October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
American Heritage recently asked a wide range of novelists, journalists, and historians to answer a question: what is your favorite American historical novel, and why? The results made two things clear: that the question was not nearly so simple as it sounded; and that it had been well worth asking. Herewith, a vital anthology that debates the nature of the historical novel and points you toward the best examples our culture has to offer.
American Heritage recently asked a wide range of novelists, journalists, and historians to answer a question: what is your favorite American historical novel, and why? The results made two things clear: that the question was not nearly so simple as it sounded; and that it had been well worth asking. Herewith, a vital anthology that debates the nature of the historical novel and points you toward the best examples our culture has to offer.
Anthony Adverse , because it was the first one I read. After that, it was on to The Good Earth , Jean-Christophe , and historical novels of other lands because, by contrast, to seven-year-old me, the United States was boring. By contrast, I still think so.
— Shana Alexander , author, When She Was Good
I don’t know if the John Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A. qualifies as historical fiction, but it certainly felt that way when I first read its volumes, one after the other, in the mid-1930s. I was a privileged teen-age liberal, avid for news of my own country and its recent past, and in Nineteen Nineteen , The 42nd Parallel , and The Big Money I found factory hands and Wobblies and farmers and journalists and other Americans going about their work during the decades just past, and I paid close attention. The books also had those interspersed documentary or newsreel chapters, which (as I recall) filled me in on bygone events and figures like Woodrow Wilson, the Battle of the Marne, Bob La Follette, Joe Hill, the Scopes Trial, Rudolph Valentine, Emma Goldman, Prohibition, Henry Ford, Isadora Duncan, and the like. I read and reread the books (there was some sex in them as well) and took Dos Passos’s America as the truth. It came as a great shock to me when he swung the other way in his politics, late in life; I’m still shocked, come to think of it. I haven’t reread U.S.A. in many years, and I guess I don’t plan to. It meant too much to me once to be subjected to a second guess from our present glum and ironic perspective.
— Roger Angell , contributing editor, The New Yorker , and author, Once More around the Park: A Baseball Reader
The truth is, I don’t much like historical novels—self-described historical novels; the category of the historical novel. There’s an intrinsic phoniness about such works that I find off-putting—Napoleon standing on the cliffs at Normandy, looking out across the Channel and thinking such and such. Even if the writer is a good writer and gets his dates right and gets Napoleon’s uniform right, his horse right, his love life right, I still find it a phony exercise. Worse still, it’s trying for the wrong thing. In trying to make Napoleon “real,” in fact, a novel (for me) makes him less real; the novelized Napoleon will always be second best because there’s a real one standing beyond my (and the historical novel writer’s) reach. Fortunately for me, since I love history—that is to say, I love the connection with the narrative of human life provided by history—there remains the ordinary novel. It strikes me that just about any novel is historical, though lousy novels are still lousy novels. But a good novel, to say nothing of a great novel, is wonderful history. The Sun Also Rises , The Scarlet Letter , The Great Gatsby —when you read these, you are swept into history, into the poetic and particular centers of their time and place. Anna Karenina , Pride and Prejudice , The Naked and the Dead . For me, these characters are vastly more “real” than any historically accurate Napoleons, and their stories more honest—less burdened by those impossible-to-fulfill claims of authenticity.
— Michael Arlen , author, The Camera Age: Essays on Television and Thirty Seconds
Your inquiry has been in my mind, coupled with some doubts as to the definition of “historical novel.” I have always thought of it as necessarily including historical characters by name. But the mention of All the Kins’s Men suggests that a novel that merely parallels historical events also belongs to the genre. From this ambiguity comes my doubt. Would Willa Gather’s My Antonia qualify? The Scarlet Letter ? To take the plunge, let me choose Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop , which perhaps has enough direct reference to actual events to cover both possibilities of definition.
— Jacques Barzun , retired dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
My favorite historical novel is by a Britisher and about Rome—Robert Graves’s I, Claudius . Ineligible.
For American books with American themes, it’s pretty hard to look past the crimson couple, The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage . The characters in both of them are so alive and seem so true to their periods. (Odd interpolation: The Calcutta-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee told me not lone aao that her current book follows the life of Hester Prynne’s daughter to India, where she becomes a governess to a royal family.)
Amongst the Civil War books, there’s another I admire called When The War Is Over , by Stephen Backer. I don’t have the book and probably read it twenty years ago; what stays with me is the beauty of the prose and the extraordinary, autumnal mellowness of the mood.
Okay, okay, I haven’t really given you a favorite. It’s going to be John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. , which I reread last summer and is in my view an extraordinarily underrated major novel, by an author who was rewarded for his political views by what now seems systematic disregard. So much for freedom of thought, though I’m certainly not in accord with Dos Passos’s conservatism. U.S.A. has all the scope the author intended, and the stories it tells of its principal characters are the true stories of our mothers and fathers (or your younger readers’ grandparents). The experimental passages have been as influential on the generation of American writers who succeeded Dos Passes as Hemingway’s prose style. And the interpolated historical biographies—Veblen, Ford, Debs—are gems, the spirit of which turns up in that lovely William Carlos Williams book In the American Grain . U.S.A. is a big, important novel, and I’d be happy to think some people may read my estimate of it here and take another look. Revival’s what I have in mind.
— Vance Bourjaily , author, The End of My Life and Old Soldier
If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fits the definition of a historical novel, then it is my favorite because not only does the book contain all the grand and petty and tragicomical elements that are peculiar to America, but it is also a joy to read. If Huck Finn is not a historical novel, then it has to be True Grit by Charles Portis, who is a modern incarnation of Mark Twain.
— Dee Brown , author, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I was brought up in the English countryside on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. The world of the Okies roared in like a dust storm. The folk heroism of the Joads is still vivid in my mind, pitting the strength of their family against cataclysm and the vast carelessness of laissez-faire capitalism in the thirties. Steinbeck had the effect on me of reading Dickens—at once entertaining and radicalizing. Who today can so effectively dramatize the plight of the homeless or the migrant worker?
— Tina Brown , editor, The New Yorker
Nick Of The Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky (1837)—to give it the incredibly awkward full title—is not on school lists or liable to be read by any but Ph.D. candidates in American lit. R. M. Bird, its author, is overshadowed by his not dissimilar contemporary Fenimore Cooper. Nonetheless, as an early American historical romance and vivid picture of American frontier life in the eighteenth century in the then Far West—the wilderness of Kentucky—it remains stuck in my mind as a special literary-historical experience. Aspects of it are dreadful, notably an incredibly offensive priggish hero and heroine, as well as a totally hostile picture of the red man (the only good Indian is a dead Indian) and lots of melodrama. However, the overall picture of the great, beautiful, but dangerous virgin forest that was once Kentucky, of the Indians and frontiersmen, and of the odd chief character, Nick, and his marvelous dog remain strikingly vivid. Above all, the sheer narrative drive of escape and pursuit that kept the book alive into the early twentieth century at home and abroad (Germany, Poland, etc.) keeps it afloat still, above and beyond its antique romanticism. Bird was more famous as a writer of plays for Edwin Forrest (more melodrama), but as a writer of fiction he approaches Poe in vivid imagination and Cooper in narrative skill.
