Historical Novels

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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. So well received was this combination (despite its turgid and gelatinous prose) that ever since, with very little dissent, Cooper has been regarded as the father of American historical fiction.

It is a very ancient form of fabulation, to be sure, telling dramatic, made-up stories about vanished ways of life or departed heroes. Its appeal is part antiquarian, part mythological, and as a literary exercise it is at least as old as the Iliad. Homer, indeed, seems to have laid out all the essential features of the serious historical novel: No matter how much the author concentrates on the foreground of character and action, such fiction always attempts to tell the larger history of the tribe—why Troy fell, how Rome was founded. It rarely chronicles a whole life or story from beginning to end but likes to choose instead one or two crucial episodes and begin in medias res. Its nature is to range widely, from Hades to Olympus, and its form is inherently epic.

In its modern version, inaugurated by Sir Walter Scott with Waverley in 1814, a nearly archeological fidelity to historical research and detail is added, along with the working definition that a novel is “historical” only if its action takes place at least half a century before its year of publication. (Tolstoy was well aware of both Scott and Homer when he sat down to write the greatest of historical novels, War and Peace.)

In the highly personal list that follows (alphabetical by author) I have observed Scott’s chronological limitation of 50 years. I have also bowed to Dr. Johnson’s plain, unimprovable dictum that the function of literature is to “bring realities to mind”—in this case, broad, sweeping, musket-loading, plainscrossing, hog-butchering, unmistakably big-shouldered American realities. I have had to exclude a few favorites, either because they were written too close to their time of action (The Red Badge of Courage) or because, good as the novel might be (Gone With the Wind), its tribal themes were too faint.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather (1927; many editions). A French priest, based on the real-life Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, establishes a diocese in mid-nineteenth-century New Mexico and Arizona. Kit Carson appears under his own name. Cather warned other writers against “over-plotting” their novels. Here in a series of quiet, loosely related, almost gaunt scenes, she creates an absolutely beautiful evocation of American landscape and life.

Ragtime

by E. L. Doctorow (1975; Chelsea House). Fiction by the pointillist method: Drop by drop, color by color, Doctorow builds up a wildly shimmering portrait of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like many other historical novelists, he mingles real and fictional characters. His originality here is one of scale and energy; several invented families find themselves entwined with (among others) Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, and Emiliano Zapata.

The Big Sky

by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947; Mariner Books). It is sometimes said that there are really only two basic plots in fiction: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. This is the first plot. Its hero, Boone Caudill, leaves Kentucky in 1830 and travels up the Missouri into Blackfoot country, where he marries an Indian and lives as a Mountain Man until the first rumblings of the westering wagon trains can be heard in the valleys below. Guthrie won a Pulitzer Prize for a later novel, The Way West, but this is a far better story, about a brief, savage, and defining moment in American history.

Time and Again

by Jack Finney (1970; Simon & Schuster). Time travel back to New York City in 1882. In an afterword Finney says tongue-in-cheek that he hasn’t “let accuracy interfere with the story.” In fact, it’s a wonderfully entertaining (and very accurate) love poem to an American place and moment. Illustrated with drawings and photographs.

The Bad Lands