After five years of keeping up to date with the latest occurrences in The Kent Family Chronicles
, John Jakes' fans were more than ready for his next historical debut. North and South
e an important milestone in John Jakes' career. In February 1982, it was released as the first of his historical novels to appear in hard cover. All eight novels of The Kent Family Chronicles
, preceding North and South
, were published as pa
perback originals, acquiring an enormously loyal following. The Chronicles
sold over 30 million copies, according to The Washington Post
, February 3, 1982.
Publishers Hartcourt Brace and Jovanovich approached John Jakes, following the success of The Chronicles to produce a series of hardcover novels covering events from the Civil War era. Jakes' accomplished just that with the North and South
trilogy. The big question the publishers had to face, however, was whether they (the publishers and the fans) could handle the leap from a $2.95 price tag (from The Chronicles) to one of $14.95 and the "more complicated shift form sales in airports
and convenience stores to sales primarily in bookstores," (The Washington Post, February 3, 1982). Jakes proved that he could surpass these obstacles. Within a week of its release, The New York Times Book Review reported in February 14, 19
82, its "Late City Final Edition", that North and South was number 5 in their best sellers list, competing with such titles as The Hotel New Hampshire (Dutton/Henry Robbins) by John Irving, which was number 1, that week and Rabbit is Rich
(Knopf) by John Updike, which was number 6, that week. Two weeks later, February 28, 1982, North and South was number one in that same New York Times review. The book remained at top ten for a total of 27 weeks until August 8, 1982. <
I>North and South was runner up to Robert Ludlum's The Parsifal Mosaic as the biggest selling hardcover fiction books in 1982, according to a New York Times survey. Other books that topped the 1982 celebrated list were, number 3, The
Prodigal Daughter (Linden Press) by Jeffery Archer, number 8, Different Seasons (Viking) by Stephen King and number 9, Valley of Horses (Crown) by Jean M. Auel.
Some of North and South's fame could be attributed to its exclusive packaging and promotion. Jakes' 812 page novel was co-published by Dell and Hartcourt Brace and Jovanovich accompanied with a $400,000 advertising, promotion and publicity campaign
and a first printing of more than 2 million copies, (New York Times, January 30, 1983). Dell's director of publicity, Isabel Geffner, reported that the paperback pricing procedures produced the relatively high figure of $4.95 per book. This, acco
rding to The New York Times is $1 more than the usual top price for mass-market fiction. Despite the escalated price, North and South and its sequels in the trilogy, Love and War and Heaven and Hell all fared well both in the
best sellers lists and other forms of mass media.
The novel, North and South and the trilogy as a whole, follows the saga of two families, the northern Hazards and the southern Mains. The Hazards are an industrial factory owning family in Pennsylvania during the pre-Civil war era, while the Mains
run an agricultural, slave-owning plantation in South Carolina. The sons of both families, George Hazard and Orry Main meet during training at West Point in the 1840s and become best friend. Their friendship, however, withstands harsh obstacles when then
end up on opposing sides during the Civil War. "Not a shockingly innovative plot, perhaps, but at 740 pages, thick as a brick with period detail drawn from extensive research at West Point and travels to historic sites," a February 28, 1982 article in >The Washington Post states. Jakes places great emphasis on the historical research he conducts before writing his novels. "I feel a real responsibility to the readers," Jakes said in The Washington Post article. "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 K-mart, they'll pick up one of mine." According to Washington Post, pe
ople did, in fact millions did. "The process developed a ravenous appetite for the fastest growing genre in publishing: the paperback original, multi-volume family historical saga. For brevity's sake call them clanbacks."
There is a subtle sense of mission in Jakes' writing of North and South along the lines of educating his readers about American history. Jakes deliberately attempts to introduce an "unvarnished look at the ideology of the era," the Post clai
ms. "If there is little nobility in the characterization of either abolitionists or slaves, well, ?the racial attitudes even in the North were deplorable, but I feel an obligation to talk about what really was. And we were really a racist society at that
time,'" Jakes claims.