— Nathaniel Burt , author, composer, and poet
What a tough choice! I’ve changed my mind four times before settling on The Red Badge of Courage . Growing up in a small Southern town where a marble statue of Robert E. Lee guarded the courthouse square, and nursed by a t fiercely loyal mother who I still mourned the passing of I the Confederacy, I came to The Red Badge of Courage with all of the facts of the Civil War but little of the truth. Stephen Crane added the truth.
— John Mack Carter , editor in chief, Good Housekeeping
For a favorite historical novel I would say Edith Wharton’s Old New York , four novellas, each of which is about a decade from the 1840s to the 1870s. They are masterful renderings of tone and a sense of period. They are concerned with how particular presences evolve into a past, and they deal with historical characters obliquely—with Whitman, for instance, as he was known only as a nurse in the Civil War to a soldier who in old age was shocked by his poetry. I know of no finer account of American morals, taste, and mentality.
— Guy Davenport , author, The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire
Though I confess the fact with some embarrassment, the American historical novel that did most to give me “a feeling for the past,” and that remains a “favorite historical novel” of mine, is The Crisis , by the American Winston Churchill, published early in the century. I read it when I was very young, but I still recall vividly the characters and issues with which it deals. There remains in my mind a vivid sense of the St. Louis of Civil War days; of the passions aroused by Kansas-Nebraska; of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (notably the “Freeport Question”); of the contrast of Southern Cavalier and Northern Puritan—all as novelist Churchill presented them.
As a novel The Crisis has almost every fault save lack of narrative drive, vivid (if artificial) coloring, and sharp characterization. It is sentimental, superficial, stereotypical, et cetera. But it continues to live in my mind as few other novels do, and none other dealing directly with American history.
— Kenneth S. Davis , author, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937
I know of no achievement in recent American letters more substantial than George Garrett’s trilogy Death of the Fox , The Succession , and Entered from the Sun . It’s an extended meditation not so much on America as on the Elizabethan England from which our nation at least in part derives—and it brilliantly conjoins the rhetoric of a contemporary Southern author with the Shakespearean discourse to which we’re all indebted. The books are both wholly imagined and scrupulously researched; they ground us in fictive fact.
— Nicholas Delbanco , author, Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James & H. G. Wells
I am an eager reader of such works, leaving aside the matter of “professional interest.” I’ve almost come to think that good novelists do better with at least some aspects of historical re-creation than “good” historians do. Two books come immediately to mind. William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner seems to me to convey the inner feel (for lack of a better term) of slavery better than any scholarly work I can think of. (And that is going some, since slavery has been a particularly lustrous area of scholarship in recent years.) I have a similar response to Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose , which I frequently recommend to my students as the best single book on family history. Again, my criterion is “inner feel”—the specific textures of experience, the subjective alongside the objective dimension. Why, I find myself asking, can’t we historians do as well? The answer may be that we know more than we customarily allow ourselves to say .
— John Demos , professor of history, Yale University
I’m not much at naming favorite novels, historical or otherwise—I don’t seem to think of them that way—but I would say that Ragtime was one of the first books I ever read (I got kind of a late start on this reading and writing stuff), and I thought—and still think—it was pretty good. I also liked E. L. Doctorow’s Western and his Rosenberg novel. In fact, with the exception of World’s Fair , I have enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, and I hope he falls into your classification as a writer of historical fiction.
For evoking another time and place, though, the best thing I’ve ever read is probably Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It .
— Pete Dexter , author, Paris Trout
Favorite historical novels (why stop at one?):
Fair and Tender Ladies , by Lee Smith. History of one Appalachian valley’s people in the twentieth century. This is about as moving a work of literature as has ever been written.
George Garrett’s Elizabethan cycle— Death of the Fox (Sir Walter Ralegh), The Succession (James I and Elizabeth), and Entered from the Sun (murder of Christopher Marlowe)—gives a complete, complex world.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West . Nineteenth-century U.S.A. and Mexico, with killers.
I love these books.
Middlemarch is historical; so is Absalom, Absalom! (Northerners probably think the South is backward because so much of Faulkner is historical.)
Kit Reed, Cry of the Daughter . The old South, beautifully.
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove .
— Annie Dillard , author, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Living
Three historical novels have affected my writing:
To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston. (When I was in my early teens. Even then it occurred to me that the lot of a redemptioner was not so wholly different from that of a free woman entering wedlock. The beginning of my novel Erie Water is evidence of its lasting effect on me.)
The Virginians by Thackeray, which I read in college for the first time and which seemed to me then the best of his novels.
The Crossing by Winston Churchill, which was the first book to give me a notion that I too might write stories about America.
And then I would like to name a book I am just now reading: Burden of Desire by Robert MacNeil, which I admire for the skill of its writing, its sensitivity (a rare commodity in our modern version of literature). The conception of a historical catastrophe giving shape to the lives of a wide spectrum of characters is in the great tradition, though the coloration is entirely MacNeil’s.
— Walter D. Edmonds , author, Drums along the Mohawk and In the Hands of the Senecas
We read Ole Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth in Miss Durrin’s class at Bowling Green State University, nine miles down the road from Waterville, Ohio—which, in case you want to know, is ten miles from Toledo. It was the first great historical novel I had read, and unforgettable. The year was 1939, long ago, but still bright in my mind, for it was at the end of a swirling decade of uprooting from the placid life of Cleveland and going back to the farm (my father lost his job twice). Nothing like the starkness of Giants , but farm life in the bleak flatness of northwestern Ohio, once known as the Great Swamp before it was cleared and drained, was hardly interesting and therefore reminiscent of Rolvaag’s South Dakota. My grandfather, a broad-shouldered, bearded man, born before the Civil War, had helped with the clearing.
One could go on, but I must say that Giants in the Earth suddenly showed what I was seeing in lesser form on the Ohio farm, and then, to make it the more memorable, in two or three years the idyll of college life was broken by another starkness that Röf6lvaag would have appreciated, World War II.
Years later my wife and I spent a couple of days in a hotel in Northfield, Minnesota, and I drove around the little campus of St. Olaf College and thought of Rolvaag, who, having escaped his native Norway, taught there so many years. By then it was almost too late to sense what St. Olaf had done to help Rolvaag find himself and describe the hardness of American history in the nineteenth century. By then the softness of our lives was almost obscuring the past.
— Robert H. Ferrell , distinguished professor of history, Indiana University
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
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.”
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
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.
Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel traces the deadening concussion of World War II’s public events upon a single working-class Roman family; their quiet hunger is juxtaposed with the actual banner headlines that blast open each chapter.
