Historical Novels

In 1804 an obscure English sailor named John Davis published an imaginative account of the seventeenth-century romance between Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith and called it The First Settlers of Virginia, An Historical Novel. Davis’s book disappeared from view almost at once, but two decades later, in 1821, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy appeared, an adventure tale of the Revolutionary War in which the historical George Washington makes several stiff, fatherly, and entirely fictitious cameo appearances.Read more »

Past Tense


People have been writing alternate history since at least the early nineteenth century, but for most of that time it was a tiny subgenre of popular fiction. Now it’s being produced in industrial quantities. If you use Amazon.com to browse books by category, you will find more than twenty best-selling titles, and the best Web site on alternate history, Uchronia, lists thousands.Read more »

My Favorite Historical Novel

American Heritage recently asked a wide range of novelists, journalists, and historians to answer a question: what is your favorite American historical novel, and why? The results made two things clear: that the question was not nearly so simple as it sounded; and that it had been well worth asking. Herewith, a vital anthology that debates the nature of the historical novel and points you toward the best examples our culture has to offer.

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What Can You Learn From A Historical Novel?

“Good writers,” says the author, “write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write”

What if many of a so-called Fact were little better than a Fiction?” asked Carlyle. It is a question most historians normally don’t brood over, although the more philosophical among them have never doubted that history always was and will be, in the words of Carl Becker, “a foreshortened and incomplete representative of reality.” To say this, he added, lessens neither its value nor its dignity. Read more »

Lincoln Fiction & Fact

A new novel about Lincoln examines questions about civil liberties in wartime, staff loyalties and disloyalties, and especially, Lincoln’s priorities

This interview took place at the end of May in William Safire’s office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Safire is a trim and affable man of fifty-seven. We had first met in 1971 at the house of the Washington columnist Rowland Evans, Jr. Our host had advertised Safire in advance as the compulsively alliterative speech writer for the then Vice-President, Spiro T. Agnew (“the nattering nabobs of negativism”), and also as one of the few members of the Nixon troupe who dared circulate at large in Georgetown.Read more »

Interview With A Founding Father

James Wilson was an important but now obscure draftsman of the Constitution. Carry Wills is a journalist and historian fascinated by what went on in the minds of our founders. The two men meet in an imaginary dialogue across the centuries.


His red judge’s robe looked faded and theatrical by daylight. People at the bus stop stared at him, and his face flushed near the color of the robe. But he busily ignored them. Read more »

History For Rent

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column lamenting the very small number of video cassettes available to those of us who like historical documentaries. That situation hasn’t improved much since, but 1 have found some consolation in the fact that video stores do carry a good many fiction films with historical settings, many of which never got the theatrical attention they deserved. Here are several rentable, small-scale films you may have missed and which especially interested me because of the way they portrayed the past: Read more »

Matters Of Fact

Vidal’s Lincoln

WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S wartime secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, serialized their life of the President in Century magazine in 1885, Lincoln’s old friend and law partner William H. Herndon did not like it. The articles were too reverential, he thought, too Republican, too everlastingly long. But worse than that, he added, the authors “handle things with silken gloves & a ‘cammel hair pencil’: they do not write with an iron pen.” Read more »

Historical Fiction

Our most popular practitioner of the art speaks of the challenges and rewards of writing

Georg Brandes, Denmark’s leading literary critic, had a low opinion of historical novels. To read one, he said, “was like drinking real substitute coffee.” He was referring, of course, to the standard historical romance featuring real figures of importance intermingled with heroic imaginary ones. The classic example would be Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers , an exceptionally interesting work; shoddy examples have proliferated in all times.Read more »