The incredible popularity to the novel, North and South, its succeeding sequels and the preceding Kent Family Chronicles had much to do with the "Clanback boom" in fiction genre, Jakes believes. This genre depicts large American Families un
dergoing tough times, using each other as their support systems to survive their dilemmas. According to The Washington Post (February 28, 1982), Jakes believes that "the family-saga genre is very strong these days [because] the American family is
in such disarray, and has been for 15 years." According to the Post, "the Nielsen ratings for "Dallas," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Waltons," "Falcon Crest," "Dynasty," and "Flamingo Road" tend to corroborate his thesis, as do the seven-fig
ure sales for other clanbacks."
Some believe that the clanback genre is strong because John Jakes gave it muscle, according to the Post. Before The Kent Family Chronicles, Jakes was hardly a big name in the book business. The genre belonged to Canadian novelist Mazo De La
Roche, who from 1927 until her death in 1961 published 15 volumes of her "Jalna" series, taking the Whiteoak family in the 1850s forward through several generations, according to the Post. Another writer, Louis L' Amour was also, simultaneously wor
king for years on his Sackett Family Saga for Bantam.
Pyramid paperback agent, Lyle Kenyon Engel, who published all eight of Jakes Kent Family Chronicles, claims to have "pioneered" the genre, saying the Kents were the first clanbacks actually designed as a series, according to the Post. From t
hen on, the phenomenon of the new genre "spread like manifest destiny," with publishers leaping to supply the new demand. Back in 1982, with the release of North and South, the Post claims that over major 50 series are now competing in the c
Jakes, himself, makes a sociological observation to the clanback explosion. He says, in the Post article, "As we came out of Vietnam and the Watergate period, people wanted to be reminded of, as Lincoln said, ?the better angels' in our character.'"
Jakes in turn, according to the Post infuses his books with the sense that "we have a tremendous amount to be proud of."
Many critics are skeptical about North and South gaining as much acclaim as it did after its release. Many agree, that as a novel, the book is not very well written, is overly melodramatic and redundant. They also chide the book on not accomplishin
g anything besides being a cheesy, melodramatic novel that feeds to the public and tops the best-sellers list. In a February 3, 1982 review in The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley writes, "It's easy enough to be condescending toward fiction as int
erminable and resolutely middle-brow as this. It's true that Jakes lacks imagination at characterization, that his prose is rarely better (or worse) than competent, that he knows (and pulls) all the old melodramatic tricks. All of that is true, yet it rem
ains that his novels are reliably entertaining in a solid, predictable, comfortably old-fashioned way. Like such predecessors in the genre of popular historical fiction as Thomas B. Costain and Samuel Shellabarger, Jakes delivers what the genre promises:
a long tale sure to last the reader through many subway trips or winter evenings, a tale that while it entertains will also instruct, taking the reader on a painless excursion into the past."
And Jakes accomplishes just that. His primary purpose in writing North and South was to entertain, he writes in his forward to the book. Jakes says, "The primary purpose of North and South is to entertain. Still, I wanted the story to be an
accurate reflection of the period; not so much a retelling of every last incident that contributed to the outbreak of war in Charleston harbor, but a fair representation of prevailing attitudes and tensions on both sides." Yardley also calls Jakes a "popu
larizer" who's proud of that fact. In his review, he mentions that Jakes' hero is Bruce Catton, the author of several narrated Civil War histories that were very popular in the ?50s and ?60s. Jakes' above all does not want to be characterized as a histori
an. He does not hold very much respect for academic historians and their writing styles. Jakes once said, "If professional historians wrote with a fraction of color, humor and humanity of this 19th century soldier, history would be a more attractive study
to many more people," (The Washington Post, February 3, 1982).
As far as his goals for entertaining while educating the mass public in North and South, Yardley feels that Jakes has well accomplished his objective. Many are unaware that Jakes had recently received a scholarship around the time of the release of
North and South on slavery and of altered attitudes toward that institution. Because of this, Yardley feels that he is able to give "what is doubtless a far more realistic and honest portrait of the antebellum South than has previously been availa
ble in popular historical fiction," (Post).
