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

by Oakley Hall (1978; Bantam; out of print). This is the second basic fictional plot. Hall’s protagonist is an unlikely but brilliantly persuasive amalgam of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams, a bookish Eastern stranger who arrives in the Dakota Territory in 1883 and tries to make a new life for himself. Lynchings, vigilantes, cattle drives, saloons, and brothels—it’s never been better done. As a bonus, we have the Scottish Lord Machray, likewise a stranger come to town, a spectacularly Falstaffian character based on the historical Marquis de Morés.

The Trees

by Conrad Richter (1940; Ohio University). A beautiful first sentence: “They moved along in the bobbing, springy gait of a family that followed the woods as some families follow the sea.” This is followed by a great lyric saga of the settlement of the Ohio Valley at the end of the eighteenth century. Gentle, anguished, profoundly inevitable—American history as Chekhov might have written it.

The Great Meadow

by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1930; Ivan R. Dee). One of the most appealing heroines in American fiction, Diony Hall, marries and moves with her new husband in 1777 into the Kentucky wilderness. There’s not much more to the plot than that. But here the simple, abstract theme of human nature against the wilderness is brought to life in gorgeous prose, tempered by the author’s remarkable introduction of other voices, such as those of Thomas Jefferson, Bishop Berkeley, Daniel Boone, and the poet Virgil. (As the baseball player and manager Casey Stengel said apropos of the perennial dispute about plot over character, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice-versa.”)

Arundel

by Kenneth Roberts (1929; Down East Books). Arundel is a town in southern Maine. From it in 1775 young Steven Nason joins Col. Benedict Arnold on his expedition up the Kennebec River and overland for a doomed assault on Quebec. Roberts wrote many best-selling historical novels, including Northwest Passage and Rabble in Arms. But for sheer storytelling exuberance and historical detail (not to mention a rich and sympathetic depiction of New England Indian life), this has always seemed to me the pick of the lot.

The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara (1974; Ballantine). Henry James thought that the novel could arrive at the condition of art only by means of the third-person point of view. Here, in a tour de force of disciplined imagination, Shaara re-creates the Battle of Gettysburg from the several points of view of its actual soldiers, North and South: Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, Buford, and most especially Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Realistic dialogue, interior monologue, heartbreaking metaphors and similes: There are no invented characters, but the techniques of fiction and history have rarely been so powerfully fused.

Lincoln

by Gore Vidal (1984; Knopf). Vidal makes two perfect technical decisions. The first is to avoid a full-scale birth-to-death narrative and to tell only the story of Lincoln’s Presidency. The second is to present Lincoln not from the inside, like the characters in Shaara’s novel, but only from the outside, as observed by a revolving carousel of his enemies and friends, including John Hay, William Seward, and Lincoln’s intermittently mad wife, Mary. The result is Homeric, noble, a history focused on a single, mysterious, barely flawed hero who ultimately wills his own murder, the young John Hay comes to believe, “as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.”