My Favorite Historical Novel

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Jacques Barzum, retired dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

My favorite historical novel is by a Britisher and about Rome—Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. Ineligible.

For American books with American themes, it’s pretty hard to look past the crimson couple, The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage. The characters in both of them are so alive and seem so true to their periods. (Odd interpolation: The Calcutta-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee told me not long ago that her current book follows the life of Hester Prynne’s daughter to India, where she becomes a governess to a royal family.)

Amongst the Civil War books, there’s another I admire called When The War Is Over, by Stephen Backer. I don’t have the book and probably read it twenty years ago; what stays with me is the beauty of the prose and the extraordinary, autumnal mellowness of the mood.

I came to the Red Badge of Courage with all the facts of the Civil War but little of the truth. Stephen Crane added the truth.”

Okay, okay, I haven’t really given you a favorite. It’s going to be John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., which I reread last summer and is in my view an extraordinarily underrated major novel, by an author who was rewarded for his political views by what now seems systematic disregard. So much for freedom of thought, though I’m certainly not in accord with Dos Passos’s conservatism. U.S.A. has all the scope the author intended, and the stories it tells of its principal characters are the true stories of our mothers and fathers (or your younger readers’ grandparents). The experimental passages have been as influential on the generation of American writers who succeeded Dos Passes as Hemingway’s prose style. And the interpolated historical biographies—Veblen, Ford, Debs—are gems, the spirit of which turns up in that lovely William Carlos Williams book In the American Grain. U.S.A. is a big, important novel, and I’d be happy to think some people may read my estimate of it here and take another look. Revival’s what I have in mind.

Vance Bourjaily, author, The End of My Life and Old Soldier

If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fits the definition of a historical novel, then it is my favorite because not only does the book contain all the grand and petty and tragicomical elements that are peculiar to America, but it is also a joy to read. If Huck Finn is not a historical novel, then it has to be True Grit by Charles Portis, who is a modern incarnation of Mark Twain.

Dee Brown, author, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I was brought up in the English countryside on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. The world of the Okies roared in like a dust storm. The folk heroism of the Joads is still vivid in my mind, pitting the strength of their family against cataclysm and the vast carelessness of laissez-faire capitalism in the thirties. Steinbeck had the effect on me of reading Dickens—at once entertaining and radicalizing. Who today can so effectively dramatize the plight of the homeless or the migrant worker?

Tina Brown, editor, The New Yorker

Nick Of The Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky (1837)—to give it the incredibly awkward full title—is not on school lists or liable to be read by any but Ph.D. candidates in American lit. R. M. Bird, its author, is overshadowed by his not dissimilar contemporary Fenimore Cooper. Nonetheless, as an early American historical romance and vivid picture of American frontier life in the eighteenth century in the then Far West—the wilderness of Kentucky—it remains stuck in my mind as a special literary-historical experience. Aspects of it are dreadful, notably an incredibly offensive priggish hero and heroine, as well as a totally hostile picture of the red man (the only good Indian is a dead Indian) and lots of melodrama. However, the overall picture of the great, beautiful, but dangerous virgin forest that was once Kentucky, of the Indians and frontiersmen, and of the odd chief character, Nick, and his marvelous dog remain strikingly vivid. Above all, the sheer narrative drive of escape and pursuit that kept the book alive into the early twentieth century at home and abroad (Germany, Poland, etc.) keeps it afloat still, above and beyond its antique romanticism. Bird was more famous as a writer of plays for Edwin Forrest (more melodrama), but as a writer of fiction he approaches Poe in vivid imagination and Cooper in narrative skill.

Nathaniel Burt, author, composer, and poet