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Known for his historical family sagas, John Jakes has been nicknamed ”the people’s author.” His most popular works include a series of books known together as ”The Kent Family Chronicles” (1974-1980), as well as the North and South trilogy (1982-1987). The 1985 North and South miniseries developed for television was among the ten highest Nielsen-rated miniseries at the time. While Jakes’s mainstream success has drawn some negative criticism, many critics do acknowledge his power in dealing with important issues in America’s flawed history, such as slavery, the usurpation of Indian lands, and government corruption.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Only Child, An Education in Writing
As an only child, Jakes was heavily influenced by his parents’ cultural interests, which included reading, watching films, and going to plays. Jakes wanted to become an actor, but began professionally writing as a freshman at Northwestern University when he sold his first science-fiction story. In his sophomore year, Jakes transferred to DePauw University and began seriously pursuing a writing career while carrying a full academic load. In 1951, he married his former zoology lab instructor Rachel Ann Payne and, two years later, graduated from the creative-writing program. Jakes continued his studies in American literature at Ohio State University, eventually earning an MA. To support his wife and four children, Jakes wrote marketing material for a pharmaceutical company and several advertising agencies. At night after work, he wrote short stories and eventually became prolific in that genre, publishing over two hundred pieces of short fiction, many of which crossed genres such as science fiction, western, and fantasy. He also wrote nearly eighty paperback novels under pseudonyms such as Alan Payne, Rachel Ann Payne, and Jay Scotland.
Bottoming Out and Breaking
Out Jakes’s short stories and pulp fiction generated very little acclaim and very little income. In 1973, after taking a job adapting the last film of the ”Planet of the Apes” series into a novel, Jakes felt as though he had hit rock-bottom in his writing career. At this point, Jakes doubted his skills and his future as a writer, but friend and fellow writer Don Moffit urged Jakes on and gave him an opportunity that would change his attitude. Moffit had been asked by Lyle Kenyon Engel, a packager in the paperback trade industry, to write a series of historical novels that would span generations to chronicle the lives of the Kent family and take place during the first hundred years of America. Moffit, unable to do the job himself, convinced Engel to hire Jakes. Although Engel contracted Jakes to write five books, the series was so successful that Engel asked Jakes for three more. Eight titles in all were published, starting with The Bastard (1974) and ending with The Americans (1980). Engel wanted Jakes to continue the profitable series, but Jakes was ready to move on to new projects, new sagas.
North and South
Not long after, Jakes made a deal with Harcourt Brace to write a trilogy of hardcover novels about the Civil War. The successful North and South trilogy includes the titles North and South (1982), Love and War (1984), and Heaven and Hell (1988). This series would become part of American television history when the first book was made into a popular miniseries in 1985 starring Patrick Swayze.
California Gold and a Return to Family Sagas
His next novel, California Gold (1989) was Jakes’s first novel not connected with a family saga or book series, yet still had a historical slant. But Jakes returned to the saga format with Homeland (1993), a story about a family of German immigrants set in nineteenth-century America. Around the time of publication for Homeland, many Americans felt the United States was falling in its global reputation and power. Because of this national attitude, Jakes wanted to write about a time when America was vast, limitless, free, and full of promise. In 2002, after another break with the saga genre, Jakes published Charleston, a novel that follows six generations of the Bell family, beginning with the American Revolution and moving through to post-Civil War Reconstruction. The novel is a single volume divided into three books: ”City at War, 1779-1793,” ”City on Fire, 1822-1842,” and ”City of Ashes, 1863-1866.” This novel was Jakes’s sixteenth consecutive New York Times bestseller.
Honors and Recent Works
John Jakes has continued his active writing career over the last decade, working as usual in a variety of genres. Currently, he is collaborating with two writers of Broadway plays to adapt North and South into a musical.
Works in Literary Context
Although Jakes has written books across various genres, including science fiction, mystery, and westerns, he is best known for his work with the American family saga. Rory Quirk for the The Washington Post praises Jakes for constructing throughout his work ”a graphic, fast-paced amalgam of good, evil, love, lust, war, violence and Americana.”
