- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
I should like to name Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as the historical novel that had the greatest impact on me. No historian has captured the black odyssey with as much clarity, thoughtfulness, and imagination as Ellison in Invisible Man . It’s all here: the rites of racial passage, the aspirations, the expectations, the betrayals, the anguish, the ideological skirmishes, the quiet despair. Like the bluesman, Ellison brought a frightening honesty to his exploration of African-American life and race relations. And it is as timely, as poignant today as when it was published forty years ago.
— Leon F. Litwack , Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley
The answer is easy: the book is Tales of the South Pacific , James Michener’s first novel. I have written three books myself about the Pacific war— Day of Infamy, Incredible Victory , and Lonely Vigil —and for all three my first step was to reread Michener’s book. I know of no better way to recapture the feeling of the period to start me off in the right mood. He captures so perfectly the mixture of heroic action and the petty details that went into the war.
— Walter Lord , author, A Night to Remember and The Dawn ‘s Early Light
Every novel is a historical novel. (The kind of “historical novel” that began with Scott and went on with Tolstoy, et al., is essentially a nineteenth-century genre, already outdated.) Since American history is the history of a people, rather than a history of politics and rulers, American novels that we do not categorize as “historical novels” tell us sometimes more than even the best political histories do. The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence are historical novels in that sense; that is why they ought to be assigned to students of American history.
— John Lukacs , professor of history, Chestnut Hill College, and author, Confessions of an Original Sinner
My favorite historical novel on an American theme is John Updike’s Rabbit, Run , for reasons which are, perhaps, idiosyncratic. His Rabbit Angstrom came of age in Brewer, Pennsylvania, at precisely the time I was glimpsing the possibilities and lacerations of life in New York City. Somehow, when I read it in 1960, it captured the America of my recently vanished youth as no other novel I had read. It still does.
— J. Anthony Lukas , author, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families
I bought a dog-eared, sweat- and snack-stained copy of the British edition of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man in the market in Accra, Ghana, in the mid-sixties and, when I went looking for it this morning before writing you this letter, found it on my bedside table. This is the most fully imagined historical novel I have ever read, and after many readings I still think it may very well be what I thought it to be on first encounter, the great American novel itself. If Huck Finn had had the good fortune to be captured by the Cheyennes and thus set free to live to the age of 111 while he “partipated in the glorus history of the Olden Time Fronteer and new them all Genl Custer, Setting Bull, Wild Bill, that mean man Earp, etc, [and] went through the socalled … Ouster’s Last Stand,” Berger’s masterpiece would be his biography.
— Charles McCarry , author, The Bride of the Wilderness and Second Sight
The historical novel that got me hooked on history as a kid was, I confess, Kenneth Roberts’s Arundel . (I started to get it out again recently but put it back on the shelf. I don’t want the illusion broken.) I imagined myself right back into eighteenth-century Maine; I was right with those guys.
Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is my favorite novel to share with students. I gave it a rest for a few years, got it out again, and was amazed at how little it had aged, how easily the students got into it. It is, in the end, a profound meditation on history.
And Absalom, Absalom! , my true favorite. I can, and (to the dismay of offspring) sometimes do, recite parts of the first page, the last page—and some in between. It’s a wonderful story, it’s my nineteenth century, and it climbs inside the tragic tangle called race that we’re still caught in.
— William S. McFeely , Russell Professor of American History, University of Georgia, and author, Grant: A Biography