The books tracked generations of the Kents from the Revolutionary War to 1890. “The Bastard” and its first two sequels, “The Rebels” and “The Seekers” (both 1975), were adapted for television as mini-series in 1978 and 1979. Other books in the series were “The Furies” and “The Titans” (both 1976), “The Warriors” (1977), “The Lawless” (1978) and “The Americans” (1979).
While they were unabashed mass-market fiction, the Kent books touched a national nerve, coming amid the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For many, they were an anodyne to the disillusionment of the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam, and they made Mr. Jakes one of the nation’s most popular writers.
His success prompted Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to commission his Civil War-era hardcover trilogy featuring two families, one in South Carolina and the other in Pennsylvania, whose sons meet at West Point and become wartime enemies. The books, “North and South” (1982),“Love and War” (1984) and “Heaven and Hell” (1987) — known collectively as “North and South” — became ABC-TV mini-series in 1985, 1986 and 1994.
“If one is looking for a novel with purposefulness of craft, vivid characterization or an insightful, revelatory vision of human events, ‘North and South’ will be a disappointment,” Mel Watkins wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1982. “If, however, one is looking for an entertaining, popularized and generally authentic dramatization of American history, without the weight of polemics on either side of the issues, then the first installment of Jakes’s trilogy covering the events before, during and after the Civil War will meet his expectations.”
John William Jakes was born in Chicago on March 31, 1932, the only child of John Adrian and Bertha (Retz) Jakes. His father was a Railway Express executive, and his mother was a teacher. The boy loved pulp magazines and science fiction, but he also attended theatrical productions, took parts in school plays and wanted to be an actor.
After graduating from Senn High School in Chicago, he studied drama for a year at Northwestern University and then transferred to DePauw University, in Indiana, where he enrolled in a creative-writing program and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1953.