Here at home Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gives lie to the notion that art changes nothing, that fiction merely entertains and never ethically anneals. Lincoln is reported to have said upon meeting x Stowe, “Here’s the little lady who started it.” If her novel didn’t quite commence our civil war, it did perform the simplest and most radical service that any artist can offer. It took a generic open-ended and complex subject, slavery, and rendered this issue into a familiar coinage—sympathetic (and villainous) human lives. Today’s reader might find Stowe’s “popular-fiction” technique too overtly sentimental and melodramatic; but we must understand that her book’s emotional operatic excess is precisely what engaged then altered her millions of readers. Stowe encountered a nation waiting to know how to think about the “peculiar institution.” Instead she showed them how to feel about that lash and tragedy called slavery .
As a boy Stephen Crane interviewed Civil War veterans concerning the smells, sights, and terrors of their war. In a justly famous work, The Red Badge of Courage , he told their story with an eyewitness’s sensual specificity and pitiless honesty. Later, confronted with a cataclysm of his own, Crane immediately transformed it into a narrative of universal utility and force. He survived a shipwreck and, with a band of others, floated for days in an open boat. His account—written first as a newspaper serial—is The Open Boat . What Crane did with the improbable dramatic pitch of brute facts is a tribute to fictional techniques in the service of a profound, painterly historical imagination. The work proves how adrenaline can show us the allegorical depth in all perilous events we somehow endure. The Open Boat surpasses great reporting and ascends to the Old Testament’s grandeur of tone, a psychology of true compassion, and a timeless understanding of how we daily seek to keep intact and afloat. Crane’s subject, of course, is history.
(My own fiction hopes to blend documentary history and narrative invention in some of the crosspollinating ways that experience itself improbably merges these two strains. I use family letters, found journals, actual historical figures alongside concocted, but no less real, ones. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All benefits from my great-great-grandfathers’ fighting on opposing sides and is a tribute to these survivors and their spouses. In White People the story “Reassurance”begins with an actual letter by Walt Whitman and then creates a ghost out of the poet’s own text: the ultimate act of homage, a belief in historical continuity.)
So, the next time you call some book a “historical novel” imagine describing your own life as a “historical life.” See what I mean?—Redundant.
— Allan Gurganus is the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and White People (both from Knopf). He is at work on a new novel, The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church
I guess my favorite American historical novel might be Drums along the Mohawk , by Walter D. Edmonds. I find myself thinking a lot about Native Americans these days, or rather thinking about how I used to think about them. I suppose my perspective was very romantic, but I remember that one of the things I liked about Edmonds’s book is that he gave the Indians a fair shake. In addition to this book, I liked, if you can believe it, Longfellow’s Hiawatha , possibly because of the gorgeous N. C. Wyeth illustrations.
— A. R. Gurney , playwright, Love Letters and The Cocktail Hour
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.
Among the “historical” works of fiction that I’ve found either interesting or impressive I must include John Earth’s exuberant The Sot-Weed Factor , Russell Banks’s eighteenthcentury narrative The Relation of My Imprisonment , and my own teacher John Gardner’s early novel set in pre-Socratic Athens, The Wreckage of Agathon . To this list I would add Ernest Gaines’s very influential “novel of memory” The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Don DeLillo’s attempt to tell a story through the viewpoint of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra . I feel I should also mention an in-progress work that I think is very promising and should get good deal of praise when it is published. The novel is Rumford: His Book by Nicholas Delbanco, who directs the creative-writing program at the University of Michigan and is the author of ten other novels and several works of nonfiction; a section of the novel appears in the spring 1992 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review .
— Charles Johnson , author, Middle Passage and Faith and the Good Thing
Two historical novels that come to my mind immediately and spontaneously are John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. , because it is so passionate, particular, and original, and Jack Finney’s Time and Again , because its main theme is the visitable past itself.
— Justin Kaplan , author, Walt Whitman: A Life
I suppose my favorite historical novels were Kenneth Roberts’s books and C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. But two books that had a deeply personal meaning at the time I read them were Hervey Alien’s The Forest and the Fort and Bedford Village .
As a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh, I was taken by my father to many of the places dating back to the days when the forks of the Ohio were critical to the contend- ing empires of Britain and France. I had seen the traces of Braddock’s and Forbes’s roads that led from the east toward the fort at the apex of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers; I had visited the Great Meadows and the sites of Forts Necessity, Bedford, Ligonier, Le Boeuf, and toured the tiny blockhouse that is the only remaining piece of Fort Duquesne/Fort Pitt at the Point, walked over the battlefield of Bushy Run, and in Alien’s books these and dozens of other historic places suddenly came alive.
Alien created his own fictional cast, of course, but in the background you sensed the presence of the marvelous real-life characters involved in the epic struggle between whites and Indians, British and French, that included George Washington, Christopher Gist, George Croghan, Capt. Robert Stobo, Col. Henry Bouquet, Gen. Edward Braddock, and Gen. John Forbes.
What a story it was!
— Richard M. Ketchum , author, The Borrowed Years
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, for its indelible portrayal of twentieth-century America’s most colorful politician (Lyndon Johnson).
The Gilded Age , at least the chapters written by Mark Twain. Politicians come and go, but the self-righteous banality of the Congress is eternal.
— Joe Klein , senior editor, Newsweek
Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremaine . I know it’s categorized as “children’s literature,” and, indeed, I read it to each of my three sons, each time with mounting pleasure and fresh discovery. There is no better introduction for a child to the eighteenth century, for the re-creation of the past is so vivid, but there’s much there for readers of all ages. One of my boys, after the reading ended, looked at me searchingly and asked, “Was there really a Johnny Tremaine?” I felt duty-bound to tell him what I thought then was the truth, but if I had to do it again now, I realize there could only be one answer: “Yes, son, there really was a Johnny Tremaine.”
— William E. Leuchtenburg , William Rand Kenan Professor of History, University of North Carolina
In selecting All the King’s Men I may be cheating. Robert Penn Warren was writing about his time, not so long ago. What is more, his book doesn’t merely capture the past, though I imagine it does that too. It is the past. It is one of those works of imaginative re-creation that have the power to overwhelm the original. On the other hand, nearly sixty years have passed since a doctor in a white suit shot Huey Long under the dome in Baton Rouge, and sixty years in America is the equivalent of six hundred almost anywhere else.
I suppose the novel so entrances me, a native of Louisiana, because it is both a historical document and a living story. It depicts a strange, mythic Louisiana in which only the white guys are dangerous and the cars and houses aren’t air-conditioned and so the people aren’t always rushing to get out of the heat, because they can’t. But it also takes you inside the nervous system of a man who wants power, and that sort of man is still very much around. Sometimes I even have the eerie feeling that the men now scheming and fixing under the Baton Rouge dome are in the thrall not of Huey Long but of Robert Penn Warren’s idea of him. When I do, I am reminded of an exchange, possibly apocryphal, between Picasso and Gertrude Stein. “But that doesn’t look like me,” Stein said, upon seeing her portrait by the artist. “Don’t worry,” said Picasso. “It will.”
