. In the end, Charlie ends up passing the buck/his research to another author (Davy Crockett?!) to write, which relieves him and gets him paid, and despite a crushing blow here and there, Charlie turns out all right in the end. He also has one last page revelation that…well, you can probably guess why Burr would be super friendly to several young men in this story. It is kind of odd that the supposed reason why Charlie is writing this piece pretty much falls by the wayside most of the time because as far as I can tell he just can’t get up the nerve to ask, though.
According to the author’s note at the back, Charlie is the only made up character in this book, everyone else was real, and he quoted real life sayings of the people involved wherever he could, and only did a bit of fudging here and here of history.
So how did I like this book? Well, the framing story of Charlie was just pretty odd from the get-go. He’s awkwardly done in his relationships, how he’s handling life, etc. He’s pretty much the guy you’re viewing Burr through, which is the point of him, so I guess that was the goal. But it makes it decidedly weird when we’re, say, focusing on his love life instead. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to just be a placeholder/Nick Carraway sort of dude or a “real” person. It’s strange.
On the other hand, Burr comes off as very snarky and charming and fun to listen to, and you definitely get why some folks were allured by the guy. He’s a fun character to hang around with—pretty dang blunt about almost everything except for why he shot Hamilton****, the sacred cows of Washington and Jefferson and what he didn’t like about them, why he did what he did, etc. The section where Burr and Charlie re-enact the duel is darned chilling. However, I did think it was sad that Burr’s relationships with his first wife and daughter were almost entirely left out of the story. I can only presume that the author wasn’t interested in that, but I think I would have liked to have heard about the heart of Burr, not just the snark.
**** supposedly Hamilton said something about Burr boinking his daughter, or at least that’s what the author has a character say that he thinks that put Burr over the edge to murder.
And there’s the occasional WTF moment, like a reference to Tyrone Power (pretty sure he’s not born yet here) and Burr noting that you can tell if a woman’s on her period from her breath. GROSS, DUDE.
Overall, I think I’m going to give it three and a half stars. Where it’s good, it’s good, where it’s weak, it’s kinda weak.
- “I go to the Hymeneal couch.” –Burr about his wedding. Dude, I’m pretty sure your new wife’s hymen is GONE, especially since you keep going on about how she was basically a hooker anyway.
- “We are not interested in a retired whore’s wedding to a traitor.” –Leggett.
- “Also, there is—I confess—a certain joy in tricking the slyest trickster of our time. I’m fond of the Colonel, but fonder still of survival.” --Charlie
- “Like everyone else I think of Washington as dull but perfect.” –Charlie
- “Washington’s view of war was simple and invariable: do nothing until you outnumber the enemy two to one.” -Burr
- “It has been my fate to be the centre of a thousand inventions, mostly of a disagreeable nature. I never deny these stories. People believe what they want to believe.” --Burr
- “It was our peculiar tragedy—or glory—to be of an age and quality at a time and place certain to make rivals of us. Yet from the beginning we had a personal liking for one another. We were like brothers (yes, Cain and Abel come to mind with the difference that each was part-Cain, part-Abel). At first meeting I knew Hamilton straight through. I suspect that he knew me as well, and could not endure the knowledge that of the two of us I alone had the means and talent to be what he most wanted to be, the president. He came to hate not only my capacity but my opportunity. Yet I wonder if he knew all along that I would fail, saw the flaw in me as I saw the one in him? Speculation is idle now. Like brothers, yes, but unlike too. He was envious. I am not. Thwarted ambition never turned me sour as it did Hamilton, who at the end could not endure the American world I was helping to make and so, quite irrationally, made me out to be that hideous reality incarnate. Curious to think that we would almost certainly have been friends had we not been two young “heroes” at the beginning of a new nation, each aware that at the summit there is a place for only one. As it turned out, neither of us was to reach the highest place. I hurled Hamilton from the mountain-side, and myself fell.” --Burr
- “I fear that I did not properly appreciate being an aide to Washington. I did not enjoy copying out letters asking Congress for money that was seldom forthcoming: the American soldier was as mercenary as any Hessian. No money, no battle. Nor did I much enjoy listening to the worshipful talk of the other aides who flattered Washington monstrously, to his obvious pleasure. I, on the other hand, was prone to question his judgement although I had been advised by everyone that independence of mind was not a quality he demanded of subordinates. We were happy to be rid of one another.” -Burr
- Burr identifies a teenaged Margaret Moncrieffe of being a secret Tory spy painting the language of flowers, he convinces General Putnam to remove her from the potential line of battle. Later she was returned to the British. She’s had a varied romantic life. “I am told she gives to me the honour of having been the first to take her virginity. But I do not think that would have been possible.” Hahahahahah.
- “For once everyone is right: Aaron Burr has made an agreement with the devil. Every dark legend is true.” -Charlie
“With yellow hair and blue eyes, I look like every caricature ever drawn of a Dutch lout.” –Charlie (who seems to hate being Dutch, apparently?)
