Lying untouched on my bookshelf for nearly two years, Gore Vidal's glorious 1876 - one among a series of books comprising the Narratives of Empire - found itself glued to my palms drawing a nervous zeal. My endlessly insatiable lust for the written word had me starry-eyed with 1876 in my grasp. Closing the bookshelf door, I carried the book with me on to my bed. The immediate flip of the cover after a minute-long look at it gave me the inkling of an exciting journey that lay forth.
The return of Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler to the land in which he was brought up - New York - is captured in a manner invoking heartfelt emotions, warmly associated with the 'coming back home' of a near-and-dear one.
"Grey clouds alternated with bands of bright blue sky; sharp wind from the northwest; sun directly in our eyes, which meant that we were facing due east from the North River, and so this was indeed the island of my birth and not Brooklyn to the south nor Jersey City at our back."
Ironically, a near-and-dear one is accompanying him during his return to the city. More than thirty-five years have swept in time since he last breathed the familiar air, and Schuyler along with his widowed daughter Emma, the Princesse d'Agrigente, are soon swarmed by a mass of journalists who are thrilled to greet Schuyler and The Princess! The Harper's Monthly, the Herald, the Atlantic Monthly, and others, exhale a slew of questions about the princess and, more importantly, Schuyler's position in support of Governor Samuel J. Tilden.
Schuyler, at this juncture, details at length, and at every stage, the need for him to seek sources of money by capitalizing on his journalistic writing. He measures the dailies, the weeklies, the monthlies, all against each other in the hope to secure the highest bid. For he knows his duty of having Emma fed and housed in comfort, at least until she is married off, must be fulfilled. At this stage, a critical pursuit comes to light: Schuyler is banking on the election of the Tilden administration as a means to his future livelihood, for he hopes to seek a diplomatic position with the administration while returning to Europe.
In the meantime, Emma and Schuyler find themselves attending all kinds of social and political gatherings where they get acquainted with a number of interesting people. Emma, especially, takes a liking towards Denise Sanford, who, co-incidentally, also finds a warm place in Schuyler's heart. However, Denise's husband, William Sanford, turns out to be quite the pseudo-intellectual, boorish person who raises a strong dislike in the minds of the father-daughter duo.
John Day Apgar's love for Emma and her apparently equal but conditional reciprocation forms an interesting part of the book. The rather dull and uninteresting lawyer, belonging to the wealthy descendants of Apgars, falls in love with Emma. However, Emma, although feigning reciprocation, calls off her love for him towards the end and, in haste, marries William Sanford after the sorely tragic demise of Denise during the process of childbirth.
Schuyler, along with his close cohort of journalists, cover the entire lead-up to the 1876 presidential election. The run-up to the election proves closely contested, but Tilden emerges victorious. The celebration that ensues is heartwarming. Schuyler's retirement plans seem highly secure with everything falling into place the way he had hoped with Emma's marriage, too, around-the-corner. However, in what seems like a dubious decision, the state of Florida, after initially reporting Tilden as victorious by the popular vote, declare the election in favor of the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in what may be called as one of the most cunning last-minute indulgences in debauchery and abjection.
Schuyler is left puzzled by the turn of events, which doesn't just include his professional future. He comes to know of Emma's marriage with William, and it shocks him. However, it turns out that he is not to be affected by anything more.