John (William) Jakes Essay - Critical Essays

Jakes, John (William)


John (William) Jakes 1932–

(Has also written under pseudonyms of Alan Payne and Jay Scotland) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and lyricist.

Jakes began his writing career during the early 1950s, specializing in pulp Western novels and science fiction. He has written over twenty novels in both genres, but it was the historical novel The Bastard in 1974 that made Jakes one of the most widely read of popular novelists. The Bastard is the first of eight historical novels collectively known as The American Bicentennial Series or The Kent Family Chronicles. Each volume focuses on an era in American history from colonial times through the end of the nineteenth century. Jakes's recent novel, North and South (1982), is the first part of a projected trilogy about the events surrounding the American Civil War. Discussing his work in an interview, Jakes stated that his books "may be the only shot some people have at history." Critics acknowledge Jakes's thorough research and praise his ability to maintain the reader's interest by using colorful prose and fast-moving plots.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60).

Book World—The Washington Post

Before John Jakes is finished [with The American Bicentennial Series], he will have summed up the whole of America's history, from the Intolerable Acts to Watergate, in what looks to be eight volumes….

Jakes, a veteran of popular fiction, says the research is what takes time….

His efforts are well rewarded. The series … has been an outrageous success. The first couple of volumes, The Bastard and The Rebels … deal with the adventures of Philip Kent in the American Revolution…. The Seekers and The Furies (volumes three and four) follow the lives of Philip Kent's heirs as they conquer the Northwest Territory, fight in the war of 1812 and then work their way west in the tumultuous days of Dred Scott, bleeding Kansas, and the fight to free Texas….

As to the merits of the books themselves, the prose is plain, but practical; the history (except for a minor manipulation of chronology) is as accurate as Jakes can make it and seems to interest all sorts of people—from housewives to convicts to assembly-line workers—in some fairly obscure aspects of America's past. Of course, as one might expect, there's a serious temptation to skim the historical explication when there's a deflowering, some dalliance, or intrepid derring-do to be found only a few pages farther on.

A review of "The American Bicentennial Series," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1976, The Washington Post), March 7, 1976, p. F10.

Publishers Weekly

With [the] sixth installment of his American Bicentennial Series Jakes hits stride in ["The Warriors"]…. As he writes about the South's defeat in the Civil War, the laying of the transcontinental railroad, Indian troubles, the Robber Barons, readers are caught up in the genuine drama of events. This is a somber novel, conveying the enmity, fear and misunderstanding which followed the Civil War, as the Southern branch of the Kent family emerges scarred from battle…. More strongly than ever—and at greater length with 671 pages—Jakes proves his special talent for popularizing history. (pp. 81-2)

A review of "The Warriors," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 14, 1977 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1977 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 211, No. 7, February 14, 1977, pp. 81-2.

Bruce Cook

While the publishing world has been agog for months over the nearly unparalleled success of Alex Haley's Roots, another venture, in its own way just as successful, has gone virtually unnoticed by journalists and critics—though not by readers. John Jakes's American Bicentennial Series of historical novels, which traces the lives and fortunes of the fictitious Kent family from colonial times, has been appearing rapidly in installments since 1974. The Warriors is the sixth of them. It is, like those that preceded it, a very long novel … and like them, too, it should sell spectacularly well, leaving Roots' millions behind….

The difference—or at least one difference—between Roots and the American Bicentennial Series is that while Alex Haley's fictionalized fantasia on his family tree was issued in legitimate hardcover format, John Jakes's novels are poor little paperback bastards. And the literary world is content to let such half-orphans run free, ignored.

Fundamentally, I think, people read both for the same reason: they want to know, if only in a general way, where they came from. Yet I'd be willing to bet that there is little overlap in readership. The racial and spiritual descendants of Kunta Kinte themselves probably have little interest in the saga of a family scattered on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line which treats the causes of North and South so evenhandedly that it is...

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Publishers Weekly

With the publication of the seventh volume of his Kent family saga ["The Lawless,"] the wonder is that Jakes is able to sustain the pace and his own apparent interest in what is seeming to be an open-ended project. This installment covers approximately the years 1869–1877, a time of growing labor unionism and the attendant battles and bloodshed. Several of the more significant Kents die here, and the direction of the new generation is forecast, as Jeptha's three sons react to the historical events of the day…. In addition to showing them as emblematic of their era, Jakes also succeeds in making the Kents interesting characters in their own right.