— Michael Lewis , author, Liar’s Poker and The Money Culture
I could not pick out a favorite. but one historical novel made a great impression on me when I was young: Oliver Wiswell , by Kenneth Roberts. It was a tale of the American Revolution from a Tory (pro-British) viewpoint, and I suppose it may have been the first book to teach me dramatically that what we regard as the most self-evident truths can be seen differently.
— Anthony Lewis , columnist, The New York Times , and author, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment
I should like to name Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as the historical novel that had the greatest impact on me. No historian has captured the black odyssey with as much clarity, thoughtfulness, and imagination as Ellison in Invisible Man . It’s all here: the rites of racial passage, the aspirations, the expectations, the betrayals, the anguish, the ideological skirmishes, the quiet despair. Like the bluesman, Ellison brought a frightening honesty to his exploration of African-American life and race relations. And it is as timely, as poignant today as when it was published forty years ago.
— Leon F. Litwack , Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley
The answer is easy: the book is Tales of the South Pacific , James Michener’s first novel. I have written three books myself about the Pacific war— Day of Infamy, Incredible Victory , and Lonely Vigil —and for all three my first step was to reread Michener’s book. I know of no better way to recapture the feeling of the period to start me off in the right mood. He captures so perfectly the mixture of heroic action and the petty details that went into the war.
— Walter Lord , author, A Night to Remember and The Dawn ‘s Early Light
Every novel is a historical novel. (The kind of “historical novel” that began with Scott and went on with Tolstoy, et al., is essentially a nineteenth-century genre, already outdated.) Since American history is the history of a people, rather than a history of politics and rulers, American novels that we do not categorize as “historical novels” tell us sometimes more than even the best political histories do. The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence are historical novels in that sense; that is why they ought to be assigned to students of American history.
— John Lukacs , professor of history, Chestnut Hill College, and author, Confessions of an Original Sinner
My favorite historical novel on an American theme is John Updike’s Rabbit, Run , for reasons which are, perhaps, idiosyncratic. His Rabbit Angstrom came of age in Brewer, Pennsylvania, at precisely the time I was glimpsing the possibilities and lacerations of life in New York City. Somehow, when I read it in 1960, it captured the America of my recently vanished youth as no other novel I had read. It still does.
— J. Anthony Lukas , author, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families
I bought a dog-eared, sweat- and snack-stained copy of the British edition of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man in the market in Accra, Ghana, in the mid-sixties and, when I went looking for it this morning before writing you this letter, found it on my bedside table. This is the most fully imagined historical novel I have ever read, and after many readings I still think it may very well be what I thought it to be on first encounter, the great American novel itself. If Huck Finn had had the good fortune to be captured by the Cheyennes and thus set free to live to the age of 111 while he “partipated in the glorus history of the Olden Time Fronteer and new them all Genl Custer, Setting Bull, Wild Bill, that mean man Earp, etc, [and] went through the socalled … Ouster’s Last Stand,” Berger’s masterpiece would be his biography.
— Charles McCarry , author, The Bride of the Wilderness and Second Sight
The historical novel that got me hooked on history as a kid was, I confess, Kenneth Roberts’s Arundel . (I started to get it out again recently but put it back on the shelf. I don’t want the illusion broken.) I imagined myself right back into eighteenth-century Maine; I was right with those guys.
Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is my favorite novel to share with students. I gave it a rest for a few years, got it out again, and was amazed at how little it had aged, how easily the students got into it. It is, in the end, a profound meditation on history.
And Absalom, Absalom! , my true favorite. I can, and (to the dismay of offspring) sometimes do, recite parts of the first page, the last page—and some in between. It’s a wonderful story, it’s my nineteenth century, and it climbs inside the tragic tangle called race that we’re still caught in.
— William S. McFeely , Russell Professor of American History, University of Georgia, and author, Grant: A Biography
My choice would be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter , published in 1850 but set in Puritan America. I like historical novels that are serious studies of interesting characters and that convey real insight into the moral psychology of a period. Hawthorne’s masterpiece does all that unforgettably.
— Robert MacNeil , executive editor, The MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour , and author, Burden of Desire
It may seem perverse to call Willa Gather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop my “favorite historical novel,” because so much about it seems non- or anti-historical. True, it fictionalizes episodes from the life of Santa Fe’s Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph P. Machebeuf. But it might as well be called a “geographical novel.” Miss Gather seems more devoted to space and landscape than to temporality and events. Or following a bad definition of the biblical parable, it could be seen as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The author has her characters walk through a drama that seems transcendently plotted. She also acknowledges the role of medieval allegory—Puvis de Chavannes’s frescoes of saintly lives—and Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts. Her setting is America, but the temporal evocation is premodern. So uninterested in sequence, plot, and fulfillments (of all but the saintly life as a whole) is Gather that some could call the genre postmodern. Everyone agrees that it is deceptively simple, that with good reason it invites critical dissection, that it matches only idiosyncratically the conventional definitions of the historical novel. But then all the great ones break the bounds of expectation. That is why we keep rereading them, as I do Death Comes for the Archbishop .
— Martin E. Marty , Fairfax M. Cone Professor, University of Chicago Divinity School
I suppose my favorite historical novel is War and Peace , although I’m currently having many wonderful hours with Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels. But these are not American themes and so of no use to you just now.
— Robert Massie , author, Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song , which I think really is historical and really is a novel, and which captures a slice of American time and place with a success matched by no other American novel I can think of.
— Louis Menand , author, Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context
The historical novels that left the greatest impression on me were:
1. All Thy Conquests , by Alfred Hayes: A very short novel that was about Rome in wartime, but it was poetic and accurate about the encounter of two cultures—the New World’s GIs and the Old World’s people.
2. Gravity’s Rainbow , by Thomas Pynchon, was a brilliant evocation of what the German scientific mind did to shatter the world—a warning against nuclear warfare, brilliantly imagined and written. It took me a month to read but held me all the way.
— Herbert Mitgang , cultural correspondent, The New York Times , and author, Dangerous Dossiers
If by historical novels you mean novels written about the distant , past, I confess that I seldom read them, preferring novels growing out of the author’s own experience. But if you allow a more generous definition of historical novel, my favorite would be Middlemarch .
— Edmund S. Morgan , Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University, and author, Visible Saints and Inventing the People
Michael Herr’s Dispatches ranks (in my view) as the outstanding historical “novel” of the Vietnam War. Some regard it as something more (or less): the sublime report of a journalist from the mental (as opposed to physical) time he’d been asked to cover by Esquire . To me, it defines the necessary synthesis of the latter half of the twentieth century between fiction and news/reportage, a novel written in pursuit of journalistic ambition that simply transcended anything “deliberately” written as fact or as fiction. The result is an immortal historical novel about America’s second “depression” of the twentieth century.
My own novel of the Vietnam era, Snyder’s Walk , was deliberately historical and traditional. Michael Herr’s book was our generation’s Moby-Dick .
