The Golden Age is the concluding volume in Gore Vidal's celebrated and bestselling Narratives of Empire series-a unique pageant of the national experience from the United States' entry into World War Two to the end of the Korean War.
The historical novel is once again in vogue, and Gore Vidal stands as its undisputed American master. In his six previous narratives of the American empire-Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C.-he has created a fictional portrait of our nation from its founding that is unmatched in our literature for its scope, intimacy, political intelligence, and eloquence. Each has been a major bestseller, and some have stirred controversy for their decidedly ironic and unillusioned view of the realities of American power and of the men and women who have exercised that power.
The Golden Age is Vidal's crowning achievement, a vibrant tapestry of American political and cultural life from 1939 to 1954, when the epochal events of World War Two and the Cold War transformed America, once and for all, for good or ill, from a republic into an empire. The sharp-eyed and sympathetic witnesses to these events are Caroline Sanford, Washington, D.C., newspaper publisher turned Hollywood pioneer producer-star, and Peter Sanford, her nephew and publisher of the independent intellectual journal The American Idea. They experience at first hand the masterful maneuvers of Franklin Roosevelt to bring a reluctant nation into World War Two, and later, the actions of Harry Truman that commit the nation to a decades-long twilight struggle against Communism-developments they regard with a marked skepticism, even though they end in an American global empire. The locus of these events is Washington, D.C., yet the Hollywood film industry and the cultural centers of New York also play significant parts. In addition to presidents, the actual characters who appear so vividly in the pages of The Golden Age include Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, Wendell Willkie, William Randolph Hearst, Dean Acheson, Tennessee Williams, Joseph Alsop, Dawn Powell-and Gore Vidal himself.
The Golden Age offers up United States history as only Gore Vidal can, with unrivaled penetration, wit, and high drama, allied to a classical view of human fate. It is a supreme entertainment that will also change readers' understanding of American history and power.
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Since 1967, when he published Washington, D.C., Gore Vidal has been assembling an artful, acidic history of the United States. The Golden Age represents the seventh and final installment of this national epic, covering the years from 1939 to 1954 (with a valedictory fast-forward, in its final pages, to the end of the millennium). As Vidal did in the earlier books, the author sticks pretty rigorously to the facts. Real-life figures--in this case, the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman and that ardent cold warrior Dean Acheson--do what they are recorded to have done. The author also ushers on a cast of invented characters, who are free to paddle in the historical backwash and comment upon their so-called contemporaries. It's here, of course, that fact and fiction begin to blur. But Vidal himself has often cited Tolstoy's famous jab--"History would be an excellent thing if it only were true"--and his reconstruction of FDR's wartime machinations, and the brief interval of Pax Americana, seem persuasively, even alarmingly plausible.
There's one key difference between this book and its predecessors, however. Vidal was alive and kicking in 1939, and thanks to his role as Senator Thomas Pryor Gore's grandson (and occasional seeing-eye dog), he met or at least observed many of The Golden Age's dramatis personae. This fact turns out to have a double edge. On one hand, it gives his portraits of the high and mighty an extra ounce of verisimilitude. Here (the invented) Caroline Sanford observes her old friend FDR at an informal White House mixer:
She felt for an instant that she should curtsey in the awesome presence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a figure who towered even when seated in his wheelchair. It was the head and neck that did the trick, she decided, with a professional actor's eye. The neck was especially thick while the famous head seemed half again larger than average, its thinning gray hair combed severely back from a high rounded forehead.Like all of Vidal's politicians, FDR is a more or less gifted illusionist, and The Golden Age is one more chapter in the convergence of theater and politics, of Hollywood and Washington, D.C. But the very vividness of these historical actors (in every sense of the phrase) makes the author's invented cast seem a little pale and lifeless. No matter. Even in its occasional longueurs, Vidal's concluding volume is packed with ironic insight and world-class gossip, much of it undoubtedly true. And in the surprisingly metafictional finale, he signs off with a fine display of Heraclitean fireworks, not to mention an encore appearance from his rakish progenitor Aaron Burr--which makes you wonder exactly who created whom. --James Marcus From the Back Cover:
Praise for Gore Vidal and His Narratives of the American Empire: "Vidal has no peers at breathing movement and laughter into the historical past."
"If Gore Vidal were not such a brilliantly witty and ruthlessly irreverent novelist, we would be more ready to recognize him as the fine historian he is. Nowhere among his impressive historical novels does he bring together these talents with more penetrating bravado than in this gripping and illuminating dissection of the American empire at high tide."
"Vidal writes so well that you find yourself holding your breath over something that is a foregone conclusion...Vidal's talent makes the bloated corrupters of Washington live in a way that history books don't."
"It is probably impossible to be an American and not be impressed by Vidal's telescoping of our early history."
-The New Yorker
"Vidal is a masterly American historical novelist...Vidal's imagination of American politics, then and now, is so powerful as to compel awe."
-Harold Bloom, New York Review of Books
"No living American surpasses Gore Vidal in the difficult art of the historical novel...He has re-created American history...with an immediacy, color and detail that [are] denied the historian."
-Michael Beschloss, Chicago Tribune
"Mr. Vidal demonstrates a political imagination and insider's sagacity equaled by no other practicing fiction writer I can think of."
-New York Times Book Review
"Our greatest living historical novelist."
"[Vidal] deals with issues that most other novelists (and historians) are reluctant to confront...talks straight about important matters, so it is perhaps true that we have to come to terms with Vidal if we are to do justice to ourselves. That is the power of the man. As with all the great ones. He has always annoyed us because he will not allow us to evade the issues."
-William Appleman Williams, In These Times
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