The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Jakes, best-selling author of historical novels, dies at 90

Mr. Jakes published more than a dozen best-selling historical novels, including the ‘North and South’ trilogy on the Civil War

Author John Jakes in 1998. His books sold millions of copies. (Tim Dillon/USA Today Network)
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John Jakes, whose generational sagas set during the American Revolution and the Civil War sold millions of copies and earned him the title of “godfather of historical fiction,” died March 11 at a hospice facility near his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 90.

His literary agent, Frank R. Curtis, confirmed his client’s death but did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Jakes published more than 80 books in various genres, including science fiction and fantasy, but his deeply researched historical novels — more than a dozen were New York Times bestsellers — were the works that brought him commercial success, extraordinary wealth, and backhanded compliments from critics.

“John Jakes doesn’t give us memorable passages,” the Christian Science Monitor said in a 1982 review of the author’s “North and South” trilogy on the Civil War. “But he does give us an engrossing tale that keeps us reading.” A Chicago Tribune book critic once described his historical descriptions as “solid and memorable” but said “there is no poetry, no subtlety in Jakes’s writing.”

Mr. Jakes acknowledged his goals were not literary. Rather, he sought to entertain and educate readers who might buy his novels at Kmart without knowing anything about the era of American history he was dramatizing. For many readers, Mr. Jakes knew his books were their only source of history.

“Sue me for not being Flaubert,” he told People magazine.

Mr. Jakes was struggling to make a living as a writer in the early 1970s when he published “The Bastard,” the first installment of an eight-volume saga about seven generations of the fictional Kent family. The series, known as the Kent Family Chronicles, begins during the American Revolution and winds through other major historical events including the War of 1812 and Texas’s fight for sovereignty.

He ultimately sold more than 55 million copies of Kent books. There was a TV miniseries. And readers demanded more.

Mr. Jakes then turned to the Civil War, writing a trilogy focused on two families — the Mains, who owned enslaved people, and the Hazards, who were Pennsylvania industrialists. It too become a TV miniseries. Other historical novels quickly followed, including “The Crown Family Saga,” a two-volume tale about a German immigrant family trying to make it in 20th-century America.

“The prose style is leaden, but so was Theodore Dreiser’s,” Carolyn See wrote in The Washington Post about the saga. “These John Jakes books are history lessons, full of names, dates, fashions, things to eat, tour boats, afternoon excursions, gaslights, coal lamps and extra-bright electric chandeliers. People are always getting into carriages and getting out of carriages, getting into cars and getting out of cars — it’s very soothing, and you soon have the hazy illusion that you might be learning something.”

John William Jakes was born on March 31, 1932, in Chicago. His father drove a truck and later became an executive for the Railway Express Agency. His mother was a teacher. John didn’t excel at sports, and he was “always the last one to be chosen for the baseball team,” he told The Post. “That hurt.”

Encouraged by his mother, John was a voracious reader of pulp magazines and science fiction. He wrote for his high school newspaper and acted in school plays. As a sophomore at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., he sold a short story to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction about a man being pursued by a diabolical electric toaster.

Mr. Jakes married Rachel Payne in 1951. After graduating from DePauw in 1953, he received a master’s degree in American literature from Ohio State University the following year. He pursued a doctorate but dropped out because he “couldn’t dissect a sentence,” he later said.

Mr. Jakes worked as a copywriter for advertising agencies and a pharmaceutical company. At night, he wrote short stories — mysteries, Westerns and science fiction — and published more than 200 of them. In 1971, Mr. Jakes quit his job to pursue writing full time, publishing short stories and books in multiple genres.

Although he was prodigious in his output, commercial success was fleeting.

“I had really reached a low point in my career as a writer,” he told The Post. “I thought I had come to the end of the road. My stuff wasn’t selling.”

In 1973, an editor and book packager whom Mr. Jakes had previously written for called in search of someone to write a multivolume historical series to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. Mr. Jakes took the job, which ultimately became the eight-volume Kent Family Chronicles.

“So on such crazy turns of fate,” Mr. Jakes told The Post, “do careers rise and fall.”

His advances soared from the thousands to the millions and then to more than $10 million for the Crown books.

Survivors include his wife, to whom he was married for 71 years; three daughters, Andrea Jakes of Jacksonville, Fla., Ellen Jakes Kelm of Santa Rosa, Calif., Victoria Jakes Montgomery of Columbia, S.C.; a son, J. Michael Jakes of McLean, Va.; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

After Mr. Jakes’s novels hit the bestseller lists in the 1970s, “an accountant advised me to celebrate my newfound wealth by buying myself a present,” he wrote in an autobiographical essay. “At Gucci’s on Fifth Avenue, I splurged for a briefcase, black leather, with a brass clasp and the familiar red and green stripe. It cost $100.”

He also bought a Cadillac Seville, which he later traded in for a Mercedes — his critics be darned.

“I still use the briefcase, which has worn well,” he wrote. “It remains a potent symbol.”