Often Jakes' novel has been compared to the likes of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Both deal with the same historical era, though often critics say that Jakes' loses in certain aspects of the comparison. Yardley mentions in the Post> review, that "Jakes loses the competition against Margaret Mitchell in the departments of characterization, local color and prose style, but he wins hands down in the department of accuracy. He does give us some of the peaceable kingdom that is at the c
enter of the Old South myth, but he is at pains to recreate the agonies of slavery and the human degradation (of both slave and master) that is involved." Nonetheless, the novel in well written and a very engrossing read.
Yardley sums up Jakes' novel as a whole beautifully, and most critics agree, when he writes in his review, "Meantime let it be said that Jakes has assembled an intelligent, unpretentious entertainment that a great many readers will find undemandingly enjo
yable. Say it for Jakes that if his characters are out or Central Casting, he nonetheless makes the reader care about them; that if his villains are entirely too villainous, his heroes are refreshingly complex and well endowed with ambiguities: that he ha
s a firm grasp on the intricate connections between private lives and public events. North and South is an honest piece of work," (Post, February 3, 1982).
It is interesting that Yardley picks up on Jakes' characters from North and South being from Central Casting, because certain characters in the made-for-television movie that ensued from the novel in 1985, certainly were. The movie was a $25-30 mil
lion dollar, 12 hour production (The New York Times, November 7, 1985), making it the most expensive production ever done for the small screen, [up until 1985] according to The Washington Post, November 3, 1985 article. Though the miniseries
during its airing the first week in November, in six evening installments for two hours a day, was a great hit, many critics were skeptical about the quality of the production. Michael E. Hill, a Washington Post writer wrote, "In short: A soap op
era?even a $30 million one is still a soap opera?Even without the Civil War, there is a fair amount of violence, an--d an abundance of sex. A number of women who step out of line are put back in their places by the backs of men's hands. And there are
the perfunctory slave-beatings. Some of the love scenes are among the most explicit you've seen on prime-time network television. And low cut gowns complemented by uplifting corsets produce the much east-west cleavage as there was between the North and th
e South," (The Washington Post, November 3, 1985).
David Wolper, the man behind the television remake of "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds", produced the television series. The cast included James Read who played George Hazard and Patrick Swayze as Orry Main. There was also a special cameo appearance by Eliza
beth Taylor as a madam at a fashionable southern brothel in the movie.
Consequently, all three novels in the North and South trilogy were made into made-for-television series, after hitting the best sellers lists. All three movies have become successful not just in its nationwide debut, but around the world as well. J
akes said once during an interview in California, "The first two miniseries have had such an enormous success around the world that I have gained readers by the millions in such places as Bulgaria and Poland," (The Phoenix Gazette, February 25, 199
4). It was after the airing of the first two miniseries, North and South and Love and War that the novels were sold abroad. Producer Wolpner claims that the "North and South Trilogy" was one of the most successful in the foreign markets, eq
ually as successful as "The Thorn Birds" and "Roots." Wolpner says in The Phoenix Gazette, "There is something about the American Civil War that fascinated people around the world. In Germany, they've played it four times, and we still get mail fr
All three movies faired well on television placing Top 10 in the Nielson ratings. The movies air dates spanned from November 1985 for "North and South," May, 1986 for "Love and War" and February, 1994 for "Heaven and Hell." Following the airing, a revive
d interest in the Civil War era and holding of war records and manuscripts have ensued. "A lot of people want[ed] to see if they had any family in the [Civil] war. There's a big demand for military records. We got 2,000 to 3,000 requests a week," Karl Wei
ssenbach, a consultant at the National Archives in Washington told The Los Angeles Times in their May 21, 1986 edition.
Overall, the commotion over the North and South Trilogy did not die down for over a decade and a half. From novel releases topping the best sellers list, to made-for-television movies and a project in the works that may take North and South
to Broadway, the popularity of Jakes' books are one of landmark proportions in history and also have given a gigantic push in the book publishing genre of "clanback" fiction.
Since then, Jakes continues to write equally popular novels on other American historical eras in his subsequent novels, California Gold (1989) and Homeland (1993). As far as future plans go, Jakes has already said following the release and
success of his Trilogy, "I'll never retire. That's one of the things I admire about Michener? I have a box full of ideas," (The Washington Post, February 28, 1982. How far Jakes will go and how many more best-sellers he can churn out, remain
s to be seen in the coming decades.