Gore Vidal,
Inventing a Nation:
Washington, Adams, Jefferson

(Yale University Press, 2003)

You might look at Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and think you are gazing upon a book of history. Oh, there is an element of history to it -- albeit a messy, unorganized one -- but Inventing a Nation is really about two things only: Gore Vidal's glorified opinion of himself and his hatred for George W. Bush.

Most hatemongers and political pundits would simply come right out and attack the current administration, but Vidal is far too pretentious and smarmy to take the common man's approach to political protest. Perhaps he hoped to cleverly disguise his political screed by masking it in the history of the founding of this great Republic (he does, after all, consider the majority of Americans stupid enough to believe anything they are told), but his gleeful delight at stepping aside every few pages to launch vicious attacks on just about everyone associated with America betrays the true nature of his work.

Let's look at this book as history and see why I personally say that Inventing a Nation is a perfect example of how not to write it. This could have been an informative work, for Vidal sets out to explain just how contentious and vulnerable the new nation was in its earliest days. He quotes extensively from the writings and speeches of prominent Revolutionaries to reveal the sorts of grudges, bitter disagreements and questionable behavior these men sometimes engaged in. Unfortunately, he never really builds an adequate framework on which to make his presentation. In his eagerness to dish dirt on the Founding Fathers, he fails to establish the true context of the times (which is ironic, given his unabashed lament over the ignorance of the American people). He also fails to identify a single source for any of his quotations and references; he does not even provide a bibliography of sources consulted. Thus, all of the quotes he throws around are presented in a manner completely devoid of context, and the reader has no easy way of verifying a single thing he reads here. Vidal also jumps around in time and place continuously. We can be with Jefferson the French diplomat one minute and then, quite suddenly, find ourselves examining President Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana. Poor John Adams is thrown around so violently that he would surely sue Vidal for whiplash, were he alive today.

I will admit that Vidal does manage to put together some valid points and arguments, but he continually nullifies the good he has done with bouts of infuriatingly sophomoric insults and name-calling, not to mention numerous departures from the subject at hand to fan the flames of his fiery political manifesto. Vidal manages to insult just about everyone associated with the founding of America, and I get the impression Vidal thinks the whole of idea of America was a mistake.

He belittles James Madison, or "little Jemmy" as he calls him, for being short. He describes John Adams as a short, fat man of great vanity and self-pity who "waddled into history." He lampoons the Boston Tea Party and the "Disney-like Mount Rushmore," states as fact that the women of the nascent Republic-to-be found King George's hired Hessian mercenaries much more physically attractive than their "scrawny, sallow" proto-American counterparts. He criticizes Jefferson's "immoral" life but has nothing but praise for Benjamin Franklin (mainly because Franklin provides him with a quote he loves to use when attacking the modern politicians he hates so much).

Vidal particularly dislikes Jefferson, whom he continually describes as a hypocrite of the highest order. (He does, however, make use of Jefferson to imply that he would have called for secession from the nation over the establishment of the Patriot Act.)

The only memorable aspects of this book are the numerous vitriolic asides, many of which have little to do with the subject at hand. Vidal cannot speak about a certain Supreme Court justice without including the parenthetical remark "thought by many to be a visiting alien." His attacks on the Bush administration are as snide as they are numerous. The most galling of statements, however, are pointed at the American people, and I can't imagine how any American, regardless of political affiliation, cannot but be offended here. He refers to the nation as "the United States of Amnesia," speaks of the country's "uneducated, misinformed majority" and sanctimoniously bemoans the fact that most Americans don't even know what the Electoral College is. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

It's one thing to disagree with current policy, but to boldly state that Afghanistan had as little to do with the terrorist attack on 9/11 as Canada did is something else. Those who agree with Vidal's politics will praise this book, but I don't think anyone will argue too strenuously that Inventing a Nation is a work of history. Historians may not always be objective, but they must at least attempt to be so. Twisting history in order to push one's own agenda is, was, and always will be propaganda. It is unfortunate because this book did have the potential of filling a few gaps in our understanding of the founding of the United States.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 12 June 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.