- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
I suppose the novel so entrances me, a native of Louisiana, because it is both a historical document and a living story.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 but 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
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