A review of "The Lawless," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 27, 1978 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 213, No. 9, February 27, 1978, p. 154.


[In The Lawless] Jakes maintains his popular formula: high-lighting the tribulations and successes of generation after generation of one family as reflective of the dramatic turns of events in the growth of the country. Plus, the style is in no way demanding.

A review of "The Lawless," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1978 by the American Library Association), Vol. 74, No. 18, May 15, 1978, p. 1476.

Publishers Weekly

[In "The Americans"] John Jakes again proves his superior storytelling skills in the eighth volume of the Kent Family Chronicles (and, Jakes suggests in his afterword, perhaps the last installment for a while)…. Jakes's characterizations and lively historical detail entirely envelop the reader, who will be left with the hope that the author decides to bring the Kent family into the 20th century.

A review of "The Americans," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the December 24, 1979 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1979 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 216, No. 25, December 24, 1979, p. 56....

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Joan Hinkemeyer

Readers who have followed the Kent family since The Bastard and The Rebels will not be disappointed with [The Americans] …, which concentrates on the family of Gideon Kent. Jakes displays the complete panorama of America in the 1880's, as Gideon's youngest son Will moves from life with Theodore Roosevelt at his Medora ranch to practicing medicine in the tenement slums of New York…. It's all here—countless historical details, romance, violence, suspense, and a strong sense of the worth of the common people plus a reaffirmation of the duties of citizenship.

Joan Hinkemeyer, in a review of "The Americans," in Library Journal (reprinted from...

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Publishers Weekly

[If Jakes's "North and South"], first of a projected historical trilogy dealing with events before, during and after the American Civil War, follows the example of his eight-book Kent Family Chronicles, it will be a major bestseller. There's reason to think it will. To compare it to Thomas Keneally's recent "Confederates" would be to compare homespun to silk; but Jakes's tale belongs essentially to robust melodrama, where subtleties of style or characterization are not required. His villains are so villainous you love to hate them, his women wild and passionate (mostly), his action fast and often lurid. The story focuses on two families, the Southern Mains, slave-owning aristocrats, and the Pennsylvania...

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John Brosnahan

Although Jakes breaks new publishing ground with his first novel to be produced initially as a hardcover rather than a paperback, [North and South] remains unchanged and depends upon the same undisturbed fictional formula, a fact for which the author's many fans will be thankful. With the Kents left behind, Jakes now aims to chart the lives and loves of two families, Carolina planters and Pennsylvania industrialists, respectively, and to show how their fortunes intermingle before, during, and after the Civil War…. Jakes' clumsy interjection of historical bits and pieces, seemingly straight out of a reference book, is handled awkwardly, but the narrative is enhanced by a vivid imagination and superheated...

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Anne G. Adler

[In North and South] Jakes describes the tumultuous tearing years that lead to the war between the states. He thus highlights, through the lives of … two families, the most poignant aspect of our Civil War. The book is a feat of research. The characters, both fictional and real, make this era seem almost current. This is historical novel writing at its best.

Anne G. Adler, in a review of "North and South," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 15, 1982; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 107, No. 4, February 15, 1982, p. 473.

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Mel Watkins

"North and South" is John Jakes's first novel since he completed his immensely popular "The Kent Family Chronicles." Although as his first hard-cover publication this novel represents something of a departure for Mr. Jakes, it remains solidly within the historical fiction genre of his previous work, and one can safely predict that this epic tale of the 20 years preceding the American Civil War will not disappoint his fans….

As one might expect in a novel played out on so vast a canvas, few characters are memorable. The focus here is on the momentous events of an era. The narrative shifts cinematically from scene to scene—North to South, plantation to industrial town—and each new scene or...

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Gay Andrews Dillin

Remember how easy it was to doze off in your American history class? Well, if John Jakes had been the teacher, you wouldn't have!

Mr. Jakes is making history—or at least the historical novel—interesting for millions. "North and South,"… has quickly taken over the best-seller spot….

The author knows the rules for a successful generational saga: give the reader just enough history to lend flavor to the story, but let your characters carry the day.

I didn't need to be reminded of how good Mr. Jakes is at his craft. I was hard-pressed to slow down and read the paragraphs of historical insight and speeches which presented the views of both sections of the...

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