Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Though realism and naturalism are usually taught as the dominant mode of the novel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much of the most popular and highly esteemed fiction of the time consisted of historical romances by such novelists as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle in England, and by Lew Wallace, Winston Churchill, Francis Marion Crawford, S. Weir Mitchell, Charles Major, Paul Leicester Ford, Maurice Thompson, and others in the United States. Considered classics in their day, most of the American works are now forgotten, or at least neglected. Perhaps the most substantial American historical novelist of the time, both in style and content, is Mary Johnston, to whom Edward Wagenknecht dedicated his Cavalcade of the American Novel. Twenty of her twenty-three novels are historical. Seven of them are set in colonial Virginia, and of these, the most famous is To Have and to Hold. Johnston is notable for combining romantic plots with historical accuracy. Instead of providing mere costume escapism, she offers an interpretation of history, particularly in her Civil War novels The Long Roll (1911) and Cease Firing (1912). Chronicling the history of Virginia, Johnston is the first important novelist from that state and remains, with Ellen Glasgow and William Styron, one of Virginia’s three leading novelists.