- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
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.
Anthony Adverse, because it was the first one I read. After that, it was on to The Good Earth, Jean-Christophe, and historical novels of other lands because, by contrast, to seven-year-old me, the United States was boring. By contrast, I still think so.
—Shana Alexander, author, When She Was Good
I don’t know if the John Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A. qualifies as historical fiction, but it certainly felt that way when I first read its volumes, one after the other, in the mid-1930s. I was a privileged teen-age liberal, avid for news of my own country and its recent past, and in Nineteen Nineteen, The 42nd Parallel, and The Big Money I found factory hands and Wobblies and farmers and journalists and other Americans going about their work during the decades just past, and I paid close attention. The books also had those interspersed documentary or newsreel chapters, which (as I recall) filled me in on bygone events and figures like Woodrow Wilson, the Battle of the Marne, Bob La Follette, Joe Hill, the Scopes Trial, Rudolph Valentine, Emma Goldman, Prohibition, Henry Ford, Isadora Duncan, and the like. I read and reread the books (there was some sex in them as well) and took Dos Passos’s America as the truth. It came as a great shock to me when he swung the other way in his politics, late in life; I’m still shocked, come to think of it. I haven’t reread U.S.A. in many years, and I guess I don’t plan to. It meant too much to me once to be subjected to a second guess from our present glum and ironic perspective.
—Roger Angell, contributing editor, The New Yorker, and author, Once More around the Park: A Baseball Reader
The truth is, I don’t much like historical novels—self-described historical novels; the category of the historical novel. There’s an intrinsic phoniness about such works that I find off-putting—Napoleon standing on the cliffs at Normandy, looking out across the Channel and thinking such and such. Even if the writer is a good writer and gets his dates right and gets Napoleon’s uniform right, his horse right, his love life right, I still find it a phony exercise. Worse still, it’s trying for the wrong thing. In trying to make Napoleon “real,” in fact, a novel (for me) makes him less real; the novelized Napoleon will always be second best because there’s a real one standing beyond my (and the historical novel writer’s) reach. Fortunately for me, since I love history—that is to say, I love the connection with the narrative of human life provided by history—there remains the ordinary novel. It strikes me that just about any novel is historical, though lousy novels are still lousy novels. But a good novel, to say nothing of a great novel, is wonderful history. The Sun Also Rises, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby—when you read these, you are swept into history, into the poetic and particular centers of their time and place. Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, The Naked and the Dead. For me, these characters are vastly more “real” than any historically accurate Napoleons, and their stories more honest—less burdened by those impossible-to-fulfill claims of authenticity.
—Michael Arlen, author, The Camera Age: Essays on Television and Thirty Seconds
Your inquiry has been in my mind, coupled with some doubts as to the definition of “historical novel.” I have always thought of it as necessarily including historical characters by name. But the mention of All the Kings’s Men suggests that a novel that merely parallels historical events also belongs to the genre. From this ambiguity comes my doubt. Would Willa Gather’s My Antonia qualify? The Scarlet Letter? To take the plunge, let me choose Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which perhaps has enough direct reference to actual events to cover both possibilities of definition.