The Brief History of a Historical Novel: Thomas Jefferson Was an Enigma to Everyone He Met. A Century and a Half after His Death, on Writer Strives to Understand, If Not the Man Himself, Then at Least the World as It Knew Him

By Byrd, Max | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Brief History of a Historical Novel: Thomas Jefferson Was an Enigma to Everyone He Met. A Century and a Half after His Death, on Writer Strives to Understand, If Not the Man Himself, Then at Least the World as It Knew Him


Byrd, Max, The Wilson Quarterly


LET ME BEGIN WITH A CONFESSION.

For many years, as I liked to tell my friends, I led a life of crime, though part-time only. By day, I taught 18th-century English literature at the University of California, Davis. By night, I wrote somewhat lurid paperback detective novels for Bantam Books. I did my scholarly research in my office or the quiet stacks of the library. The research for my detective novels I carried out in low bars and off-duty cop haunts in the mean streets of the San Francisco Tenderloin. Once I even enrolled in a special course in the California Highway Patrol Bomb Squad School.

But one morning in 1988 my publisher at Bantam, a man named Steve Rubin, whom I had never actually met, called me. After a few minutes of cheerful small talk, he cleared his throat and said rather ominously that he didn't much like detective novels, even mine. That produced a long, painful silence at my end of the line, as I waited to hear the whistle of the ax falling. Instead, Steve went on to say that, since I was a specialist in the 18th century, he wanted me to give up crime and try my hand at a historical novel set in that period. Specifically, he wanted me to write a novel about Thomas Jefferson.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The dumbest idea I had ever heard, I told him. In my opinion, Jefferson was a character completely unsuited for fiction. He was not a dramatic man of action, but a man of the pen and the book--his life had been crowded with incident and accomplishment, but there was no obvious pattern to it, such as a novelist seeks. (I mentioned, by contrast, Lincoln, the subject of innumerable novels, who was a kind of American Hamlet--witty, melancholy, framed forever against the titanic backdrop of the Civil War, assassinated at the moment of victory in a public theater.) Jefferson had lived a long, untheatrical life, seemingly little tormented by inner conflicts, and died in bed at the age of 83. Moreover, he was famously enigmatic. Almost everyone who had ever known him used the same words to describe him: elusive, reserved, aloof. (The word that turned up most often to characterize him, as I later learned, was "feline.")

But Steve kept telephoning, and eventually, after another detective novel or two, I came around. I told him I would write a novel about Thomas Jefferson on two conditions: that he would cover the costs of my research, and that he would allow me to focus on Jefferson's life in the years from 1784 to 1789. Yes, yes, he said, somewhat impatiently, of course he would pay my research expenses. He imagined (I know because he has since told me so) that these would be chiefly some books, some photocopying, perhaps a short trip to Monticello. Then, as an afterthought, he asked why I had chosen those years. Because, I said, that was when Jefferson served as the American minister to France, and my research would have to be done in Paris. This time, the long, painful silence was at his end.

There are essentially two kinds of historical novels. One you might call simply a "costume drama"--the kind of story with swords and muskets and powdered wigs, but no real pretense to telling the reader anything significant, or even true, about authentic historical figures or events. The best examples of this kind of historical novel are those by the great Rafael Sabatini, author of such stirring adventure yarns as Scaramouche (1921) and--my nomination for one of the two or three best titles in fiction--Captain Blood (1922). A more recent and far more elegant example is Patrick O'Brian's series of seafaring novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, astonishing in their realistic detail but centered on two entirely fictional heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin.

Alas, I had agreed to write, not a new version of Captain Blood, but the other kind of historical novel: a sober, factually accurate story about an actual historical figure. Steve Rubin had set out few guidelines, but he made it clear that, because the general outlines of Jefferson's life and character are so familiar and established, it would be imprudent to take many liberties. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Brief History of a Historical Novel: Thomas Jefferson Was an Enigma to Everyone He Met. A Century and a Half after His Death, on Writer Strives to Understand, If Not the Man Himself, Then at Least the World as It Knew Him
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.