Nevin, David 1927-
NEVIN, David 1927-
PERSONAL: Born May 30, 1927, in Washington, DC; son of Stanley McLeod (a U.S. Army veterinarian) and Mary (a teacher; maiden name, Reinhardt) Nevin; married Luciana Colla (a researcher), October 4, 1958; children: David Z. Education: Attended Louisiana State University, 1946–47, 1949–50, and Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), 1948–49.
ADDRESSES: Home—Greenwich, CT. Agent—Eugene Winnick, McIntosh & Otis, Inc., 353 Lexington Ave., Ste. 1500, New York, NY 10016-0900.
CAREER: Writer. Brownsville Herald, Brownsville, TX, reporter, 1950–52; Dallas Times Herald, Dallas, TX, reporter, 1952–54; San Antonio Light, San Antonio, TX, reporter, 1954–60; Life (magazine), New York, NY, staff writer, 1960–70; freelance writer, 1970–. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1944–46, served in the Pacific theater. U.S. Merchant Marine, chief electrician, 1946–47.
MEMBER: Overseas Press Club, New York, NY.
AWARDS, HONORS: R.F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award for Life article on strip mining in Appalachia, 1969.
The Texans, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1968.
Muskie of Maine, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
(With Robert E. Bills) The Schools That Fear Built: Segregationist Academies in the South, Acropolis Books (Washington, DC), 1976.
The American Touch in Micronesia, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1977.
TIME-LIFE "OLD WEST" SERIES
The Soldiers, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1973.
The Expressmen, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1973.
The Texans, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1975.
The Mexican War, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1978.
The Pathfinders, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1980.
Architects of Air Power, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1981.
The Road to Shiloh, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1983.
Sherman's March, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1986.
Spies, Scouts, and Raiders (Civil War), photographs by William C. Davis, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1986.
"AMERICAN STORY" SERIES; HISTORICAL NOVELS
Dream West (Book-of-the-Month Club full main selection), Putnam (New York, NY), 1984.
1812, Forge (New York, NY), 1996.
Eagle's Cry, Forge (New York, NY), 2000.
Treason, Forge (New York, NY), 2001.
Meriwether: A Novel of Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Forge (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short stories and articles to numerous periodicals, including Collier's, Smithsonian, Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, and True.
ADAPTATIONS: Dream West was the basis for a television mini-series of the same title, starring Richard Chamberlain, broadcast by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV) in 1986.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Big Sam, a book for the "The American Story" series
SIDELIGHTS: The author of numerous books on public affairs and historical topics, David Nevin became a best-selling novelist with the publication of Dream West in 1984. Dream West is the first in a series of historical fiction called the "American Story" series, which Nevin, writing on his Home Page, has called "my lifework." Born into a military background—his father was a U.S. Army veterinary officer for the horse cavalry—Nevin grew up on military bases both in the United States and Manila. After serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II, Nevin spent several years working on merchant vessels. Deciding on journalism as a career, he wrote first for daily newspapers in Texas and eventually became a correspondent and staff writer for Life magazine. During the sixties, he covered the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and other major stories of the era. When Life folded, Nevin moved on to write popular histories for Time-Life Books. However, it was not the bare facts of history that interested him most but "the humanity that lay behind the great events … the imagined inside story of a known outside story," he once said. Dream West was the first product of this interest.
The book is a fictionalized reconstruction of the personal life and professional career of John Charles Fremont, a controversial nineteenth-century explorer, army general, and public figure who mapped the Oregon Trail and helped open the territory of California to overland migration and settlement. Chicago Tribune Book World critic Jack Dierks called Dream West "a fine first novel and a thought-provoking study of one of those men who seemed to deserve much more than history has allotted them."
Nevin first became interested in Fremont's life while researching and writing histories for Time-Life Books' "Old West" series, the author explained in a Washington Post interview with Michael Kernan. In contemporary and later accounts Fremont was often depicted as vainglorious and self-seeking, but Nevin could discover no factual basis for this reputation, which in his opinion obscured the explorer-politician's wide-ranging accomplishments. Determined to set the biographical record straight, Nevin found that the Fremont story combined a panoramic look at America in the mid-nineteenth century with a remarkable personal saga of high adventure, political intrigue, and romantic love. The author originally intended to write a nonfiction biography of Fremont and Fremont's wife, Jessie, but he discovered that many original documents pertaining to the couple's careers had been burned by their daughter in an attempt to discourage such an effort. Nevin consequently turned to the historical novel format to create inner lives for his characters. "I like a framework of fact," he told a Publishers Weekly interviewer. "In the Fremont story I stuck to the record but felt free to interpret within it. All my characters are real people, but I invented personas for them."
