Pantheon, $26.95, 448 pp.
In a brilliant takedown of the TV series Mad Men in the New York Reivew of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn condemned what many take to be the show’s main strength: its supposed fidelity to the historical period it represents. “In Mad Men,” Mendelsohn wrote, “everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig.” Mendelsohn wasn’t saying that people actually didn’t smoke that much in the 1960s (they did), nor that sexism wasn’t systemic and largely unquestioned (it was). Rather, he argued that the show sets up a false dichotomy between the past and the present that can’t help but redound to our credit. If the best art startles us into self-recognition, then Mad Men lulls us into moral complacency: we watch the show and smugly think to ourselves, “Thank God we’re not like that anymore.”
This challenge—how to represent the past faithfully, without either idealization or condescension—faces all writers of historical fiction, and it is a challenge that the novelist Thomas Mallon has largely met throughout his career. Mallon, a former professor of English and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, is one of America’s most accomplished historical novelists. He tends to focus on significant events in the nation’s past—the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, for example, or the 1948 presidential election—showing how these events...