- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
I suppose my favorite historical novels were Kenneth Roberts’s books and C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. But two books that had a deeply personal meaning at the time I read them were Hervey Alien’s The Forest and the Fort and Bedford Village .
As a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh, I was taken by my father to many of the places dating back to the days when the forks of the Ohio were critical to the contend- ing empires of Britain and France. I had seen the traces of Braddock’s and Forbes’s roads that led from the east toward the fort at the apex of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers; I had visited the Great Meadows and the sites of Forts Necessity, Bedford, Ligonier, Le Boeuf, and toured the tiny blockhouse that is the only remaining piece of Fort Duquesne/Fort Pitt at the Point, walked over the battlefield of Bushy Run, and in Alien’s books these and dozens of other historic places suddenly came alive.
Alien created his own fictional cast, of course, but in the background you sensed the presence of the marvelous real-life characters involved in the epic struggle between whites and Indians, British and French, that included George Washington, Christopher Gist, George Croghan, Capt. Robert Stobo, Col. Henry Bouquet, Gen. Edward Braddock, and Gen. John Forbes.
What a story it was!
— Richard M. Ketchum , author, The Borrowed Years
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, for its indelible portrayal of twentieth-century America’s most colorful politician (Lyndon Johnson).
The Gilded Age , at least the chapters written by Mark Twain. Politicians come and go, but the self-righteous banality of the Congress is eternal.
— Joe Klein , senior editor, Newsweek
Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremaine . I know it’s categorized as “children’s literature,” and, indeed, I read it to each of my three sons, each time with mounting pleasure and fresh discovery. There is no better introduction for a child to the eighteenth century, for the re-creation of the past is so vivid, but there’s much there for readers of all ages. One of my boys, after the reading ended, looked at me searchingly and asked, “Was there really a Johnny Tremaine?” I felt duty-bound to tell him what I thought then was the truth, but if I had to do it again now, I realize there could only be one answer: “Yes, son, there really was a Johnny Tremaine.”
— William E. Leuchtenburg , William Rand Kenan Professor of History, University of North Carolina
In selecting All the King’s Men I may be cheating. Robert Penn Warren was writing about his time, not so long ago. What is more, his book doesn’t merely capture the past, though I imagine it does that too. It is the past. It is one of those works of imaginative re-creation that have the power to overwhelm the original. On the other hand, nearly sixty years have passed since a doctor in a white suit shot Huey Long under the dome in Baton Rouge, and sixty years in America is the equivalent of six hundred almost anywhere else.
I suppose the novel so entrances me, a native of Louisiana, because it is both a historical document and a living story. It depicts a strange, mythic Louisiana in which only the white guys are dangerous and the cars and houses aren’t air-conditioned and so the people aren’t always rushing to get out of the heat, because they can’t. But it also takes you inside the nervous system of a man who wants power, and that sort of man is still very much around. Sometimes I even have the eerie feeling that the men now scheming and fixing under the Baton Rouge dome are in the thrall not of Huey Long but of Robert Penn Warren’s idea of him. When I do, I am reminded of an exchange, possibly apocryphal, between Picasso and Gertrude Stein. “But that doesn’t look like me,” Stein said, upon seeing her portrait by the artist. “Don’t worry,” said Picasso. “It will.”
“Sometimes I have the eerie feeling that the men now scheming in Baton Rouge are in the thrall not of Huey Long hut of Warren’s idea of him.”
— Michael Lewis , author, Liar’s Poker and The Money Culture
I could not pick out a favorite. but one historical novel made a great impression on me when I was young: Oliver Wiswell , by Kenneth Roberts. It was a tale of the American Revolution from a Tory (pro-British) viewpoint, and I suppose it may have been the first book to teach me dramatically that what we regard as the most self-evident truths can be seen differently.
— Anthony Lewis , columnist, The New York Times , and author, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment