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on 8 January 2005
Although I am an avid enthusiast for Vidal, I had held back from reading this, as I had been put off by his bizarre link with the Mcveigh family. The contention regarding Pearl harbor seemd to be a simialr wonky turn. I was wrong.
This is a convincing and literate triumph. It neatly ties up the complete "Empire" chronicles both historically and as works of fiction. Th matching of his own experience with his fictional counterpart (and parallel self) is convincingly done.
As to the Pearl Harbor claim, I , as a Briton, accept the consequences of Pearl Harbor But, it is likely that part of FDR's incredible demands on Japan were to push it into a first strike against the US. Accepting this, the contention, now supported by FOIA papers, that he held back information is not too wild. Vidal rightly states that "FDR did not know pearl harbor would be attacked", but he did know the Japanaese fleet were going to attack somewhere -probably Guam.
So, I think the other reviewer makes a big mistake - Vidal is not being disrespectful of the people who died at Pearl Harbor. He is, rather, raising presidential invovlement in such a slaughter of American citizens. Is he right? Possibly? Is he entitled to raise the evidence and assumptions? Yes.
So, I remain in awe of Vidal, both as artist and commentator.
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on 1 August 2012
This is a book about American politics. It covers the period 1939-1950 and features a mix of fictional characters and real historical figures. The latter include presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Roosevelt's key wartime advisor Harry Hopkins, and Truman's undersecretary, later secretary, of state Dean Acheson. The fictional characters are not interesting in themselves and there is little serious effort to develop them. Their only purpose is to illuminate the real-life characters and, especially, to provide a vehicle for Vidal to offer an extended commentary on the decade of the 1940s, which he labels the `Golden Age' to reflect his perception that it was during this decade that America became unambiguously the world's leading nation, and a major imperial power.

The title is meant ironically: Vidal sees the imperial role as a matter of regret and indeed, a betrayal of the original ideals of the American republic. This is the main message not only of this book but also of Vidal's entire 7-volume sequence Narratives Of Empire, spanning the period 1776-1950, of which this book is chronologically the final volume. The central theme both of this book and of the larger sequence of books is put into the mouth of a fictional character, Senator Day, in chapter 12:

"The real political struggle in the United States, since the Civil War, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the nation with their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally cut off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in."

Vidal seeks to justify this broad claim in two ways, roughly corresponding to the two halves of the book. In the first half, dealing with America's involvement in world war two, Roosevelt and Hopkins are presented as having goaded Japan into the Pearl Harbour attack (which it is suggested they may have known about in advance) in order to achieve Roosevelt's objective of getting America into the war despite most citizens' support for non-involvement. In the second half, dealing with the immediate post-war world, Acheson persistently alleges exaggerated or non-existent Soviet threats in order to justify increased American military spending and intervention in other countries' affairs, whilst Truman uses the same exaggerated threats to develop witch-hunts against supposed communist sympathisers.

This book cannot be taken seriously as a conventional literary novel: as already mentioned, the fictional characters aren't developed in an interesting way, and it has no significant themes beyond its central political message. Hence I think it should be seen as a polemic rather than as a conventional novel, and any judgement about the book has to be based on one's view of its political message. Hardly surprisingly, the message is divisive within America. From my British perspective I have three comments.

(1) It seems to me to be self-evident that America has become an aggressive imperialist country: during and since Vidal's `Golden Age' it has engaged in scores of overt or covert invasions or subversions of other countries, and it has routinely propped up appalling dictators all over the world provided that they are willing to let their countries be used for American corporate and military purposes. At the same time, it never ceases to assert that it is defending `freedom'; in some ways this awful hypocrisy is almost worse than the actual behaviour. So far so good, so far as Vidal's message is concerned. (Incidentally, if this sounds anti-American it's not meant to be: it's imperialism I don't like, not America per se. My own country's imperialist past, with its obnoxious claim that it would `bring civilisation to savages', is equally awful.)

(2) Is it really credible, though, that all this appalling behaviour is the work of a "professional elite totally cut off from the nation" as Vidal alleges? I find this difficult to believe. If most voters are yearning for a return to a non-imperialistic America, surely one or other of the Democratic or Republican parties would have adopted such a stance in order to gain their votes? If for some reason they couldn't or wouldn't do so, surely some new political party would have seen an opportunity? And on the one occasion in the past fifty years in which one of the established parties nominated a serious anti-war presidential candidate (George McGovern in 1972) he suffered a landslide defeat whereas if Vidal's thesis were really true he ought to have won overwhelmingly. Sadly for Vidal's central thesis, I think we have to accept that a large chunk, probably a majority, of ordinary Americans at the least acquiesce in, even if they don't actively enthuse over, their country's aggressive imperialistic behaviour.

