Authors: John William De Forest

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and historian

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Witching Times, 1856-1857, 1967

Seacliff: Or, The Mystery of the Westervelts, 1859

Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, 1867

Overland, 1871

Kate Beaumont, 1872

The Wetherel Affair, 1873

Honest John Vane, 1875

Playing the Mischief, 1875

Justine’s Lovers, 1878

Irene the Missionary, 1879

The Bloody Chasm, 1881

A Lover’s Revolt, 1898


The Downing Legends: Stories in Rhyme, 1901

Poems: Medley and Palestina, 1902


History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest Known Period to 1850, 1851

Oriental Acquaintance: Or, Letters from Syria, 1856

European Acquaintance: Being Sketches of People in Europe, 1858

The De Forests of Avesnes (and of New Netherland), 1900

A Volunteer’s Adventures: A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War, 1946

A Union Officer in the Reconstruction, 1948


John William De Forest was a member of a wealthy and cultured New England family. Poor health, however, prevented him from following family tradition in his education, and instead of attending Yale he took a two-year trip to the Near East. On his return, he assembled History of the Indians of Connecticut, the first book of its kind and one that is still consulted by ethnologists for its accuracy and detail.{$I[AN]9810000200}{$I[A]De Forest, John William[DeForest, John William]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;De Forest, John William[DeForest, John William]}{$I[tim]1826;De Forest, John William[DeForest, John William]}

John William De Forest

(Library of Congress)

Afterward, De Forest spent several years abroad, traveling, collecting material for books, and studying foreign languages. He returned to America, married, and was living in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War broke out. He escaped with his wife and child just before the attack on Fort Sumter.

Back in Connecticut, he organized a group of volunteers and led them through a series of Civil War battles. De Forest recorded his experiences in a journal, later published as A Volunteer’s Adventures, which remains one of the best accounts of life in the Union Army. The journal also served as an important source of material for his excellent but neglected novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.

Partly because his writing was factual, accurate, and realistic, De Forest failed to achieve recognition from a generation that preferred sentimentalized versions of history. Only toward the end of the twentieth century did his realism begin to gain renewed appreciation from critics who, like William Dean Howells, admired the way in which De Forest worked, “with a sort of disdainful honesty to the effects of art.”

BibliographyBergmann, Frank. The Worthy Gentleman of Democracy: John William De Forest and the American Dream. Heidelberg, West Germany: C. Winter, 1971. This short volume is useful even to the beginning student of De Forest’s fiction.Buckley, William K. Senses’ Tender: Recovering the Novel for the Reader. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Focuses on Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.Gargano, James W., ed. Critical Essays on John William De Forest. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Though the twentieth century essays in this collection are mostly aimed at scholars, the rich selection of early reviews, written in De Forest’s own time, is a boon to students at any level.Hijiya, James A. John William De Forest and the Rise of American Gentility. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1988. There are some interesting references to De Forest’s novels in this study, but most of the analysis is biographical and social.Light, James F. John William De Forest. New York: Twayne, 1965. A book-length study of De Forest not limited to a specific theme. Comments briefly on each of his novels. Provides a chronology and an annotated bibliography.Schaefer, Michael W. Just What War Is: The Civil War Writing of De Forest and Bierce. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997. Part 1 discusses the components of realism in both writers’ works. Part 2 concentrates on De Forest and explores what it means to depict war in a “realistic” fashion. Schaefer discusses De Forest’s influences and the extent to which firsthand experience matters. Includes detailed notes and an extensive bibliography.Wilson, Edmond. Patriotic Gore. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. A study of the literature of the American Civil War, this massive work contains a long chapter on De Forest and “The Chastening of American Prose Style,” one of the most succinct introductions to De Forest in print.
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