— Tom Morgan , author, Not of Our Time
I’m not going to help much. There was a time in college when I read a respectable number of historical novels: Drums, Marching On, Look to the Mountain ; Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker ; John Brown ‘s Body (actually, a booklength poem); To Have and to Hold , et al., et cetera. I found these books competent, entertaining, and very hard to remember. (All I recollect of To Have and to Hold is one line about an early bowling match: “It kissed the jack.”) So I have no favorite—though I have some good words for John Brown ‘s Body —and nothing to report about this genre. But I will give you, if you’ll take it, The Scarlet Letter , which has much to say about morals in a former time and which I remember, grossly speaking, in its entirety.
— Elting Morison , Killian Professor of Humanities Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In the 1950s, when I was in college in Ohio and eagerly soaking up anything I could find about the West that drew me like a magnet, I came on a novel written a couple of decades before called Honey in the Horn , by a man named H. L. Davis, of whom I had never heard. It affected me mightily then, and when I went back to reread it recently—since so many of the things I admired then have not, to put it mildly, stood the test of time—I was prepared to be disappointed. But I wasn’t.
Honey in the Horn is a picaresque novel set in Oregon shortly after the turn of the century, and more than a little reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn . Young Clay Calvert is on the run from the law; his raft is a splendid buckskin mare, his river a serpentine escape route from the rainswept coast across the mountains to the arid lands of the East, his companion at first an Indian boy with a genius for horses and later a beautiful young girl with a dark mystery in her past. In a brief prefatory note Davis said that he had hoped to include in the book a representative of every trade and calling practiced in the state of Oregon at the time —and he came close. Clay throws in with horse traders, sheepherders, hops pickers, loggers, wheat threshers, river freighters, just to name a few, and artificial as this device may sound, his characters are so sharply drawn that he gets away with it.
Davis’s prose is sardonic, pungent, full of passages that Twain himself might have felt comfortable with. Every page breathes with the smell, the taste, the sound, the look of the West. When he writes about the cow elk that “high-tailed it off into the brush with her… hindquarters working like windmill paddles in a gale,” you know he’s got it just right.
Like his young protagonist, Davis has a streak of the misanthrope in him; his Westerners are less apt to be heroic than eccentric or cantankerous or craven or venal, but they have been tempered by broken dreams, economic hardship, and the unyielding harshness of what was still a frontier. And in time, steeled himself by his adventures and misadventures, Clay comes to take a more tolerant view of his fellow man. “Prosperity brought out everything in them that was childish and pompous and ridiculous and wasteful. But adversity brought them down to cases; it made even the simplest of them get in together and get work done.”
H. L. Davis was still alive and writing when I read the book in the mid-fifties, yet neither his name nor his novel were household words—nor are they today. But in 1936 Honey in the Horn won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And in 1992 a lot of it still rings true.
— Don Moser , editor, Smithsonian magazine
By Herman Melville’s own account the historical source for Benito Cereno was a mutiny in the 179Os recorded in the log of an American sea captain. But I read it and recommend it as an excellent literary companion piece (and masterpiece, to boot) for the narrative documentation of the mutiny of fifty-two kidnapped Africans engineered by one Prince Joseph Cinque aboard the schooner Amistad in 1839 as recounted in Chapter Two of Muriel Rukeyser’s biography Willard Gibbs, American Genius .
For a liberal do-gooder’s cynical distortion of the tragically noble spirit of Melville’s climax as well as the facts as documented in Willard Gibbs and in Samuel Flagg Bemis’s biography of John Quincy Adams, who won the captors’ freedom before the Supreme Court, see Robert Lowell’s stage adaptation of Benito Cereno published in The Old Glory .
Here is Robert Lowell:
BABU : ( Holding a white handkerchief and raising both hands ) Yankee master understand me. The future is with us.
DELANO : ( Raising his pistol ) This is your future. (Babu falls and lies still. Delano pauses, then slowly empties the five remaining barrels of his pistol into the body. The lights dim.)
Here is Melville in the original:
1. “‘You are saved,’” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “‘You are saved. What has cast such a shadow upon you?’”
“‘The Negro. …’”
2. “As for the black—whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot—his slight frame, inadequate to that which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat. Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. … “
Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites. …”
— Albert Murray , author, Train Whistle Guitar and Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray
My favorite was written by Robert Herrick (1868-1938), who deserves but does not seem to have a wide audience today. He combined social criticism deftly with historical fiction. I particularly admire Chimes , a delightful yet disturbing story of the founding and early years of what was actually the University of Chicago.
— Paul Nagel , author, The Adams Women and The Lees of Virginia
I find I’m taking the point of view that all novels are historical novels, and I have several favorites:
1. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn captured the lives of the immigrants of Europe living in America’s great Eastern cities after the turn of the century. I was about twelve when I read it; it was important to me.
2. The novels of Thomas Wolfe, especially Look Homeward, Angel , capture America in the first decades of this century from the small towns of the South to burgeoning Brooklyn.
3. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King put you there with the knights and the mystics.
4. But the most important novel for me was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer , because the author represented so truly in this work the echoing lostness or lost quality at the heart of modernity, and did it through New Orleans in 1960—America on the edge of change.
— Peggy Noonan . author, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era
My favorite historical novel is John Earth’s The Sot-weed Factor , because it evokes life in colonial Maryland in a way both comic and insightful, and because of Earth’s imaginative use of surviving court records and actual historical figures as sources for part of his plot.
— Mary Beth Norton , Mary Donlan Alger Professor of American History, Cornell University
There’s a tricky little question here of what it is that justifies one in calling a novel “historical.” My immediate response to your question was to name Huckleberry Finn as not only a historically valid picture of life in the antebellum South —well, with some literary license and exaggeration, to be sure—but (along with War and Peace and Remembrance of Things Past and hardly anything else) one of the greatest novels ever written as well. But perhaps that isn’t fair; Huckleberry Finn was set in a period that, after all, lay within the life span of its author.
So I settle on MacKinley Kantor’s Andersonville . I’ve read that novel at least six times and each time find it wonderfully insightful, informative, and moving. Of all the vast literature on the Civil War, if I could choose only one novel to read, that would be it, and I would feel that it had given me a clear understanding of what that war meant to those who lived through it.
— Frederik Pohl , author, The World at the End of Time
As a reporter I’m most impressed by novels that reflect the reality (or realities) I’ve seen while covering the news. All the King’s Men is extraordinary, the Moby-Dick of political novels, and I’m a great admirer of The Last Hurrah . Willie Stark and Frank Skeffington are flawed, fearless, and fascinating—uniquely American characters. (That’s not a political endorsement of either one!) Especially during election years, I recommend both books to just about everybody I come across.
As a Texan I’ve always appreciated J. Frank Dobie and Fred Gipson, and I’m partial to Gone with the Wind . That book is embarrassingly wrongheaded about a great many things, but it does capture a vitality in the Southern spirit and a rÈsumÈ of the issues confronting many women even today (the tension between home and workplace that Scarlett faces and even embodies).
