Memories of Reading John Jakes
The works of the pop-history writer, who died last week at age 90, were my first foray into “grownup” fiction
The author John Jakes died last week at age 90. I try not to let the deaths of people I didn’t know personally affect me, but news of John Jakes’s death filled me with a bit of nostalgia. I read his novel ‘The Bastard’ at age 10, in 1980. It was an absurd pre-Revolutionary War melodrama, but was, nonetheless, the first book “for adults” that I ever read. There it sat on my family’s middlebrow bookshelf, alongside ‘The Eye of the Needle,’ ‘The Bourne Identity,’ ‘The Mirror Crack’d,’ ‘The Thorn Birds,’ and many other books that I also soon read once The Bastard broke the seal.
I tore through it quickly and easily while dipping the contents of a box of Triscuits one by one into a tasty container of port-wine cheddar cheese spread. Within a month, I savaged the entire eight volumes of “The Kent Family Chronicles,” which told the story of the inheritors of The Bastard and also some people who ended up working for the family. When I was done, I thought I knew a lot about American history.
I didn’t love the work of John Jakes because he was a good writer. He wasn’t. And it wasn’t because he was an “important” writer, though lord knows what that even means anymore. But in his heyday, he was extremely popular. For years, you saw the Kent Family Chronicles, with their alternating red-white-and-blue covers, at the front of every bookstore and library. Then they moved to used bookstores. For a while, they were prominent at garage sales. Now they are mostly gone from sight. But what covers! Especially the fourth volume, “The Furies,” with a pistol-holding Susan Saint James lookalike on the cover.
Get a load of that foxy broad. I believe her name was “Amanda Kent.” American history has never enjoyed such a ripped bodice. Not pictured, to the left, is Abraham Lincoln. That’s what was so fun about The Kent Family Chronicles. The stories were unbelievably corny and weirdly jingoistic, but every so often Andrew Jackson would show up. “The bearded man extended his hand. My name is George Armstrong Custer.” That sort of thing. For a pre-teen with a taste for reading history, they were perfect cannon fodder for a lazy summer afternoon. They even made a Bastard miniseries in 1978, featuring the hilarious casting choice of Tom Bosley as Benjamin Franklin.
But The Kent Family Chronicles were merely Jakes’s warmup act. His “North And South” trilogy, about two white families torn asunder by the Civil War, sold something like 11 billion copies worldwide and became a miniseries starring Patrick Swayze. I don’t remember much about North And South, other than its protagonist was named “Orry Main,” and that he had an older brother named Cooper. One chapter began with the thrilling sentence “Cooper Main loved Charleston.” I mean, who doesn’t? All that Low Country cuisine! By the time the North and South trilogy concluded in the mid-90s, I’d become a full-on snob and was reading much trendier literary fare, but John Jakes kept a place in my heart. You always remember your first.
John Jakes published during the era of the Great American Doorstop novel. James Michener perfected the form, and he was many times the writer that Jakes was. But in their era, Jakes equalled Michener’s sales. No one researched better and harder than James Michener. His historical novels were actual history. But he had a stiff, dull narrative style, with unmemorable characterization. Even his best book, ‘Centennial,’ featured endless pages about rock formation and dinosaur migration, when what we really wanted to read about was cowboys. Jakes didn’t concern himself with historical accuracy beyond the very basic outlines. His books were all sex and drama and character and lousy dialogue. He told a certain kind of American story.
In that time, I also loved the novels of Herman Wouk and Howard Fast, but both were very Jew-centric, Wouk focusing on World War II, mostly, and Fast on a turn-of-the-20th century immigrant narrative. There were no Jews in the work of John Jakes, not that I remember, anyway. The Bastard was a Scotch-Irish bastard, and his progeny made good on their manifest destiny.
Sometimes I find myself looking for a contemporary John Jakes. I get so tired of today’s version of history, which postulates the absurd notion that we’re all connected across gossamer strands of time and space, while ignoring what people really like about historical fiction, which is sexy ladies holding long guns and handsome Confederates named Orry. Contemporary fiction is so full of itself, but the world continues to roil. History lurches forward, and god knows it’s still full of bastards.
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