John William De Forest was interested in history; he began his career as a writer with History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest Known Period to 1850 (1851). He contributed a number of historical essays to leading magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and Galaxy. A few years before his death, he published a family history, The De Forests of Avesnes (and of New Netherland) (1900). His first long work of fiction, Witching Times, and his last, A Lover’s Revolt, are essentially historical novels. He wrote two travelogues (Oriental Acquaintance: Or, Letters from Syria, 1856, and European Acquaintance: Being Sketches of People in Europe, 1858) as well as important accounts of his experiences in the American Civil War (A Volunteer’s Adventures: A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War, 1946) and in the Reconstruction (A Union Officer in the Reconstruction, 1948). He also published rather undistinguished poetry (The Downing Legends: Stories in Rhyme, 1901, and Poems: Medley and Palestina, 1902), much short fiction of uneven quality that has not been collected in book form, and a variety of uncollected essays, the title of the best known of which, “The Great American Novel,” has become a famous phrase.
Gordon S. Haight, who rescued John William De Forest from oblivion by republishing Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty in 1939, declared that De Forest was “the first American writer to deserve the name of realist.” Bold as that declaration may sound, it follows William Dean Howells’s earlier conviction that De Forest was a major novelist but that the reading public did not appreciate him because he did not conform to the literary fashion of his time. Indeed, De Forest’s strong and often unvarnished realistic treatment of battle scenes, political corruption, and sexual morals frequently brought him critical acclaim but hardly ever gained his works any popularity. Modern critics tend to be less enthusiastic about De Forest than was Howells, but most do recognize him as an important precursor of literary realism in the United States. De Forest’s personal experience as a Union officer and his evenhanded treatment of both sides of the conflict give a balance, authenticity, and honesty to Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty that make it perhaps the best novel ever written about the American Civil War.
Bergmann, Frank. The Worthy Gentleman of Democracy: John William De Forest and the American Dream. Heidelberg, West Germany: C. Winter, 1971. This short volume is useful even to the beginning student of De Forest’s fiction.
Buckley, William K. Senses’ Tender: Recovering the Novel for the Reader. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Focuses on Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.
Gargano, James W., ed. Critical Essays on John William De Forest. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Though the twentieth century essays in this collection are mostly aimed at scholars, the rich selection of early reviews, written in De Forest’s own time, is a boon to students at any level.
Hijiya, James A. John William De Forest and the Rise of American Gentility. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1988. There are some interesting references to De Forest’s novels in this study, but most of the analysis is biographical and social.
Light, James F. John William De Forest. New York: Twayne, 1965. A book-length study of De Forest not limited to a specific theme. Comments briefly on each of his novels. Provides a chronology and an annotated bibliography.
Schaefer, Michael W. Just What War Is: The Civil War Writing of De Forest and Bierce. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997. Part 1 discusses the components of realism in both writers’ works. Part 2 concentrates on De Forest and explores what it means to depict war in a “realistic” fashion. Schaefer discusses De Forest’s influences and the extent to which firsthand experience matters. Includes detailed notes and an extensive bibliography.
Wilson, Edmond. Patriotic Gore. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. A study of the literature of the American Civil War, this massive work contains a long chapter on De Forest and “The Chastening of American Prose Style,” one of the most succinct introductions to De Forest in print.