My Favorite Historical Novel


Among the “historical” works of fiction that I’ve found either interesting or impressive I must include John Earth’s exuberant The Sot-Weed Factor, Russell Banks’s eighteenthcentury narrative The Relation of My Imprisonment, and my own teacher John Gardner’s early novel set in pre-Socratic Athens, The Wreckage of Agathon. To this list I would add Ernest Gaines’s very influential “novel of memory” The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Don DeLillo’s attempt to tell a story through the viewpoint of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra. I feel I should also mention an in-progress work that I think is very promising and should get good deal of praise when it is published. The novel is Rumford: His Book by Nicholas Delbanco, who directs the creative-writing program at the University of Michigan and is the author of ten other novels and several works of nonfiction; a section of the novel appears in the spring 1992 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Charles Johnson, author, Middle Passage and Faith and the Good Thing

Two historical novels that come to my mind immediately and spontaneously are John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A., because it is so passionate, particular, and original, and Jack Finney’s Time and Again, because its main theme is the visitable past itself.

Justin Kaplan, author, Walt Whitman: A Life

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.