The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 1, Pages 24-27
Winter, 1976

Historical Novels on the American Revolution

By Helen Bedtelyon

In the past century and a half the American Revolution has been the subject of many fine historical novels. On the eve of the two hundredth anniversary of our independence these books provide an ideal avenue for exploring the Revolutionary Era. In this analysis Helen Bedtelyon, a teacher at Renton High School and a graduate student at the University of Washington, evaluates some of the most important of these works. She concludes that the best books are honest and thought provoking as well as entertaining. Among the titles she mentions, these are available in paperback editions:

James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy [New Haven, Connecticut: College and University Press, $3.95]

Walter D. Edmunds, Drums Along the Mohawk [Des Plaines, Illinois: Bantam, $1.25]

Kenneth Roberts, Arundel [New York, NY: Fawcett World Library, $1.25]

Kenneth Roberts, Rabble in Arms [New York, NY: Fawcett World Library, $1.75]

Kenneth Roberts, Oliver Wiswell [New York, NY: Fawcett World Library, $1.50]

Howard Fast, April Morning [Des Plaines, Illinois: Bantam, $.95]

Howard Fast, The Hessian [Des Plaines, Illinois: Bantam, $1.25]

The American Revolution has provided source material for dozens of writers of historical fiction. And whether the genre is always accepted with grace or not (writer-critic Hervey Allen once remarked that the historical novel is a kind of mule-like animal - begotten by the ass of fiction of the brood mare of fact and hence a sterile animal), it must nonetheless be admitted that historical fiction is a pleasurable approach to the past. As the Bicentennial approaches, a reexamination of historical fiction about the American Revolution reveals that many of the novels offer, in addition to enjoyable reading, a keen insight into the human aspects of our national origins. All is not fairy tale endings and noble heroes. The historical novel often has a depth made possible by the ability of its creator to concentrate on the humanity involved in decisions and events. There is much to be gained historically as well as literarily in using historical fiction to view the American Revolution.

In the first widely acclaimed novel about the period, James Fenimore Cooper sketched a portrait of a house divided against itself long before the Civil War laid claim to that description. In The Spy (1821), Cooper's Loyalists are often as appealing as his Patriots (and sometimes both are equally disgusting). Long before most historians braved public opinion to discuss the fratricidal nature of the conflict, long before most Americans could admit that less than a grand majority had rushed to the rebel cause, The Spy presented the torn feelings and ambivalence of those on the slippery footing of neutral ground and the varied motives of those ranged on either side of it.

Most writers of historical fiction unfortunately lacked Cooper's insights and the reputation, which allowed him to publish The Spy. For many years they patterned their works on the frothier aspects of the novel. Clean-cut rebel youths thwarted nasty Loyalist fathers with a lovely daughter's hand and the nation at stake. The American Revolution was often a convenient background for conventional romance, and historical fiction as a scholarly genre suffered. Still, the novels filled a cultural need to romanticize the age, and they sold well, were never controversial, and pictured all leaders as benevolent, father figures: everything we wanted and needed to believe about our heritage.

With the advent of realism and deeper psychological insights in writing and with an historical perspective of some one hundred years, historical fiction about the American Revolution finally began to come into its own. There were a number of excellent novels along the way (including Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker and Cooper's Wyandotte) but the twentieth century was well underway before a new view of the Revolution found expression in novels at once commercially, literarily, and historically successful.

In 1936, Walter D. Edmonds published a tale of a newly married young couple establishing a home in the Mohawk Valley. For the people of Drum Along the Mohawk, the war is a distant thing, the whim of an inaccessible Congress. Their true enemies are weather, quirks of nature, the land itself and Walter Butler's Indians. Yet, their valley is the scene of a decisive battle of the war, and they are caught up in it. The war itself is not the red, white and blue time of glory, but the universal war fought by the common man who wants only to survive. Someone, somewhere, started it; he must finish it. The wilderness, the contentiousness of the settlers: these make it distinctly American, but Edmonds' book, too, places the American Revolution in a human context that all people ever touched by war can understand. If the novel doesn't exalt, it is at least empathetic and real.

