Updated: Mar 31
Beloved popular author dies at the age of 90
Do young people even know the novels of John Jakes?
I admit that I started reading John Jakes' historical fiction novels while I was in high school in the 70s, and I continued reading his books for the next decade or two. I'm aware that many of you young pups out there may not even know the novels of John Jakes, but he was one of the top writers in America for two decades.
Jakes, like many writers, had a day job in advertising. He never set out to be a literary sensation. Originally he wanted to be an actor and studied for a year at Northwestern University in Chicago, his hometown. He discovered acting wasn't what he wanted to do with his life and transferred to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana where he earned a degree in creative writing in 1953. He went on to Ohio State where he spent a year earning a Master's in American Literature.
After graduation, Jakes worked in advertising, but he would come home every night and write for several hours. The stories were burning holes in him. He wrote constantly in multiple genres: science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, children's stories, and westerns, submitting and selling hundreds of short stories before he was earning enough money to quit his day job in 1971.
John Jakes offered me historical fiction, and I devoured it
I was a sixteen-year-old avid reader when John Jakes' made a big splash with The Bastards, the first installment of his history series, The Kent Family Chronicles in 1974. (Jakes was 42 years old.) The nation was gearing up for the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976, the year I would graduate from high school, and his books focusing on American History fueled and fed the Patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.
I don't remember how much historical fiction I had ingested before John Jakes' work moved me from the mysteries of Victoria Holt and Mary Higgins Clark to the big, meaty paperbacks of The Kent Family Chronicles and then the Civil War trilogy of North and South. But I know that John Jakes showed me that factual characters could play with fictional ones, that history could be fun, and that reading about true events could induce chills and thrills.
When the television miniseries North and South aired in the mid-80s, I immersed myself in the Civil War era, swooning over Patrick Swayze who portrayed Orry Main. I was one of the millions of readers and viewers who watched and enjoyed, appreciating John Jakes' ability to tell a good story.
A writer's dream
There's a weird kind of comfort in knowing that other blockbuster writers start out in the same field I'm working in: advertising and marketing. (Bonnie Garmus, author of the bestseller Lessons in Chemistry was a copywriter before her success, so there's hope for me yet!) But however good a copywriter John Jakes was, his stint in the corporate world of advertising would never have amounted to the kind of success he had with his novels.
The Kent Family Chronicles sold 55 MILLION books. The North and South Civil War Trilogy sold 10 MILLION copies. In 1990, he got a $10 MILLION dollar advance from Doubleday and Bantam for three books he hadn't even written yet. His book, California Gold, earned a $4 MILLION dollar advance from Random House.
The passing of John Jakes
In his lifetime, John Jakes wrote eighty books that sold more than 120 million copies.
His wife, Rachel, who he met in 1951 at Depauw, survives him, along with his three daughters, one son, eleven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
John Jakes died in Sarasota, Florida on March 11, 2023, an admitted lover of melodrama and author with an audience of millions.