Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Friday, January 27, 2012

'Scandalmonger' by William Safire (2000)

Scandalmonger - what a great word! (and book title). It's no more than you would expect from Pulitzer Prize winner William Safire, whose On Words column in the Washington Post was a weekly must-read for me. Sadly, Safire is no longer with us, and among his many books are only two historical novels. The other, Freedom, is set in the Civil War, so Scandalmonger was his only foray into the founding period of United States history.

The titular character is James Callender, a Scots immigrant who became a leading journalist in the 1790s before his suspicious death in 1804 - drowning in three feet of James River swamp water. Callender's scathing editorial style and unrelenting criticism of the political leaders of the day earned him many enemies; first John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, later Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia allies James Madison and James Monroe. All of these men appear as prominent characters in Safire's novel, along with many other famous figures, including Hamilton's mistress Maria Reynolds, Aaron Burr, John Marshall and William Cobbett - Callender's main editorial rival.

Scandalmonger joins quite a large group of novels featuring historical characters from this period of American history. A large part of the fun is in how each novelist portrays these supposedly well-known and understood founders of our nation. Given the thousands of volumes of historical studies devoted to the lives of these persons, plus the voluminous correspondence and other writings they left behind, you might suppose that they would assume very similar personalities from one novel to the next. You would, however, be very wrong. Safire's Jefferson is much less Olympian than David Nevin's (in Eagle's Cry). Safire's Aaron Burr, while not devoid of good qualities, is still mainly the standard ambitious, amoral schemer - not much like the thoughtful, misunderstood non-conformist created by Gore Vidal. The most surprising of the characters in Scandalmonger is James Monroe. Most historical writers tend to dismiss Monroe as the least talented member of the Virginia dynasty. In Safire's hands, however, he becomes a crafty, politically astute "fixer". It's Monroe whose behind-the-scenes maneuvers help bring about the political downfall of Hamilton. Later, Monroe is the one who repeatedly steps in to repair the potential political damage wrought by Jefferson's love life and Madison's naivete. And, in the end, it's Monroe who steps in to deal with the volatile Callender, the man who knew too much. I doubt that the real Monroe was such a subtle thinker, but his character is really the glue that holds the novel's plot lines together.

My few criticisms of Scandalmonger relate mainly to the speculative parts of the historical story. Early on, Safire begins to develop a theory that part of the personal animosity between Hamilton and Burr might have come from their rivalry for the affections of Maria Reynolds. That interesting sub-plot is, however, never taken very far. At the same time, the novel fails to mention what many historians believe was the main source of friction between the two - Burr's defeat of Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler in a campaign for a Senate seat. Later, the novel tiptoes all around the possibility that Callender might have been murdered, but misses an opportunity to write a great climactic scene. Safire was perhaps too scrupulous as a historian to be a superior novelist.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. Even though I've probably read more on this period of American history than any other, Scandalmonger proves that the subject is far from exhausted. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. The story is nothing but history, except for a few invented details. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. At the end of the book, Safire provides a page by page listing of his sources for events and dialogue (most of which comes from the characters' own writing). He explains the rationale behind the few invented details, such as an affair between Callender and Maria Reynolds. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Yes. As noted above, what's remarkable is how, beginning with the same huge trove of historical materials as other writers, Safire created such unique portrayals. Score = 5

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. Unfortunately, there won't be any more. At some point I'll move forward into the Civil War period and read Freedom. Score = 3.

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