Your special issue shows how and why historical novels have enticed so many of us into the past. This year, in recognition of the ways in which novels have stimulated and broadened our understanding of history, the Society of American Historians has inaugurated the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for the best historical novel on an American theme. The Cooper Prize, consisting chiefly of one thousand dollars, will be awarded every other year. Books must be copyrighted in 1991 or 1992 to be eligible for the first Cooper competition. Details can be obtained from the Society of American Historians at Butler Library Box 2, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.
Your issue also brought to mind my own debt to two historical novels. As a youngster I had no use for “history,” which evoked paintings of stiff heads festooned with wigs and imprisoned in gilt frames on the walls of roped-off rooms. Then in tenth grade I chanced upon John Barth’s The SotWeed Factor and met a band of colonial Marylanders far more amusing and somehow more real than even my most clownish schoolmates. Several months later I was jolted by an English assignment. The Scarlet Letter explored subjects of mysterious potency—death, guilt, and sex—that few adults seemed willing to discuss.
The old portraits now looked different. I could see little flecks of sparkle in some eyes. Had they, too, beheld roguish adventures along the Chesapeake, or coveted their own Hesters?
I became a social historian to find out.