- “I was sufficiently versed in Revolutionary matters to know that as bad a general as Washington was, without him there would be an even larger statue of George III in the Bowling Green.” --Burr
- “Lee was brilliant, vain, fascinating, and we soon became good friends. It is significant that the only general officer I was ever close to was the only one to be court-martialled and broken.” --Burr
- “There he is, the murderer!” Peggy pointed a long finger at me. It was most effective. I later used with much success the same gesture and tone of voice in the course of a murder trial.” --Burr
- “Despite all my years as as a soldier, Mr. Leggett, I can seldom at twenty paces hit with accuracy a barn-door.”… “Some years ago in Utica, a group of men asked me to give them an exhibition. I said I was indisposed. But they said they must see Aaron Burr display his marksmanship. So I indicated a notch on a tree some distance away. Would they like me to hit it? Indeed they would. Well, with a single casually aimed shot, I pierced the centre of the notch…. You see, it was my luck. Nothing more. The men were delighted. They prepared another target but I begged off. As a result, to this day there are people in Utica who will swear on oath that I am the best marksman that ever lived.” --Burr
- “Mr. Leggett, the principal difference between my friend Hamilton and me was that at the crucial moment his hand shook and mine never does.” --Burr
- “You know, Charlie, I made a great error—that is, of the many great errors I have made in my life, the worst was supposing that one could not be hurt by a lie. As a result, I never corrected a slander. I simply assumed that since there were so many honourable men in the world who knew my character, matters would be set straight in time. Well, I was wrong. Friends drop away, die. While the slanders never cease, never!” –Burr
- Burr claims Washington wanted to be called “His Mightiness.” I highly doubt it.
- “I did my best to appear spellbound when he favoured me with a long digression on the physical nature of the opossum.” –Hamilton’s recounting of Jefferson’s conversation during the bank/capital “Room Where It Happens” deal.
- “During this period the one certain way of gaining total publicity was not through the newspapers but through the postal service. In consequence, most of us wrote in cipher; even so, letters were constantly intercepted and the ciphers regularly broken. Hamilton and Jefferson spent a good deal of time reading one another’s private correspondence.” --Burr
- “Suddenly Jemmy Madison asked me in his little voice, “Burr, you are most attractive to the ladies. Pray, tell me why?”
“Because I treat them as if they were men.”
Jemmy gave me an amused frown. “How then, Burr, does one treat men?”
- “The last thing I desire is to hold office.” I will not record the familiar speech. Washington, Jefferson and Madison gave it in one form or another at regular intervals throughout their political (and they had no other) lives....The retirement speech done with, we both continued as if he had not made it.” –Burr
- “I promptly forestalled what I have come to regard as “The Presidential Lament.” It is a constant song of self-pity first sung by Washington and taken up by all his successors, rather like part-singing. “ --Burr
- The night before Theodosia’s wedding, she claims that Burr should write Bayard and tell him what he wants to hear. “Because I am interested in you and I know that this is the only opportunity you will ever have to be first, and if you don’t take it you will regret it as long as you live.” Burr says he can’t break his word. “Then you will regret that you did not all your life.” Like the Sybil at Cumae my daughter stood before the prophetic fire and I, foolishly, thought her deranged by the excitement of her approaching wedding.” … “She was married the next day. I made no move to gain the presidency. I behaved honourably and, as Theodosia foretold, I have regretted it all my life.”
- “Before 1800, I had always thought of him as a friendly rival. Now I know otherwise. Letters he had written about me had come my way. It seemed that every thought, whim, fancy that came into his irritable mind was sooner or later put in writing. I ought to have hated him, but did not. Some flaw in my nature has made me indifferent to slander—and thus much slandered? Certainly my indifference seems to excite such attentions.” … “It was at about this time that I learned exactly what it was that Hamilton had said of me, and knew that this world was far too narrow a place to contain the two of us.” --Burr
- “But Hamilton realized better than anyone that the world—our American world at least—loves a canting hypocrite….Hamilton lived for a day and a half. He was in character to the very last. He told Bishop Moore that he felt no ill-will toward me. That he had met me with a fixed resolution to do me no harm. What a contemptible thing to say!” --Burr
- Burr loses the ability to walk after some strokes. His sickroom gets invaded by some reverend who yells at him to get on his knees and pray for salvation. “On your knees, sinner!” “That is not, alas, practical. I do believe, Charlie, that the reverend father has forgot where the door is.” Also: “I can face death with some ease. I believe that I shall be able to face God with equanimity. But deliver me from his earthly agents.”
- “I cannot think why Jamie was always so plausible to others, including me. If ever any man looked and acted the part of a scoundrel it was he. He was forever whispering “secrets” in his hoarse voice. He was forever trying to undo someone—from George Washington at Valley Forge to Governor Claiborne at New Orleans to alas, one Aaron Burr. Yet for a time he managed to trick us all.” --Burr
- “Unfortunately, I was not able to be a kind—though I very nearly was a president—but in my way I have been lucky for I have always been able to indulge my true passion which is to teach others, to take pleasure in bringing out the best in men and women, to make them alive, and though I did not achieve any sort of kingdom in this world, I have established small human dominions along my way, proved to the doubting that women had souls, and trained a hundred boys to make the best of their life, without complaint, or dishonor.” –Burr.
- “He asked me if I expected to be “saved.”… On that subject, I said, “I am coy!” –Burr to Reverend Van Pelt.