My Favorite Historical Novel

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The ultimate effort at “historical” fiction by an American seems to me Dos Passos’s U.S.A., of which I am especially drawn to The Big Money.

Of a more conventional sort, Edward Bellamy’s The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays’Rebellion is worth noting.

Wayne Fields, professor of American history and literature, Washington University, and author, What the River Knows: An Angler in Midstream

Has anyone mentioned Democracy by Henry Adams? It’s a fine novel, and Adams has achieved the supremely difficult task of writing well about Washington. The angle of approach is what makes it work. Its theme and its characters still seem very up-to-date.

Frances FitzGerald, author, Fire in the Lake

Absalom, Absalom! is a historical novel, however strictly the term is defined, and it is also one of Faulkner’s greatest books. It carries us, once the parts are sorted out, from the birth in 1807 of Thomas Sutpen, the son of poor whites, to the death in 1884 of Judith Sutpen and Charles Bon in the Mississippi house known as Sutpen’s Hundred. It embodies unforgettable images with historical resonance—Thomas Sutpen, wild with ambition, wrestling naked with his wild slaves. It articulates Faulkner’s familiar themes—family, blood, honor, guilt, race. And history.

But while history is a shaper in all his books, here it is foregrounded. He knew, as the ancients knew, that blood and a quart of guilt are stirred into the cement by which cultures are held together. And knew, as a Southerner, that the Civil War is our great tragic subject. And knew, perhaps upon instinct, that the best historical novels are those in which past and present talk with each other.

Thomas Flanagan, author, The Year of the French and The Tenants of Time

My favorite historical novel is Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. I read it when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, and I credit it with turning me into a historian.

Oliver Wiswell gave me the shock of discovery. Oliver is an American Loyalist, and the story is told completely from his point of view. Having imbibed nothing about the Revolution but standard textbook stuff and Fourth of July oratory, I was stunned to discover there was another side to the story—honorable, courageous American men and women who passionately disagreed with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and company and paid a terrible price for their loyalty to George III. It revealed to me, with a power only a novel can deliver, the agonizing ambivalence of history as it is experienced on a personal level. The theme has been a dominant one in the historical novels I have written. It is particularly strong in my latest book, Over There: One of the main characters is a general who violently disagrees with his best friend John J. Pershing’s primitive battlefield tactics.

 

Oliver Wiswell also inspired me to become a historian of the American Revolution on the nonfiction side. In that capacity I have read at least fifty books on the American Loyalists. I have never found one that can equal Oliver Wiswell in the power to deliver the essence of their experience. As Edward L. Beach remarked in a recent article in American Heritage, historians seldom write about emotion. In many ways emotion is the essence of the Loyalist story—and so many other stories in history.

Thomas Fleming, author, The Officers’ Wives and Over There

My favorite historical novels are the books by Howard Fast I read as a youth—Citizen Tom Paine, The Last Frontier (about the dispossession of American Indians), and Freedom Road (about Reconstruction). These took a different view of our history from the stultifying celebration of the consensus school dominant in the 1950s. They helped me decide to become a historian, and in the recesses of my unconscious, I’m sure, my books on Paine and Reconstruction were in some way inspired by them.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University