(3) Regardless of the merits or otherwise of Vidal's central thesis, I am unconvinced by his treatment of Roosevelt and of his manoeuvrings to bring America into the war. In particular I don't see this as fitting neatly into Vidal's overall thesis about imperialism and global domination. For one thing, I think he makes too much of Roosevelt's alleged encouragement of Japan's Pearl Harbour attack, including prior knowledge of the attack. So far as I am aware, most professional historians (including plenty who aren't apologists for imperialism) are at best highly sceptical that the evidence supports prior knowledge. More fundamentally, even if he did manoeuvre to get America to enter the war against Hitler, was this a bad thing? Unlike in many of its subsequent military interventions, at least on this occasion America was unambiguously fighting against evil and in support of broadly democratic values. Would Vidal prefer that America had stayed out of the war, even at the cost of a fascist hegemony across much of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa? I find it hard to see America's intervention as a cynical part of a grander imperialistic design.

Overall I'm unimpressed by this book. It doesn't stand up as a literary novel. As for its political message, this combines something that is trivially true (do we really need 470 pages to convince us that America is an aggressive imperialist power?), with something that is non-trivial but almost certainly untrue (can any country systematically follow policies over many decades of which a large majority of its citizens disapprove?) Although I enjoy political novels, and admire Vidal's ambition in trying to write a multi-volume political history of his country, I don't think that this book will stand the test of time.
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on 5 February 2002
You do not have to agree with every last thing Vidal says in order to find this a highly entertaining literary read. The author is a master of satire. And once again I found myself, as with Lincoln, Burr, Julian and Creation (etc), rushing out to gather an armful of history books to help me read up on the era. Few writers make history so compelling a read, or have the talent to infuse their readers with a desire to know the particular era under consideration, to know more (even if, by the end, you don't quite agree with all Vidal's takes on a subject). He is like an intelligent Cheshire Cat, grinning at all the falderol and pompous nonsense of the world. He will always be a pleasure to the detached reader.
Truth grinning in a canting world.
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I must confess that I feel ambivalent about this book. I greatly admire the other volumes of the series, not only for their value as iconoclastic evocations of American history, but as novels in themselves with vibrant and fascinating characters. Vidal is, simply put, one of America's greatest living artists. His voice is unique and unmistakable. In other volumes, his personal views are hidden and cryptic, which is great fun as the reader is kept guessing. Alas, in this one, I found his views to be baldly plain and that the characters were used as vehicles to serve these ideas. This terribly weakens its value as a work of art. Instead, it often reads like one of his essays.

In my reading, Vidal is arguing that FDR saw WWII as the only way to stay in power, a life-saving decision as there was nothing else of intimate value in his life. To do so, he took a giant step in creating the "national security state," which upon his death in office an unwitting Truman completed. Now in my view, this is a simplistic reading of a bewilderingly complex period, a watershed if you will.

Nonetheless, Vidal succeeded in getting me to question my assumptions, and that I think is of the greatest value and the unique contribution that an historical novel can relate. That saved the reading experience for me, which was more wooden than Vidal's previous accomplishments. Perhaps it is Vidal's talent that got him to create this as a crucial moment in American foreign policy, in which our involvement in such places as Irak are under scrutiny and our ideals are distrusted by the very allies that are supposed to benefit from them. It is an age of the most profound disillusionment and Vidal is providing the art that reflects this period.

Finally, the swansong machinations of the Sanfords are wonderful to follow. Also, the fate of Clay - the JFK-like villain of "Washington, DC" - is also advanced. It is a fitting conclusion to one of the great cycles of novels of this age. There are, of course, many hilarious moments in which the manners of the ruling class are dissected and exposed for questioning. In his hands, their vanities are so human, and this is a good thing.

Warmly - and this time cerebrally - recommended.
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on 6 December 2012
This is the first of Gore Vidal's American History series that I have read, so I was starting at the end. On the other hand, only the first 8-9 years of "The Golden Age" took place before I was born (1948), so it has a near-contemporary feel to it. And it's fascinating to read about what may or may not have been said and done in the salons of Washington while I was messing around in short pants. The book starts, rather abruptly I felt (but that's no doubt because I hadn't read the preceding books), in 1939 when the clouds of war are gathering on the horizon and President Franklin D Roosevelt is contemplating a third term in office. We are treated to some startlingly close-up and personal descriptions of FDR, his wife Eleanor, and their circle of friends and colleagues - mostly through the eyes of the main fictional characters such as film director Tim Sanford, his half-sister Caroline, and his cousin Peter. Caroline, an exotic and well-connected lady, at least as much French as American, who is an intimate friend of FDR, is privy to all sorts of state secrets which we share along with her stream of consciousness. Later, after FDR's death in 1945, President Harry Truman enters the spotlight - although Peter, the main "witness" to his 8-year administration, is by no means as close to Truman as his aunt Caroline was to Roosevelt.