A sprawling, exciting trilogy of books by Kenneth Roberts brought the American Revolution and historical fiction to their finest expression. Arundel, Rabble in Arms (published in the 1930's as the twin volumes in the chronicles of Arundel) and Oliver Wiswell (1944; separate from the Arundel books but linked to them by Roberts' style) capture every aspect of the Revolution, from the seamiest to the grandest, from the bravest rebel view to that of intelligent Loyalists. The books landed on some painful nerve ends but won considerable praise from literary and historical critics.

The chronicles of Arundel are the story of stubborn down Easters from the little village of Arundel in Maine. Arundel is narrated by Steven Nason, whose family history entwines with that of the colonies and the Nasons embody all we like to believe about our heritage. They are brave, loyal, humane, just...but they are also cantankerous, sometimes vengeful, proud to a sometimes dangerous degree, often narrow-minded and decidedly bull-headed. They also have an unsettling (to many readers) admiration for Benedict Arnold, who emerges in Roberts' books as one of America's most misunderstood men. Indeed, the chronicles often seem to be his story. Yet, in historical fiction, his faults and virtues are as acceptable and understandable as those of the wily but good-hearted Cap Huff, who "borrows" whatever he needs with a child-like faith in the natural order of things.

Details are painstakingly accurate and the reader emerges not only with deeper insights about the Revolution, but with a sense of woods lore and nature and a craving for some of Mrs. Nason's sweet potato pie. Peopled by characters who might be neighbors, even if their names are awesome in history texts, the chronicles assume a reality and sense of meaning about the American Revolution that many historical texts would find hard to convey.

Oliver Wiswell gave both the American Revolution and historical fiction a new image. Told with complete insight and understanding from a Tory point of view by the man who had just finished writing with equal insight the rebel viewpoint in the chronicles of Arundel, it gave a severe wrench to American sensibilities and restated boldly and with added information what Cooper had said one hundred years before. There were more aspects of the Revolution than a simple good guy-bad guy interpretation would allow. Oliver Wiswell has all the best characteristics of good historical fiction - detailed research, admirable use of history and historical figures, plus all the lighter qualities associated with the genre-exciting, excellent story telling, memorable characters, action galore. Beyond all that, however, it contributes a thoughtful, often angry, apologia and rationale for the Loyalist and makes everyone involved in the novel's sweep, from general to deserter, understandable on his own level.

Thus, many factors contribute to history, and Roberts manages to capture more than most authors and draw from the resultant confusion a lucid picture. Because his characters are so real, they feel the confusion swirling about them and express it. Looking at them, experiencing with them the crucial events that formed their lives, a modern reader feels some hope that maybe the real lesson of the Revolution is that some semblance of order really does sometimes emerge from chaos. It is a different kind of hope than is usually associated with America's origins, but it is a very meaningful one.

British Troops Retrest from Lexington

As it has become increasingly acceptable to look beneath the flag waving and drum rolls, a number of books, notably Howard Fast's April Morning and The Hessian have used the Revolution to comment on war itself. It is sometimes disputed whether they are truly historical fiction or fiction using history to make a contemporary point. Set as they are during the Revolution, they offer, whatever contemporary lesson may be drawn, close-up views from characters who seem not fictional at all. To understand that all sides of an issue are human, that the enemy has feelings, too, that great men are often great because of their very human-ness, not in spite of it: all are concepts made viable in historical fiction.

Historian and novelist Bernard de Voto noted once that historians have tried for many years to help the popular mind shed the grandiloquent view of a unanimous uprising where all rebels were brave, all British dastardly. What de Voto labels the "Parson Weems school", after Washington's deifier, has tended to go on and on, however, and to contradict it was not only unpopular, it was unprofitable. "Some portion of the myth withers, however," writes de Voto, "every time someone reads Arundel, Rabble in Arms or Drums Along the Mohawk. Such books portray the Revolution as episodic mottled with unlovely moments, regarded with apathy by many people and as a prime chance to make money or payoff personal grudges by many others, abandoned, sold out, stupid, betrayed - full of pettiness and mistakes and folly, full of panic and despair also, criss-crossed by the frailties and insufficiencies of mankind and by all the aberrations of social and economic disorder. They make the reader see the Revolution that is very much as the historians have failed to make him see it."

As the Bicentennial nears and we try to give true form to the historical facts and fantasies, the cultural myths that have sometimes overshadowed historical events, historical fiction offers a field for meaningful insights into the period and personalities responsible for the creation of the United States.

Helen Bedtelyon

Seattle, Washington