Jakes conducted a vast amount of research for his historical novels and populated his work with both ”real” and created characters. Stephen Crane, a nineteenth-century journalist and novelist, for example, appears both in Jakes’s early Great War Correspondents (1968) and also in Homeland, covering the Spanish-American War. Susanna Dickinson, a survivor of the Alamo, served as the title figure of a children’s book by Jakes in 1986, but also appeared in The Furies (1976). In The Bastard (1974), Jakes incorporates Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams into the story of fictional American immigrant Phillipe Charboneau as he and other American patriots try to build a new nation. The novel American Dreams (1998) includes the real-life figures Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Edison.
The Mythology and History of War
Many of Jakes’s novels, particularly the North and South trilogy, focus on America at war. The books, though works of fiction, depict actual events of the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Plains Indian wars. Yet, in the epilogue to Love and War, the last book in the series, Jakes writes, ”As a people we all tend to be myth makers as the generations pass. …We mythologize not only individuals (such as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee) but also the war itself.” Jakes goes on to write that we as human beings tend ”to prefer the glamorous to the gory,” and subsequently ”put a patina on the war. To render it romantic.” Jakes is known for his optimistic, even mythic, portrayal of American history, yet at the same time, his attention to realistic and accurate detail does not neglect gritty undertones of racism, violence, corruption, and betrayal. This balance is noticed by Nick Salvatore and Ann Sullivan of the Radical History Review, who argue that ”the themes Jakes presents constitute an important and influential source of public history in modern American culture.”
Works in Critical Context
With his epic family sagas, Jakes became a regular fixture on the bestseller lists, and television adaptations of his works only solidified his popularity in mainstream culture. It is perhaps surprising that an author of such popular genre novels has earned a great deal of praise from reviewers and critics as well. In particular, Jakes is credited with his skill at exhaustive research and his eye for historical detail.
The Civil War: North and South and On Secret Service
Jakes has been lauded for his recreation of America during the Civil War. Rory Quirk of the Washington Post states that although the historical facts are familiar, ”Jakes manages to resift the historical information, meld it with his fictional characters and produce an informative and nicely crafted narrative.” On Secret Service (2000) also deals with the popular subject, chronicling the development of the U.S. Secret Service and its role following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Like Quirk, Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper praises Jakes perspective on history and calls Jakes’s Washington ”brimming with as much espionage as a European capital during one of that continent’s frequent internecine struggles.” Kelly Milner Halls of Book praises Jakes’s historical research as ”impeccable.” Publishers Weekly describes Jakes as ”the foremost historical novelist of [the Civil War].”
Homeland and American Dreams
Critics praised Jakes’s keen historical texture in the novel Homeland and its sequel American Dreams. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Frank Wilson categorizes Jakes as ”a master of the ancient art of storytelling.” Washington Post Book World reviewer Bruce Cook notes that ”Jakes researches exhaustively. He writes acceptably. He is a master of an old-fashioned sort of novel that readers still enjoy.” Eric Rob-bins of Booklist writes that the novel provides ”a popular vehicle for readers who want tasty vignettes of the past.”
- Hawkins, Robert. The Kent Family Chronicles Encyclopedia. New York: Bantam, 1979.
- Jones, Mary Ellen. John Jakes: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Cook, Bruce. Review of Homeland. Washington Post Book World (July 18, 1983): 64-80.
- Halls, Kelly Milner. Review of On Secret Service. Book (July-August 2000): 64-80.
- Quirk, Rory. Review of Love and War. Washington Post. November 3, 1984: 2. 64-80.
- Review of American Dreams. Publishers Weekly (May 25, 1998): 64.
- Review of On Secret Service. Publishers Weekly (April 17, 2000): 49.
- Salvatore, Nick and Ann Sullivan. ”From Bastard to American: The Legitimization of a Fictional Family.” Radical History Review 26 (1982): 140-150.
- Wilson, Frank. Review of Homeland. New York Times Book Review (August 22, 1993): 14.
- John Jakes Home Page. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.johnjakes.com
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