— Dan Rather , anchor and managing editor, “CBS Evening News”
Perhaps my young tastes (say twelve years old, and forgetting The Amboy Dukes ) seem to be lefty-adventure—or does that just mean my father was a conservative Republican? Anyway, the books I read then included April Morning , by Howard Fast, For Whom the Bell Tolls , and Rifleman Dodd , a C. S. Forester novel about a British soldier who fought on alone in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.
Actually, I think I preferred biographies of great men: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson…
— Richard Reeves , syndicated columnist
To me, a “historical” novel is not necessarily a costume romance set entirely in the past but simply a novel in which the persistence of memory infuses and enriches the present. I think of Willa Gather’s My Antonia and A Lost Lady , Katherine Anne Porter’s “Old Mortality,” Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall (terrible title!), of Faulkner, Stegner, Horgan. One of the very best, drenched in the marvel of rediscovered history, is Glenway Wescott’s The Grandmothers (1927), the theme of which is one man’s exploration of “that wilderness of history and hearsay, that distorted landscape of a dream which had come true before it had been dreamed [and] was there where it had been—but buried, buried under the plowed land, the feet of modern men, and the ripener’s crops.”
— Richard Reinhardt , author, The Ashes of Smyrna
I suppose I have been stumped here by questions of definitions. You list Warren’s All the King’s Men , for example, but I would have regarded that a novel in which the author is writing about events of his own lifetime. World Enough and Time and Band of Angels , on the other hand, would be historical novels. Nor am I clear whether you are asking for favorite historical novels set in America or favorite historical novels set anywhere.
If the second, I would nominate War and Peace on one level and The Three Musketeers on another. If the first, The Scarlet Letter , The Red Badge of Courage , A Connecticut Yankee , and The Age of Innocence are favorites.
— Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, City University of New York
“I wished to write a very American Tale ,” Henry James said of his novel The Bostonians , and a very American tale he wrote. Although the book was a failure with readers and critics alike when it was published, and James omitted it from the New York Edition, for me it vividly captures a period in our history. It is set in the post-Civil War years, when the atmosphere in Boston was charged with intellectual excitement over questions about the place of women in society, the suffragist movement, and the power of the press.
The novel’s Southern hero, Basil Ransom, recently demobbed from the Confederate army and dispossessed of his family’s plantation, destroyed during the war, travels north to Boston to make his fortune as a journalist (at a time when invasion of privacy was a much-debated topic and newspapermen were scorned by high-thinking, right-minded New Englanders).
Ransom looks up a distant cousin, Olive Chancellor, who turns out to be a bluestocking, a strident feminist, and a formidable competitor for possession of Verena Tarrant, a beautiful young woman from a modest background, with whom he falls in love. Believing that a woman’s place is in the home, Ransom declares war on Olive, who is grooming Verena for life on a larger stage—as a voice for the suffragist movement.
The novel may well have failed a hundred years ago because it was too close to the social movements it described, but for today’s reader it brings alive a period in our history with rich documentation and drama.
— Eileen Simpson , author, Orphans Real and Imaginary and Poets in Their Youth
The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters , by Joseph Stanley Pennell (Scribner’s, 1944), begins with a contemporary young man trying to impress a beautiful girl with tales of his illustrious Civil War ancestors. The girl is bored, but we wander with the young man through his memories of his people and what, old, they told him or his parents of Shiloh and Gettysburg and Reconstruction. In James Joycean style there are no quotation marks. Driftingly the young man imagines the lines of lives whose high points he has heard described, goes forward and back through those lives. It is all hazy, but details sing, smells, sounds. It is all vague and suffused with sadness for a time we cannot know.
Joseph Stanley Pennell wrote one more novel, four years later. Then he was silent. Who or what he was, if he died youne—I have no idea.
— Gene Smith , author, When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson and Lee and Grant
In response to a request for my favorite American novels—a letter misplaced in the vortex of my office—may I still join you by adding Gone with the Wind , Margaret Mitchell; Little Women , Louisa May Alcott; Kitty Foyle , Christopher Morley; Main Street , Sinclair Lewis; Washington Square, Henry James; The Last of the Mohicans , James Fenimore Cooper; and, competing with the latter, Moby-Dick , Herman Melville.
— Liz Smith , syndicated columnist
Patrick O’Brian has written fifteen historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars chronicling the friendship of Jack Aubrey, an officer in the Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician and spy; one of these books— The Fortune of War —takes place in America, and others include Americans. I have read most of these novels five times and recommended them to every friend I possess, seven of whom have found them as exhilarating as I have, and no historical novelist has given any of us a remotely comparable amount of pleasure. O’Brian is an immensely intelligent and extremely funny writer with a considerable array of talents, but I think his great achievement as a historical novelist is his re-creation of the intellectual and moral universe of Enlightenment gentlemen, with Jack and Stephen each incarnating a portion of the spirit of the age. O’Brian has invented a wonderful, slightly archaized language to evoke both his historical subjects and his timeless ones; I have never seen anything like it, or him. These are splendid books.
— Fredric Smoler , professor of history and literature, Sarah Lawrence College
Reading conversations between historic figures and fictional ones usually unnerves me. In Little Big Man , however, Gen. George Custer doesn’t enter the story until close to the end, and by then I was ready to believe anything, having succumbed to its picaresque hero, Jack Crabb. Jack, captured by the Cheyennes at the age of ten, is brought up as a brave. After he is rescued five years later, he becomes by turn a storekeeper, a con artist, a fast-on-the-draw gunfighter, an alcoholic, a suicidal hermit, and the Indian guide for Custer as he marches to the Little Bigk horn.
Until that climax is reached, Berger has a rollicking good time debunking the myths about frontier life we all grew up with. In between the fun there are chilling glimpses into the dark side of America’s “manifest destiny.” Because I read this book when the Vietnam War was going on, the portrait of Custer as a wrongheaded glory hunter who refuses to face facts reminded me somehow of Lyndon Johnson.
— Edward Sorel , artist, who says he has spent years trying to convince his friends he is literate
When Walt Whitman reflected on his Civil War experiences, tending the dead and wounded, he decided that “the real war will never get in the books.” The real war found its way into Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage . When The Red Badge was published in October 1895, reviewers were sure the book had been written by a grizzled veteran of the Civil War. One veteran insisted he had been at Antietam with Crane. So when it became known that The Red Badge of Courage was the invention of a callow youth, twenty-three years old, completely innocent of combat, readers everywhere were nonplussed. One inventive reviewer suggested that a great soldier’s spirit had been reincarnated in Crane.
The stunningly realistic book made Crane a transatlantic celebrity, and for the rest of his brief life, he became adept at explaining, defending, or avoiding the consequences of his creation. He was accused, variously, of cribbing from Emile Zola’s La Debâcle and Tolstoy’s War and Peace . Privately he wrote that he had wanted the book to be a “psychological study of fear.”
