My Favorite Historical Novel

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Strictly speaking I don’t even know what a historical novel is unless you identify it as a story told in connection with a particular historical period and populated at least in part by actual historical characters—in which case I don’t much like it, since it usually involves putting words into the mouths of people who never spoke them, a practice I disapprove of entirely; no writer (anyhow since Shakespeare) has that right even if he is dealing with, say, Billy the Kid, who also has a dignity (historically, at any rate) I don’t think should be demeaned by some half-assed writer’s imagination.

If, on the other hand, a historical novel is one that depicts or portrays (as I said) a particular period through the use of fictional characters, then I very much like it. Middlemarch is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I don’t know of a better work from which to learn what life in England was like on the eve of the Reform Bill of 1832; besides which, it is a very great novel in its own right.

By this definition, then, I can name three American “historical” novels that I admire greatly. They are: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

There are, of course, others, but these three I particularly admire. There is one other, involving fictional and historical characters, though the latter speak only the words they actually spoke and are depicted as being where they actually were and at the time when they were actually there, but modesty prevents my naming it.

Shelby Foote, author, Shiloh

Quite a few historical novels come to mind— The Killer Angels, for instance, and Edith Wharton’s False Dawn—but as a boy the first book that drew me into history and has worked in my imagination ever since was Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts.

This is especially true of the sections that tell how Benedict Arnold scratched together a tiny fleet during the summer of 1776 and fought a battle for Lake Champlain, starting in the lee of Valcour Island. In every possible way, from sheer drama (a function, of course, of what the writer chooses to write about) to tactical significance and the grisly details of what it was like to be there, Roberts made good on Mahan’s final judgment: “Never had a force, big or small, lived to better purpose or died more gloriously.”

My general view proclaims, contradictorily, that there are no great historical novels and that all great novels are historical novels.”

Eventually I read documents in London’s Public Record Office and the library of the naval museum in Greenwich, as well as elsewhere, always impressed by Roberts’s narrative energy and careful use of materials. A day came, years after these readings, when I sailed to Valcour and anchored exactly where Arnold placed his line of flimsy ships—the only spot on the whole lake where he had the slightest chance of delaying the British seriously. I can remember closing my eyes on the peaceful expanse of blue water, the green island, and New York shoreline and then, forty years on, hearing the sounds of battle, aware of the threat of the British sloop Inflexible beating upwind toward us.

Timothy Foote, member of the Board of Editors, Smithsonian magazine

I am not at all certain that she would call it a historical novel. Even so, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is my favorite. She delineates, as no other writer has, the utter degradation of slavery and the desperate ends to which a slave mother is willing to go—infanticide—to make certain that her offspring will not be condemned to live the life of a slave. If Americans would read Beloved and gain some awareness of human barbarism, perhaps they could gain some perspective on the plight of this country as it gropes for a solution to its oldest social problem.

John Hope Franklin, professor of legal history, Duke University Law School

The historical novels that have meant the most to me are The Big Sky and The Way West, both by A. B. Guthrie. I haven’t read either in years, but when I was about twenty they gave me the idea of the American West as a kind of Eden and made me want to go there.

Ian Frazier, author, Great Plains