My Favorite Historical Novel

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What a tough choice! I’ve changed my mind four times before settling on The Red Badge of Courage. Growing up in a small Southern town where a marble statue of Robert E. Lee guarded the courthouse square, and nursed by a fiercely loyal mother who I still mourned the passing of I the Confederacy, I came to The Red Badge of Courage with all of the facts of the Civil War but little of the truth. Stephen Crane added the truth.

John Mack Carter, editor in chief, Good Housekeeping

For a favorite historical novel I would say Edith Wharton’s Old New York, four novellas, each of which is about a decade from the 1840s to the 1870s. They are masterful renderings of tone and a sense of period. They are concerned with how particular presences evolve into a past, and they deal with historical characters obliquely—with Whitman, for instance, as he was known only as a nurse in the Civil War to a soldier who in old age was shocked by his poetry. I know of no finer account of American morals, taste, and mentality.

Guy Davenport, author, The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire

Though I confess the fact with some embarrassment, the American historical novel that did most to give me “a feeling for the past,” and that remains a “favorite historical novel” of mine, is The Crisis, by the American Winston Churchill, published early in the century. I read it when I was very young, but I still recall vividly the characters and issues with which it deals. There remains in my mind a vivid sense of the St. Louis of Civil War days; of the passions aroused by Kansas-Nebraska; of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (notably the “Freeport Question”); of the contrast of Southern Cavalier and Northern Puritan—all as novelist Churchill presented them.

As a novel The Crisis has almost every fault save lack of narrative drive, vivid (if artificial) coloring, and sharp characterization. It is sentimental, superficial, stereotypical, et cetera. But it continues to live in my mind as few other novels do, and none other dealing directly with American history.

Kenneth Davis, author, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937

I know of no achievement in recent American letters more substantial than George Garrett’s trilogy Death of the Fox, The Succession, and Entered from the Sun. It’s an extended meditation not so much on America as on the Elizabethan England from which our nation at least in part derives—and it brilliantly conjoins the rhetoric of a contemporary Southern author with the Shakespearean discourse to which we’re all indebted. The books are both wholly imagined and scrupulously researched; they ground us in fictive fact.

Nicholas Delbanco, author, Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James & H. G. Wells

I am an eager reader of such works, leaving aside the matter of “professional interest.” I’ve almost come to think that good novelists do better with at least some aspects of historical re-creation than “good” historians do. Two books come immediately to mind. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner seems to me to convey the inner feel (for lack of a better term) of slavery better than any scholarly work I can think of. (And that is going some, since slavery has been a particularly lustrous area of scholarship in recent years.) I have a similar response to Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I frequently recommend to my students as the best single book on family history. Again, my criterion is “inner feel”—the specific textures of experience, the subjective alongside the objective dimension. Why, I find myself asking, can’t we historians do as well? The answer may be that we know more than we customarily allow ourselves to say.

John Demos, professor of history, Yale University

I’m not much at naming favorite novels, historical or otherwise—I don’t seem to think of them that way—but I would say that Ragtime was one of the first books I ever read (I got kind of a late start on this reading and writing stuff), and I thought—and still think—it was pretty good. I also liked E. L. Doctorow’s Western and his Rosenberg novel. In fact, with the exception of World’s Fair, I have enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, and I hope he falls into your classification as a writer of historical fiction.