Nearly twenty years ago a review copy of a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg called The Killer Angels ended up on my desk at American Heritage. It was by a man named Michael Shaara, whom I had never heard of, and I opened it idly, full of complacent scorn that somebody should still think it worthwhile setting a story in the endlessly plundered vineyards of the Civil War. Ten minutes later I was transfixed. I didn’t do a lick of work that day; or perhaps I did, for I came away from The Killer Angels with a heightened sense of the shape and urgency of vanished events, and that cannot have hurt my performance here.
I wasn’t the only person who admired Shaara’s book. It came out of nowhere to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize, and the paperback edition is currently in its thirtieth printing. It inspired (as he reveals later in this issue) the film maker Ken Burns to undertake his series on the Civil War. Recently our contributing editor Roger Spiller told me that he’d be surprised if there was an officer above the rank of lieutenant in today’s Army who didn’t keep a copy of it at hand.
But is it—is any historical novel—truly a work of history? That’s no new question. The gruesome tenacity with which the sequel to Gone with the Wind clung to the best-seller lists earlier this year suggests that the genre has lost none of its popularity, but it has long been regarded cautiously both by historians and critics. More than a century ago Robert Louis Stevenson announced that “the historical novel is dead,” and in 1897 the critic Brander Matthews, declaring that “no man can step off his own shadow,” said that “the historical novel cannot help being what the French call voulu—a word that denotes both effort and artificiality.”
The disaffection—and occasional fury—the form can ignite in so many historians is the subject of Daniel Aaron’s essay that opens this most unusual issue of American Heritage. At the time we started talking about scheduling his article, our editor Nathan Ward, a long-time admirer of William Styron, realized that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner was coming up in October. Here was a work of historical fiction that made history, a novel that moved into the mainstream of political discourse and colored the most intense debates of its day. Nathan approached its author, and the result is a fascinating and powerful look back across a quarter-century haunted by the tremendous ghost that Styron raised.
When it developed that John Updike was making a marvelous foray into the historical-novel field for the first time, this issue of our magazine seemed to be assembling itself. Finally, I wrote to a number of writers and historians and public figures asking them what was their favorite historical novel, and why.
I did this with considerable trepidation, and back like a rocket came a note confirming my worst fears: Page Smith telling me it was a stupid question. But then other replies began to arrive, and before too long the editors had the highly gratifying experience of seeing a marvelous anthology take shape. It dominates the latter part of the issue—a rich, various compendium of essays and quick takes, a syllabus that could keep almost anyone enriched and intelligently entertained for years.
For myself, no traditional work of history has ever put me so completely and convincingly in the past as have Patrick O’Brian’s gripping, humane, poetic, and very funny novels of the Napoleonic era; but there is so much here I have yet to read! I am very grateful to everyone who replied, and I think the results are both unique and valuable —a history course unlike any other ever assembled.