My Favorite Historical Novel

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My original instinct was to answer your question of “what is your favorite historical novel?” by saying The Bostonians. Not only is it a splendid drama and a splendid portrait of its time and place (Boston after the Civil War), but then I realized the obvious objection: The time may be historical to us, but it wasn’t to James. To him, it was practically news. “I wished to write a very American tale,” he recalled, “a tale very characteristic of our social conditions, and I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.”

This line of thought leads to two theses, both somewhat exaggerated, but both damaging to your inquiry. The first is that most great novels eventually become historical novels. In other words, Barnaby Rudge may be a novel about the Gordon riots, or A Tale of Two Cities about the French Revolution, but we tend to read Dickens because we find the Victorian attitudes congenial. Even The Sun Also Rises and Tender Is the Night appeal to us partly as an evocation of the twenties as a bygone era.

The other thesis, though, is that very few major novelists had much interest in recreating past ages (if that’s what a historical novel is). They wanted, for the most part, to portray their own times. There are exceptions, of course, ranging from War and Peace to I, Claudius, but they do not disprove my general view, which proclaims, contradictorily, that there are no great historical novels and that all great novels are historical novels.

As one last example, isn’t Flaubert’s great historical novel the meticulously contemporary Madame Bovary and not the tiresomely “authentic” tale of ancient Carthage Salammbô?

Otto Friedrich, author, Decline and Fall and City of Nets

Most—not quite all—of the historical fictions I have met over the years annoy me by making the characters’ behavior and reactions too close to twentieth-century terms, not those of Pericles’ Athens or John Winthrop’s Massachusetts or wherever. As it happens, however, I recently read and was swept off my feet by Walter Edmonds’s In the Hands of the Senecas, about the American Revolution’s sideshow of frontier whites versus Indians in upstate New York; it will probably stick in my mind as my favorite historical fiction. Compactly and pithily written, economically plotted, psychologically trenchant but without anachronisms, employing authentic detail about frontier frictions and Indian ways, yet never guilty of letting the research show, it rings as true as it is enjoyable.

J.C. Furnas, author The Road to Harpers Ferry and Fanny Kemble

Joseph A. Altsheler’s series on the Civil War—for example, The Scouts of Stonewall, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chickamauga, The Star of Gettysburg. I still have them all and most of the rest of his books as well.

William H. Goetzmann, Jack S. Blanton Senior Chair in History, University of Texas, Austin

If the phrase “my autobiography” sounds redundant, then so—to my ear—does “historical novel.” Novels—from Jane Austen to Samuel Beckett—constitute histories, individual histories that accumulate to found one great aggregate human subject: history.

Nothing is so personal that it does not qualify as representing its own peculiar decade, its own evolving Age. Likewise, no movement or partisan cause is so epic in its maplike sweep that it cannot be rendered—thanks to novelists’ God-like obsession with detail—as particular, human, and nearly comprehensible.

Is it not fair to call Gibbon a great novelist? Is it not accurate to call Chekhov, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison great historians? All the fiction writers I love best seem to have saved not just the histories of individual people but the history of a place over time, which means, of course, history itself.

Those recent novels I would most like to have concocted all involve such narrative attempts at condensing the metaphysics of history to a single unheroic commonplace locale. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is the history of the world disguised as the chronicle of a single family’s public life in a dusty Central American village. The book cannot be called any more surreal than is the history of South and Central America.

Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum creates a fable—sacred and profane—about the Second World War’s impact on civilian morality in Germany. It is told by a dwarf who willed himself to stop growing at the age of four and who therefore becomes the perfect knee-high witness to his stunted, amoral tribe.