My Favorite Historical Novel

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A great difference exists between a work of fiction that is a vehicle for the teaching or exploration of history—what I would call a historical novel—and one that is set, vividly or otherwise, in the past. War and Peace is not a historical novel. Hawaii is. By this standard, then, my favorite historical novel is not a historical novel. Nonetheless, it is Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Though neither author nor subject matter is American, the underlying theme certainly is: a fortress manned by the weak, who triumph over the strong solely by virtue and ingenuity. Upon this, itself derived from the Seven Against Thebes, rest the many thousand sheepmen versus cattlemen movies, and others, being mainly vehicles for Yul Brynner. Come to think of it, Werfel may also have read A Connecticut Yankee, my second favorite nonhistorical novel, in which the weak triumph over the strong solely by ingenuity.

 

Mark Helprin, author, A Soldier of the Great War and A Winter’s Tale

We know what happened. Henry Sutpen killed Charles Bon (“‘Kilt him dead as a beef’”), and Wash Jones killed Thomas Sutpen (“‘Stand back. Dont you touch me, Wash.’ ‘I’m going to tech you, Kernel’”). What we don’t know is why.

Paul Valéry wrote: “All history is nothing but myth...each moment fades each moment into the realm of the imaginary, and hardly are you dead before you are off, with the speed of light, to join the centaurs and the angels.”

And Quentin Compson’s father said: “Yes, for them: of that day and time, of a dead time...but...integer for integer, larger, more heroic...performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable...”

In Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner has given us a lesson on history and a great historical novel.

Lamar Herrin, professor of English, Cornell University, and author, The Unwritten Chronicles of Robert E. Lee

The Scarlet Letter is perhaps a prose romance, rather than a novel; for sheer greatness, and the ability to yield up more about itself and about the rest of life on each rereading, I might have to put it first. But if what is normally thought of as “historical novels” are in question, then I should without hesitation select Robert Graves’s wonderful Sergeant Lamb’s America (with its sequel, Proceed, Sergeant Lamb), fictionalized from historical documents and centering on Roger Lamb, a soldier in Burgoyne’s army. It gives a splendidly skewed view of part of the Revolution.

John Hollander, poet and author of A Crackling of Thorns and Harp Lake

John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. deeply influenced my view of early twentieth-century America. He realized that American businessmen and engineers of lower-middle-class origins uncomprehendingly accepted American materialism and positivism and assumed that social Darwinism would play out in their favor. Dos Passos’s Americans, unlike their European counterparts, did not foresee that traditional institutional and psychological forces far beyond their comprehension and will power would sully their dreams and dash their hopes. Among American authors of his generation, he is singular in having seen the essential vitality and tragedy of the American businessman and engineer.

Thomas P. Hughes, Mellon Professor of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

My favorite historical novel is Jack Flnney’s tlme and again, which takes the reader from a twentieth-century apartment in Manhattan to the winter of 1882 in the same city. No other book conveys so effortlessly what life was like in another era.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University, and author, Crabgrass Frontier

I’ve given the matter some thought, even though i’ve always seen my own novel Middle Passage to be more of a philosophical novel set in the past than a historical novel in the traditional or strict sense, and I do have a few titles I can recommend.