- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
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
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
In its modern version, inaugurated by Sir Walter Scott with
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 (
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.
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.
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,
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.