- Historic Sites
My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
My choice would be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter , published in 1850 but set in Puritan America. I like historical novels that are serious studies of interesting characters and that convey real insight into the moral psychology of a period. Hawthorne’s masterpiece does all that unforgettably.
— Robert MacNeil , executive editor, The MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour , and author, Burden of Desire
It may seem perverse to call Willa Gather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop my “favorite historical novel,” because so much about it seems non- or anti-historical. True, it fictionalizes episodes from the life of Santa Fe’s Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph P. Machebeuf. But it might as well be called a “geographical novel.” Miss Gather seems more devoted to space and landscape than to temporality and events. Or following a bad definition of the biblical parable, it could be seen as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The author has her characters walk through a drama that seems transcendently plotted. She also acknowledges the role of medieval allegory—Puvis de Chavannes’s frescoes of saintly lives—and Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts. Her setting is America, but the temporal evocation is premodern. So uninterested in sequence, plot, and fulfillments (of all but the saintly life as a whole) is Gather that some could call the genre postmodern. Everyone agrees that it is deceptively simple, that with good reason it invites critical dissection, that it matches only idiosyncratically the conventional definitions of the historical novel. But then all the great ones break the bounds of expectation. That is why we keep rereading them, as I do Death Comes for the Archbishop .
— Martin E. Marty , Fairfax M. Cone Professor, University of Chicago Divinity School
I suppose my favorite historical novel is War and Peace , although I’m currently having many wonderful hours with Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels. But these are not American themes and so of no use to you just now.
— Robert Massie , author, Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song , which I think really is historical and really is a novel, and which captures a slice of American time and place with a success matched by no other American novel I can think of.
— Louis Menand , author, Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context
The historical novels that left the greatest impression on me were:
1. All Thy Conquests , by Alfred Hayes: A very short novel that was about Rome in wartime, but it was poetic and accurate about the encounter of two cultures—the New World’s GIs and the Old World’s people.
2. Gravity’s Rainbow , by Thomas Pynchon, was a brilliant evocation of what the German scientific mind did to shatter the world—a warning against nuclear warfare, brilliantly imagined and written. It took me a month to read but held me all the way.
— Herbert Mitgang , cultural correspondent, The New York Times , and author, Dangerous Dossiers
If by historical novels you mean novels written about the distant , past, I confess that I seldom read them, preferring novels growing out of the author’s own experience. But if you allow a more generous definition of historical novel, my favorite would be Middlemarch .
“For a liberal do-gooder’s cynical distortion of Melville’s tragically noble climax, see Robert Lowell’s stage adaptation of Benito Cereno .”
— Edmund S. Morgan , Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University, and author, Visible Saints and Inventing the People
Michael Herr’s Dispatches ranks (in my view) as the outstanding historical “novel” of the Vietnam War. Some regard it as something more (or less): the sublime report of a journalist from the mental (as opposed to physical) time he’d been asked to cover by Esquire . To me, it defines the necessary synthesis of the latter half of the twentieth century between fiction and news/reportage, a novel written in pursuit of journalistic ambition that simply transcended anything “deliberately” written as fact or as fiction. The result is an immortal historical novel about America’s second “depression” of the twentieth century.