My Favorite Historical Novel

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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...Custer’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

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