My Favorite Historical Novel


Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny is a philosophically serious story of men at war and the price of freedom. Carl Sandburg’s Remembrance Rock is, like most of what Sandburg wrote, a bit overdone—and all the more fun for being that. All of American history is Sandburg’s canvas, and he paints with a broad brush and only primary colors. However, it is stirring stuff. Finally, there are two worthy baseball novels. In Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant Christy Mathewson plays a starring role and the Black Sox scandal makes a cameo appearance. Harry Stein’s Hoopla is about the scandal and its eight sad participants. Both The Celebrant and Hoopla are convincing evocations of an era.

George F. Will, contributing editor, Newsweek

Confederates, by Thomas Keneally, since it is not only the best novel about the Civil War but one of the best novels about war in general.

Garry Wills, Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture and Public Policy, Northwestern University, and author, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

I don’t know what historical fiction is, and to the extent that I can recognize it, I dislike it. When friends speak of a historical novel, they appear to mean a novel with special characteristics. Clearly historical novels are not simply about the past. Like detective fiction, they appear to be formulaic in some sense. I can easily think of great works of fiction that are about the past—War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter come to mind at once—but I doubt that Tolstoy or Hawthorne are thought of as writers of historical fiction. The Magic Mountain and Moby-Dick were enormous influences on me as an undergraduate, and just now I am halfway through Remembrance of Things Past for the first time, and I believe it may be the finest work of literature I have ever read. But surely these books don’t qualify?

I read a good bit of detective fiction and spy fiction and the like, which is formulaic, and spy writers in particular are turning to the past in search of their evil-doers, usually by writing about Nazi Germany. Is this historical fiction? If one means James Michener, whose The Covenant any number of friends commended to me when I returned from a semester teaching in South Africa, I say, “No thanks” Michener may do a great deal of historical research, but he doesn’t write history, and if his books are historical fiction, I will give the genre a pass. I remember reading Anthony Adverse as a child and wondering even then why one would want to read fiction when there was “real” history around to be read. I still do.

Robin W. Winks, Randolph W. Townsend, Jr., Professor of History, Yale University

Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. A great historical novel that is also a great work of art. To understand the American South, start here.

Jonathan Yardley, columnist and book critic, the Washington Post, and author, Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner

Picking an absolute favorite is a tough one, but I suppose if pinned into a corner, I’d choose Cooper’s Deerslayer, although all of the “Leatherstocking Tales” are special to me because of my upstate New York origins.

Cooper’s wonderful sense of place and time makes all of his novels seem like fictional versions of Francis Parkman’s best work. Sure, the love stories are a bit stiff and the roles of Indians (oops, Native Americans) have long since been the subject of politically correct revisionism, but those limitations aside, my fellow upstater J. F. Cooper is my man.

Brock Yates, editor at large, Car & Driver, and author, Enzo Ferrari