One gets so used to the vibrant, tumultuous whirl of real politicians, actors, journalists, authors, artists, playwrights, and mere idle rich that Vidal's relative handful of fictitious personalities seem almost to disappear in the mixture, like herbs in a well-balanced sauce. Then suddenly, whether in the cause of art or just that subtle perversity that Vidal revelled in, we find ourselves face to face with the author himself - young Gene Vidal, who prefers to be known as Gore Vidal. This trick of the author's keeps us on our toes, as we are never quite sure whether what we are reading is a fairly accurate historical account of real events, a cleverly manufactured fictional scene, or a sudden turning inside-out of literary conventions in which the author addresses us directly.

If you are not much inclined to socializing or following the social activities of others, you may occasionally find "The Golden Age" a touch oppressive. There is just so much going on all the time: scores of people, each with a convincingly delineated agenda, all chatting away in the jolliest fashion while trying to carve out careers for themselves. But if you want an insight into what it was really like in Washington, and to a lesser extent New York, in those days when the pensioners of today were young and hopeful, this is the book for you. Even if you don't, it's all vastly entertaining and informative. After all - it's Gore Vidal!
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on 16 October 2008
This book is quite superb, full of rich detail and deft literary skill that never bores or lectures. It covers a most vital time in US history when the presidency used great lies to accomplish its ends. And as for the previous reviewer saying it is a slur on the memory on FDR, one thing Vidal does for his work is research. There are members of the establishment of that era who wrote biographies and histories that run counter to the widely accepted version of history; Vidal did not rely on conjecture or fantasy. Check out his 'The Last Empire' for details. Pearl Harbour was not out of the blue. But best read this eloguent and rich book to learn more and gain greater understand about the transformation of the US presidency into the world shaping and cause for concern to the world that it has become.
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on 31 October 2015
For the last of his brilliant Narratives of Empire series, Gore Vidal goes back to the period he depicted in his 1967 novel 'Washington DC', i.e. 1937-1953, and essentially provides an expansion of the earlier book. This is not to say he incorporates it, but he provides new viewpoints on the action, particularly from the fictional characters Caroline Sanford (familiar from 'Empire' and 'Hollywood') and her nephew Peter Sanford. Having already tackled Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Vidal is now more comfortable - and convincing - depicting prominent real life figures from the era such as FDR and Truman. It may be for this reason that I found 'The Golden Age' more compelling than 'Washington CD'.

In a nice touch, Vidal introduces his 20-year old self (fresh from writing his first novel) into some scenes. He also "fast forwards" to the present (the year 2000) for the final chapters - these don't work quite as well in my view.

Nevertheless, 'The Golden Age' is one of Vidal's great novels, his best since 'Lincoln'. The only thing you may have to decide is whether before tackling it to read the whole Narratives of Empire series in chronological order (i.e.starting with the peerless 'Burr') if you haven't already done so. I'd definitely recommend this!
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on 16 August 2013
Gore Vidal looked down from his hilltop villa on the Amalfi as he looked down on the idiotic Americans and their inferior, uncultured history. He was too good for them, what with his blue blood and high gay culture, so he spent his life pissing on his fellow countrymen from a great height up in Ravello. He spews bile over the whole silly lot of them and all of their history - from the origins of the country, to the centenary and now into his own lifetime. Beneath the bile and the silly bitchiness, there are large chunks of truth, clever analysis and a clearer understanding of the country. His books are unique - as a member of the elite in self imposed exile, his novels - usually better than this one - have become an alternative history of the US and well worth reading.

This is his very last foray into history, and in parts, is fascinating and excellent. His 'characters' in this - the people he puts into the real life situations- take away, rather than add to, the history of the 1930's to the present day. The focus of the story is how the US became a proper empire, inheriting the British mantle after WW1 and finally, full bloodedly after WWII. The good stuff is all about Roosevelt - that sly aristocrat so hated by all the rich (you think Obama is the first to get it from these idiots?)who drew the US into the Second World War by stealth. This is very well written and probably accurate. But his real venom is saved for the widely admired Harry S. Truman, who essentially scraps the Constitution to turn the US into a police state and global empire. Some of the passages are chilling, clear and will blow you away.

But this novel fails to excite as a novel. Instead it becomes a dying man's last dump on his homeland from the safe seat of Italy, with a poorly detailed plot about the mythical Sanford clan. It would have been better and more honest as a series of political essays (one on Roosevelt, the other on Truman) rather than a poorly conceived novel.

Now all we have is the other arrogant left wing film-maker, Oliver Stone, to tell the world the 'truth' about the US - and go to the bank and collect on the back of it.
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on 22 September 2014
Really pleased with all aspects of this purchase.
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on 16 December 2000
This would be controversial view of American history if anyone could be bothered to read it. Vidal's take on the bombing of Pearl Harbor is particularly damning to the memory of FDR and the men who died there. In all, the book is a disappointment from one of America's great intellectuals.
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