Historical novel author John Jakes dies

The author known for writing historical fiction focusing on the American Revolution and the Civil War has died.

John Jakes was 90.

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Jakes’ lawyer and literary agent, Frank R. Curtis, confirmed his client died Saturday at a Sarasota, Florida, hospice facility, The New York Times reported.

Jakes wrote about 60 books across several genres, including westerns, mysteries, science and fantasy and even children’s books. Several were written under the pen names Jay Scotland and Alan Payne, the Times reported.

Despite his wide variety of subjects, The Los Angeles Times called Jakes the “Godfather of the historical novel,” the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.

He was best known for his “The Kent Family Chronicles,” a series of eight books written to bank on the country’s Bicentennial celebrations, and the “North and South” trilogy set in the Civil War.

The Kent Family books sold 55 million copies while the North and South series sold 10 million, the Times reported.

Jakes was born in Chicago and started writing when he was a teen. His first stories were published in sci-fi and mystery pulp magazines, the Herald-Tribune reported.

He went to school for creative writing at Indiana’s DePauw University, eventually graduating in 1953. The university was where he met his wife, Rachel, his zoology lab instructor. Jakes eventually went on to earn his master’s degree in American Literature from Ohio State University.

Jakes took jobs as a copywriter for a pharmaceutical company and then advertising agencies, but kept up writing short stories and books on his off time, the Herald-Tribune reported. He left the advertising world in 1971 to write full-time.

He didn’t find success until he published the first of the Kent family saga, “The Bastard” in 1974.

“I was about ready to quit in the early ‘70s when this opportunity came up along to try these historical novels,” Jakes told the Herald-Tribune. “I had written half a dozen paperback historicals before that and they weren’t very good. They were researched like in two hours, so I was, you know, ready to hang it up.”

But Jakes learned from his mistakes, realizing that historical fiction needs research behind the story.

“I feel a real responsibility to my readers,” Jakes told The Washington Post in 1982. “I began to realize about two or three books into the Kent series that I was the only source of history that some of these people had ever had. Maybe they’ll never read a Barbara Tuchman book — but down at the Kmart they’ll pick up one of mine.”

It was a good thing he kept writing, as three of the Kent books appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list at the same time, the Herald-Tribune reported.

The first three books of the series, “The Bastard,” “The Rebels” and “The Seekers,” were all adapted for television; so were “North and South,” “Love and War” and “Heaven and Hell,” the Times reported.

The “North and South” ABC trilogy was one of the highest-rated miniseries ever, the Herald-Tribune reported.

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