John (William) Jakes Mel Watkins - Essay

Mel Watkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 mini-drama adds a bit more detail to the author's overall portrait of a country splitting in two and the social dynamics that escalate its impending conflict.

The narrative style is straightforward and workmanlike. Mr. Jakes provides seemingly well researched accounts of such things as the intricacies of military academy life, iron making and Southern dueling customs. So, even though one may not be impressed by the originality of the characters or the dramatic episodes (the shadows of Kyle Onstott and Margaret Mitchell loom large over the story), there is the comforting sense of touring 19th-century America with one who knows the terrain.

In short, if one is looking for a novel with purposefulness of craft, vivid characterization or an insightful, revelatory vision of human events, "North and South" will be a disappointment. If, however, one is looking for an entertaining, popularized and generally authentic dramatization of American history, without the weight of polemics on either side of the issues, then the first installment of John Jakes's trilogy covering the "events before, during, and after the Civil War" will meet his expectations.

Mel Watkins, in a review of "North and South," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 7, 1982, p. 24.