By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — The last thing John Jakes felt like was a future literary icon.
He’d worked into his 40s in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. On nights and weekends, Jakes practiced his passion, writing fiction, to earn extra money for his kids’ college education. He wrote nearly 200 short stories and more than 60 books — science fiction, Westerns, mysteries, even novellas for the Man From U.N.C.L.E. magazines — “at blinding speed.”
Heavier writing projects eluded him. “I was about ready to quit,” he recalled.
Then fate intervened. His advertising career jolted to a stop when the firm lost a lucrative account.
“We lost the account, so what are you going to do?” Jakes explained of his decision to pursue writing full time. “So I thought I would do it, and a couple of years later, the Kent books came along, and the rest is history.”
Jakes was referring to the “Kent Family Chronicles,” an eight-volume series published from 1974 to ’79. Those books detailed the lives of a fictional family enduring the Revolutionary War era. With America celebrating its bicentennial during the 1970s, each installment of Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” sold at least 3.5-million copies. In 1975, Jakes became the first author to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously with the Kent volumes two, three and four.
Thirty years later, more than 55 million copies of the “Kent Family Chronicles” remain in print. So are 10 million copies of Jakes’ 1980s Civil War book trilogy “North and South,” which inspired an ABC television miniseries — the seventh-highest rated miniseries in TV history. Since the first Kent volume, “The Bastard,” Jakes has put 16 consecutive books on the Times’ bestseller list, including last November’s “The Gods of Newport.”
He’s been labeled “the godfather of historical fiction.”
All of those milestones and praise are “something one just shakes his head at,” Jakes said in a telephone interview earlier this month.
Still, during his occasional lectures to college writing students, he reminds them of his long path to success.
“It’s a business of which luck plays a great part,” Jakes said, “and writing students don’t like to hear that, but it really is.”
Midwesterner at heart
Speaking from his home in South Carolina, Jakes clarified the roots of his writing. Though he, his wife, Rachel, and their four children moved there from Ohio nearly three decades ago when the Kent books took off, Jakes corrected some press descriptions of him being “a Southern writer.”
“I consider myself an American writer, not a Southern writer,” he said.
Later, Jakes added, “I suppose I’m still a Midwesterner at heart. I don’t know what that means, though.”
His Midwest ties include living a few of his boyhood years in Terre Haute. Though Jakes was born in 1932 in Chicago, his parents — John A. and Bertha Jakes — moved to Terre Haute while John Jr. (their only child) was beginning his grade-school years. His father worked with the Railway Express Agency, and was “a company man,” constantly transferred from city to city.
Terre Haute was a familiar place for them. It was Bertha’s hometown. Her father, William C. Retz, came to Terre Haute via Cincinnati as a German immigrant, operated a butcher shop on Poplar Street and owned the downtown National Hotel.
While living here, young John Jakes attended the private King Classical School. He began reading stories that came into his family’s home through book club memberships.
“I have vivid memories of Terre Haute, but not in great detail,” said Jakes, now 75 years old. “It was a very nice neighborhood at the time. People sat out on their front porches, and they knew their neighbors. And I think that’s something America is missing now.”
After just a couple of years in Terre Haute, Jakes’ family moved away. But his parents moved back when John’s father retired, and they stayed until their deaths. Bertha Jakes, who lived into her 80s, was active in the Vigo County Historical Society, explained Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick.
John remembers visiting his mother, eating at the old Goodie Shop restaurant on Ohio Street, and taking his children to Deming Park.
Those memories haven’t left him.
“I still long for the good old days when people used to take their kids out to that eastside park and ride the train,” Jakes said.
The past is more than a source of wistful thinking for Jakes, though. Fiction based around actual moments in history has earned him laudatory titles such as “America’s history teacher” and “the people’s author,” according to Ohio State University, one of five colleges to award him honorary doctoral degrees.
That latter title reflects his approachable style of writing, said Brian Tart, president of Dutton books, Jakes’ publisher.
“He’s kind of credited with popularizing historical fiction,” Tart said. “His ‘North and South Trilogy,’ along with the miniseries and the incredible sales, really made historical fiction for real people, rather than for academics and critics.”
Mass-market success often makes popular authors targets for criticism, and Jakes has received both the good and the bad.
“Critics and reviewers always kind of go after the popularizers, for whatever reason,” Tart said.
Such critiques weren’t a problem in Jakes’ humble beginnings. His first professional writing effort, a short science fiction story, earned Jakes $25 as an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, where he studied acting.
Jakes soon realized his true calling was writing and that Northwestern didn’t have the campus atmosphere he sought. So he transferred to DePauw University, and enrolled in that Greencastle liberal arts school’s creative writing program. Jakes graduated from DePauw in 1953, before earning a master’s degree in American literature at Ohio State in 1954. At DePauw, he also met Rachel, a native of Danville, Ill.
Decades later, Jakes returned to DePauw to serve as a visiting professor. He told those aspiring writers that the literary world had changed since his breakthrough “Kent Family Chronicles” hit bookshelves. Now, most publishers are owned by large conglomerates and foreign investors, he said. In the past, smaller publishing houses might take on a book “just because the top guy liked it.
“So it’s a brave new world out there,” Jakes said.
The market for short stories, his first projects, is narrow now. He tells students to pursue full-length thrillers instead.
“I’m not sure I could make it if I had to do it now,” Jakes said.
Jakes’ candid advice appealed to DePauw students, said Tom Emery, a retired English professor at the university.
“The students liked him very much, because he was open with them, and openly critical if he needed to be,” Emery said. “But he was very supportive.”
Jakes’ work ethic served as an example, too, Emery said. While crafting the Kent books, Jakes often wrote 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and did all of his own research, compared to many contemporaries who hired researchers.
“John is a curious mixture of high seriousness about his work, but with great approachability,” Emery said. “He’s both reserved and very open.”
Jakes’ writing pace is not as intense now. It takes him two years to finish a book, and he’s “doing homework” on a novel that may follow up on his series on the fictional Crown family of Chicago, featured in his bestsellers “Homeland” (1993) and “American Dreams” (1998).
Jakes dedicated “Homeland” to his grandfather, William Carl Metz, who died in Terre Haute in 1936 when John was just 4 years old. But in his book dedication, John alludes to a picture of Jakes seated on his grandfather’s lap, most likely taken in Terre Haute.
He wrote of his grandfather:
“There is a photo of him in old age, handsome still with his white imperial, seated in dappled sunlight with a small boy on his knee. I remember that day, or one like it; the sunlight, and a copy of Argosy with a bright yellow cover lying nearby. My grandfather loved good stories. In loving memory.”
Jakes, his publisher anticipates, will keep writing for as long as he’s able.
“He’s a storyteller,” Tart said. “It’s in his blood.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.