What has always impressed me most about this little book is how its complexities masquerade as simplicity. It reflects profoundly the struggle between the pastoral and industrial worlds that so colored Crane’s America. It is as psychologically penetrating as any of Henry James’s work. It conveys an understanding of war so advanced for its time that history, as well as literature, would be decades catching up. Every war novel is in some way derivative of Crane’s book. For all its precociousness, however, The Red Badge of Courage is an artifact of its times more telling than any other piece of American historical fiction.
— Roger Spiller , professor of military history, U.S. Army General Command and General College
Hmmm … my favorite American historical novel? …
Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy Memories of Fire would have to be a contender, a rich mosaic that seems like a crash course in the real history of the Americas, as well as a geography of the mind, but I can’t ignore Don DeLillo’s Libra for turning Oswald into the central metaphor of our country and our time, although the historical novel I enjoyed most is probably Tom DeHaven’s The Funny Papers , a well-researched magic-realist conjuring up of turn-of-the-century New York and the birth of the American Sunday comics—it gave precision to my fantasies of the period. The historical novel that probably had the greatest influence on me was Ben and Me , written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. I discovered this classic kid’s book when I was about eleven —the story of Ben Franklin as told by his mouse, Amos. It ignores much of the racier side of Franklin’s life, but the choice of narrator near to but not at the center of historical events may have left lifelong scars.
— Art Spiegelman , author, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Here My Troubles Began
The Cold Journey , by Grace Zaring Stone. In this novel inspired by the events and consequences of the Deerfield Massacre, she performed a feat—difficult for storytellers, as for historians and film makers—of conveying the strangeness of other times and states of mind, accepting the challenge of the past idiom and the hush of isolated lives. I believe that no one who reads the book will forget it. It leaves an impression of whiteness, silence, sudden violence; of hardship, remoteness, and endurance.
— Francis Steegmuller , winner of the National Book Award, 1971, and translator, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
It’s a little hard to pick a favorite historical novel, but I think the one that came to mind first and that sort of stays in my mind is one you might not expect. It is God’s Angry Man , by Leonard Ehrlich, a novel about the career of John Brown. I guess it strikes me because from its very opening line it takes us into that somewhat mad world that John Brown lived in, and the whole book is informed with his crazy passion and with the ambiguity of his violence in behalf of a great cause.
— Wallace Stegner , author, Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety
I know this response probably stretches your generous guidelines beyond elasticity, but it truly is the one that keeps coming to mind: The Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life & the Glories of Gods & Kings , in that great, great translation that came out three, maybe four years ago by Dennis Tedlock. It’s a fabulous book, definitely American, most likely history, and sort of a novel. I liked it tremendously as literature, kind of an American Bible, and theoretically it’s got some Mayan historical data in there among the gods and demons. Anyway, that’s my choice, and I’ll be absolutely crushed if it doesn’t get in.
— John Strausbaugh , contributing editor, New York Press
As a historical novel of the most unusual kind, I like Theodore Dreiser’s first book, Sister Carrie . Dreiser, who was invariably to form his novels around real people, in this one went all the way. It was based closely on the affairs of his older sister Emma. Just as Emma had, Carrie becomes the mistress of a salesman, tires of him, and runs off to New York with George Hurstwood, successful for a time as manager of a lavish saloon. But Hurstwood fails in business, and Carrie takes to the stage in minor roles. As Hurstwood leaves her, she becomes a star in musical comedies—this latter being the only important divergence from fact.
The story was accepted by an editor for the publisher Frank Doubleday, then in Europe with his wife. When the Doubledays returned, he was shocked by the story’s realism—mainly the fact that Carrie, the sinner, winds up a stage favorite. His wife, Neltje, was likewise affronted by the success of a wicked woman. According to the mores of the times, she must be punished for her wickedness.
Doubleday squeaked through the contract by publishing a thousand copies of a cheap edition in 1900. Sister Carrie was republished by a different company in 1907, had a fine sale and admiring reviews. So much had criticism matured in seven years over a book since recognized as a great American classic and republished many times thereafter.
— W. A. Swanberg , author, Citizen Hearst and Luce and His Empire
Custer buffs horrified by my unflattering portrait of their general (“The Little Bighorn,” American Heritage , April 1992) may not be surprised to learn that my favorite historical novel is Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man . Even though my own historical novel concerned India and not Indians, reading a couple of pages of Berger’s affectionate, unflinching rendition of the American frontier was always my most dependable remedy for writer’s block. Little Big Man is hard on General Custer (though not as hard as the movie), but it is a greathearted book that embraces all of the crazy contradictions of the American West. I would even go so far as to say that it is a better book than Huckleberry Finn if it, and we, didn’t owe so much to Twain’s invention; in any case, Little Big Man has a far better ending. Berger never succumbs to sentimentality or the expository hazards of historical fiction. In a single paragraph he can coax you along with a funny, even joyous description of how the Cheyennes employed all the versatile parts of the plentiful and benevolent buffalo and then with a single line—“But it is all gone now”—raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
— Andrew Ward , newspaper columnist, and author, Out Here: A Newcomer’s Notes from the Great Northwest
“But what of all this? And to what end do we lay before the living the fall and fortunes of the dead…” (Ralegh, History of the World ).
Beyond Dick and Jane , my reading life began with Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe , from which I learned that the best ticket to becoming a frequent flier into the past was a library card. I began work in a book-publishing world where the historical novels of Thomas B. Costain, Kenneth Roberts, Samuel Shellabarger, Mary Renault, Robert Graves flourished. But the finest historical novel I ever read arrived in two great boxes of manuscript written by George Garrett, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and teacher. George had written novels before, but nothing quite prepared me for the masterpiece that was Death of the Fox .
The courage it required, indeed audacity, for this young American Southerner to take on Ralegh, Elizabeth’s captain (who had briefly smelled the scent of flowers in the breezes off Virginia, where George taught); the time (most of twenty years, off and on, but mostly on); the talent (prodigious); the research and sheer work and the historical imagination that went into this book came out of it in waves of pure power, poetry, and story.
The setting for the story is the Tower. The time is the last few days in the life of Sir Walter Ralegh. But majestically it sweeps from the Tudors in 1485 to October 29, 1618, when Ralegh feels the fall of the ax. The novel opens up windows into the lives and times and particularly the mind of the Elizabethan world.
For me, it was an exposure of two kinds of minds: the Elizabethan, so full of cunning and guile but so often in search of options and answers, none of them easy, in fact for wisdom; and the mind of a man, the author, who, in the Southern tradition, loves the past and seeks to recompose it, through fact and invention, in myth and song and smell, capable of re-creating the very humanity of those who walked the earth before us.
And as if that were not enough, eventually there were two subsequent novels in what came to be a trilogy, The Succession and Entered from the Sun , each a triumph.
