Gore Vidal has claimed to be the only American writer of his generation to evince any interest in our country’s (or any other country’s) history. It is typical of Vidal to go for the hyperbole, blithely ignoring the work of several well-known contemporaries; still, it must be admitted that he has a point. “Americans in general are not concerned with anything that happened before yesterday,” he has said, and American writers—certainly as compared to European ones—seem remarkably uninterested in the past.

Vidal, on the other hand, has made history his specialty, and over a period of about a quarter-century he created an idiosyncratic account of American history in his so-called American chronicle, a series of six novels that cover our past from the early nineteenth century to the McCarthy period: Washington,D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), 1876 (1976),...

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