‘Narratives of Empire: Hollywood’ by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire spans the history of the United States from the Revolution to the immediate post-World War II years. Centring on Washington, Presidencies and politics, and introducing fictional characters to counterpoint historical figures, Vidal presents a fascinating American panorama, a broad sweep of cultural experience. And it provides a (admittedly singular) perspective and insight into the foundations of a contemporary United States.

There are seven novels in the series: Hollywood is the fifth. Probably not the obvious place to start. The first – Burr – I read nearly 20 years ago. Loved it and was determined to follow through with the series. Not so easy as the books are not so readily available here in Australia (along with a half-hearted commitment – so many other books to devour!). I came across Hollywood in a bookshop in Sydney a few years ago – and held off reading it in the belief that Lincoln would be my next Gore Vidal. Not to be.

Hollywood spans the years 1917 to the death of Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States from 1921 until his death (in office from a heart-attack) in 1923. In that time, the production of photo-plays and the small, sleepy Californian town of Hollywood had taken the world by storm. And, with Britain bankrupted by the Great War, the USA had become the most powerful nation on earth. A policy of neutrality had seen Woodrow Wilson re-elected as President in 1916. But an until-then insular United States finally entered the war in April 1917, brokering a peace deal between the European nations a little over a year later. Hollywood opens in the weeks prior to the Senate declaration.

Presidents, senators, civil servants, newspaper barons, film producers, wives, daughters, film stars, writers all populate Hollywood as we switch between Washington D.C. and California. And whilst Vidal plays homage to the silver screen – it’s power, it’s corruption, it’s scandal – his heart is in the White House. The machinations of power between Democrats and Republicans, between Ohio and Illinois, between publishing giants of New York and Washington are as exciting as anything fiction can offer: under Vidal’s steely gaze it’s instructive as well as entertaining.

We are provided with a fly-on-the-wall view as decisions of great consequence are made: through the eyes of (fictional) Democrat Senator Burden Day, who has become Woodrow Wilson’s informal adviser on the mood of the Senate, we witness the President’s agonising decision to lead America into war. The proposed League of Nations to ensure world peace is debated in the Oval Office whilst Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s successful campaign to keep the United States out of the League is a constant thread in the second half of the novel.

Wit abounds as (fictional) Caroline Sanford, successful Washington co-publisher (with her brother, Blaise) of the influential Washington Tribune, heads to Hollywood and, unexpectedly, becomes a star of the silent screen. History comes alive as Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, murdered director William Desmond Taylor, William Randolph Hearst, Mary Pickford as well as Presidents (and their wives) Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover all feature in Vidal’s narrative. Some have significant presence, some as (likely) introductions to future episodes in the series, some as closures of previous storylines and history (Theodore Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1919 is a classic case in point – a central historical figure in the preceding Empire and likely to have been the Republican nomination for the 1920 Presidential elections).

Hollywood can get a little confusing with the many, many politicos and the women in their lives (that’s the downside of starting the series with the fifth book) and the references to history/personal conflicts. But you can work through it – it’s a masterly telling and purview that is richly told that stands alone. As with reading Burr, Hollywood has left me determined to read the series in its entirety.

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