— Samuel S. Vaughan , former lecturer in arts and sciences, Columbia University, and former editor at Doubleday and Random House
The American West as memory and experience has been trivialized and misinterpreted by so much bad fiction that the real place and time and people who occupied both may be, as some have said, beyond recovery. But Wallace Stegner, among a handful of serious novelists, has refused to let the reality of t the West be asphyxiated by the gassy prose of the “thud-and-blunder” boys, and in a body of work i distinguished by a I deeply felt and intelligent reading of the region’s history, he has done his best to give it back to us. That best is about as good as it gets, and it gets no better than in the great story that is Stegner’s Angle of Repose . Not only is it my favorite historical novel, but in its relentless illumination of human character tested and refined by a landscape that is perfectly realized through the wizardry of Stegner’s art, Angle of Repose is my candidate for one of the two or three modern American novels that can be put on the same shelf with Huckleberry Finn without apologies to Twain.
— T. H. Watkins , editor, Wilderness magazine, and author, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes
Oh, my! Favorite historical novel—which means not necessarily best. Well, it’s like picking a favorite child, isn’t it? I think I’d go with A. B. Guthrie, The Big Sky , which for me marvelously evoked what the life of the Rocky Mountain fur trappers must have been like.
Close runner-up would be Conrad Richter’s marvelous trilogy of the Midwestern frontier, The Trees , The Fields , and The Town . If you haven’t met Sayward Luckett and her kinfolk, you’ve missed a chance to understand how the heartland came to be. I’ve got to say a good word for Raintree County for all its sprawling windiness, because it has a sense of the Civil War as a rite of passage for both the young men who fought in it and the country that it changed forever. In a more compact way a now-forgotten novel by Joseph Stanley Pennell, The History of Rome Hanks , did much the same. (And of course, The Red Badge of Courage is in a class by itself, but it’s funny how a masterpiece can sometimes be too formidable to become a favorite. You like a favorite because it has some flaws.) Then there’s Henry Adams’s Democracy ; its portrait of a venal Washington could have been drawn yesterday, but not so well. And how can I slight my old friend Drums along the Mohawk , in which Walter D. Edmonds made the world of upstate New York in the 177Os so real that when I would drive its roads, I expected to see one of his vivid characters pop out of a door at the next intersection.
Naw, I really can’t pick one above the others, but you’ve got something like my top nine here (sticking to U.S. history alone, of course). If we want to round it to ten, throw in the wonderful John W. DeForest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty . Of course, since that was written by a veteran right after the Civil War, does it qualify as a “historical” novel? I guess you could apply the same question to Democracy . But I think of a historical novel as one that has a setting almost anywhere in time before its composition—in which case we’ll have to include Huckleberry Finn as winner and still champion.
— Bernard A. Weisberger , author, The Dream Maker: William C. Durant and Cold War, Cold Peace
My favorite historical novel with an American theme is Jeanne Mackin’s The Frenchwoman : for the suasive solidity of its Pennsylvania log-cabin colony, French Azilum; for its intuitive insinuations and such things as thunderstorms “swift… as birdflight.” Ms. Mackin has a supple hand and a nostalgist’s eye.
— Paul West , author, Lord Byron ‘s Doctor and Women of Whitechapel: And Jack the Ripper
To tell the truth, I have not read very many historical novels about American themes. George Garrett seems to me a fine historical novelist, but he writes about the Elizabethan world. Of qualifying novels that I’ve read, I think I would pick All the King’s Men ; as I remember, I particularly admired its choice of a narrator whose background and education gave him an intimacy with the Louisiana scene and at the same time a measure of thoughtful detachment. Another American historical novel I have read (in connection with research on Poe) is The Book of Mormon , but I would not put that at the top of my list. My wife tells me that Gore Vidal’s Burr is superb, and I hope ere long to read it.
— Richard Wilbur , poet and author of Things Not of This World
Let’s give a capacious definition to the category “historical novel.” Let’s include not just novels in which the main characters are real historical figures (such as Gore Vidal’s Lincoln ) and not just novels obviously telling the story of a real life (such as Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men ) but also novels that deal with real events (such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , Warren’s Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War , and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance ).
My favorite? All the King’s Men . But I would like to cast for four others as well.
Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny is a philosophically serious story of men at war and the price of freedom. Carl Sandburg’s Remembrance Rock is, like most of what Sandburg wrote, a bit overdone—and all the more fun for being that. All of American history is Sandburg’s canvas, and he paints with a broad brush and only primary colors. However, it is stirring stuff. Finally, there are two worthy baseball novels. In Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant Christy Mathewson plays a starring role and the Black Sox scandal makes a cameo appearance. Harry Stein’s Hoopla is about the scandal and its eight sad participants. Both The Celebrant and Hoopla are convincing evocations of an era.
— George F. Will , contributing editor, Newsweek
Confederates , by Thomas Keneally, since it is not only the best novel about the Civil War but one of the best novels about war in general.
— Garry Wills , Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture and Public Policy, Northwestern University, and author, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
I don’t know what historical fiction is, and to the extent that I can recognize it, I dislike it. When friends speak of a historical novel, they appear to mean a novel with special characteristics. Clearly historical novels are not simply about the past. Like detective fiction, they appear to be formulaic in some sense. I can easily think of great works of fiction that are about the past— War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter come to mind at once—but I doubt that Tolstoy or Hawthorne are thought of as writers of historical fiction. The Magic Mountain and Moby-Dick were enormous influences on me as an undergraduate, and just now I am halfway through Remembrance of Things Past for the first time, and I believe it may be the finest work of literature I have ever read. But surely these books don’t qualify?
I read a good bit of detective fiction and spy fiction and the like, which is formulaic, and spy writers in particular are turning to the past in search of their evil-doers, usually by writing about Nazi Germany. Is this historical fiction? If one means James Michener, whose The Covenant any number of friends commended to me when I returned from a semester teaching in South Africa, I say, “No thanks” Michener may do a great deal of historical research, but he doesn’t write history, and if his books are historical fiction, I will give the genre a pass. I remember reading Anthony Adverse as a child and wondering even then why one would want to read fiction when there was “real” history around to be read. I still do.
— Robin W. Winks , Randolph W. Townsend, Jr., Professor of History, Yale University
Absalom, Absalom! , by William Faulkner. A great historical novel that is also a great work of art. To understand the American South, start here.
— Jonathan Yardley , columnist and book critic, the Washington Post , and author, Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner
Picking an absolute favorite is a tough one, but I suppose if pinned into a corner, I’d choose Cooper’s Deerslayer , although all of the “Leatherstocking Tales” are special to me because of my upstate New York origins.
Cooper’s wonderful sense of place and time makes all of his novels seem like fictional versions of Francis Parkman’s best work. Sure, the love stories are a bit stiff and the roles of Indians (oops, Native Americans) have long since been the subject of politically correct revisionism, but those limitations aside, my fellow upstater J. F. Cooper is my man.
— Brock Yates , editor at large, Car & Driver , and author, Enzo Ferrari