Gore Vidal's `Empire' offers a morality play without morals

Empire: A Novel, by Gore Vidal. New York: Random House. 486 pp. $22.50. Never mind that Henry James makes a number of appearances in this book. Never mind that heroine Caroline Sanford's rise in publishing has the making of a television miniseries. This is a book with a thesis: that newspapers invent politics.

``Empire'' begins in the summer of 1896 and takes the reader through some 20 years of American history. It is one of those perplexing beasts, the historical novel, and one of a series by Gore Vidal. In it, Vidal focuses on the rise of newspapers and their effect on politics.

A key exchange comes midway through the book. ``We create news...,'' says a newspaperman. ``Empires, too?'' asks an ambassador. ``One follows on the other if the timing's right,'' comes the reply.

``Empire'' fleshes out Vidal's proposition that the king of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst, had impeccable timing. And an unbeatable formula. Hearst newspapers offered ``not news but entertainment for the masses.'' He offered murder (``rape's better, if you'll forgive the word'') and he offered scandal. On the political scene, Vidal tells us Hearst invented the characters, gave them dialogue, and moved them in and out of wars.

One can hardly help noticing that Vidal is doing the same thing. At the end of ``Empire,'' Vidal scripts an encounter between Hearst and President Theodore Roosevelt. Hearst gets all the good lines: ``I have placed the press above everything else, except maybe money, and even when it comes to money, I can usually make the market rise or fall. When I made - invented, I should say - the war with Spain, all of it fiction to begin with, I saw to it that the war would be a real one at the end, and it was. For better or for worse, we took over a real empire from the Caribbean to the shores of China.... It's my story, isn't it? This country. ... I am history - or at least the creator of the record.'' President Roosevelt counters, but Hearst, and Vidal, have the last word. ``True history is the final fiction,'' Hearst says.

Vidal draws a battle line that is still fought over. Publishers want to sell newspapers. How do they do it? The chilling modern strategy of providing ``info-tainment'' is just yellow journalism for an upscale audience, for yuppies who are curious but squeamish.

But surely Vidal blows his own cover. He spells out the Hearst formula. Sensationalism, scandal, invented news. And then he follows it himself. With characters like Henry Adams and the Roosevelts, ``Empire'' gives us the ``Society Lady'' angle on American history. He gives us political corruption, sexual perversity, and tantalizing mention of conflicts that have yet to be resolved: Russia, the Philippines, and South Africa. Then there are the touches that border on cute. Mention of typewriters and the first cars. An oblique reference to the president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson. Hearst announces he has bought the magazine Cosmopolitan. (The Hearst Corporation still owns Cosmo, which ran a segment from ``Empire'' in its July issue.)

The cover of Vidal's new book reads ``Empire: a Novel.'' And Vidal's end note reads ``...I keep the historical figures in `Empire' to the generally agreed-on facts.'' But from beginning to end, it is hard to know where fiction ends and facts begin. That is, I suppose, Vidal's point - no one ever does. In the face of this airy sophistication, or sophistry, a reader feels a bit shabby and old-fashioned to want ``truth,'' or even accuracy. And if politics is scripted by newspapers and history is fiction, then what is the point? Or, to put it in editor's parlance, so what?

Carol des Lauriers Cieri is news desk editor of the World Service (radio) of the Monitor.

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