John C. Fremont enters Dream West and the historical stage as a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers, leading mapping expeditions of the rugged western territories in the early 1840's. Nevin's novel describes an 1844 excursion that nearly ended in disaster when Fremont, dubbed the "Pathfinder," insisted on leading his band of mountain men and adventurers across a snow-swept Sierra Nevada mountain pass in midwinter. Only Fremont's example of personal fortitude and his remarkable leadership ability rescued the mission, which in Nevin's description "becomes as gripping an episode as you will find anywhere," wrote James D. Houston in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
The natural challenges that confront Fremont in Dream West, however, prove less daunting than the political controversies that dogged his early career. In 1847 Fremont was court-martialed for his role in fomenting the Bear Flag revolt which led to California's independence from Mexico, and for subsequently refusing to turn over the territorial military governorship to General Stephen Kearny. Nevin suggests that Fremont may have seized California under secret orders from President James Polk—whose administration had made the United States' control over that rich territory a priority—and was then unfairly castigated by jealous West Point-trained officers who resented Fremont's independence from the military establishment.
Fremont was elected one of California's first two senators in 1850. Nominated as the newly formed Republican Party's first U.S. presidential candidate six years later, he raised controversy by adopting a strong antislavery platform against his opponent, James Buchanan. His stance proved unsuccessful, however, when Buchanan, a conservative Democrat, won the election. The slavery issue again caused problems for Fremont during his Civil War service as commanding general of the Union Army's western department; in 1861 he was relieved of his command for issuing an emancipation proclamation on his own initiative in Missouri, several years before President Lincoln declared Confederate-held slaves free. This controversy figured in Fremont's decision not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1864, in order to avoid a possible split in the party. Critics noted that Dream West follows the Washington political intrigue with an insider's knowledge, which some attributed to Nevin's own experiences with the campaigns of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the U.S. senator from Maine, Edmund Muskie.
Though Nevin judges Fremont an honest and principled man, he acknowledges that the explorer's flamboyant personality, powerful ambition, and selfconfidence bordering on arrogance attracted fierce enemies and helped to set back his career. In the author's view, at least part of Fremont's political success can be credited to the talent and charm of his wife, Jessie, the beautiful, brilliant, and strong-willed daughter of influential Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. Devoted to her husband, and a full partner in his public life, Jessie personally defended Fremont before presidents Polk and Lincoln. She also stood by her husband—a notoriously poor businessman—when he lost a fortune in gold, discovered on their California property, by investing it in a transcontinental railroad that failed in 1870. "Jessie was a smashing woman," Nevin remarked to Washington Post reviewer Michael Kernan. "Both of them functioned with great gallantry after they lost all their money." Fremont later served as governor of the Arizona territory from 1878 to 1883, but he never recovered from his financial reversal, and he lived modestly in retirement until his death in 1890.
Nevin and his wife, Luciana, spent four years researching Fremont's life and times in an effort to make Dream West as historically accurate as possible. Much of their work was done at the Library of Congress and at other libraries, where they consulted almost one thousand books, but occasionally the Nevins' research took them far into the field. Before writing his chapter on Fremont's 1844 Sierra Nevada crossing, for example, Nevin personally walked the route across Carson Pass on snowshoes in midwinter to get a sense of the experience. Fashioning the research into the novel required another four years' effort by Nevin. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic James D. Houston described the resulting narrative as "richly detailed, meticulously researched [and] persuasive in its sense of place from Washington, DC to the mouth of the Columbia." The reviewer credited Nevin with a "sure grasp" of the "sweep of events and the scale of movement through the mid-19th Century." New York Times reviewer Anatole Broyard called Dream West "a rousing, old-fashioned yarn … full of authentic, colorful stuff" and "rich in detail and romance."
Reviewing 1812, the second volume in Nevin's "American Story" series, Robert C. Jones wrote in Book Page Fiction Reviews: "Nevin has once again brought a little-remembered, largely misunderstood part of America's past into sharp, vivid focus…. Here, painstakingly researched and marvelously believable, are real men and women—not history book figures." 1812, as its title indicates, covers the War of 1812, examining not only the events that immediately fostered the conflict but offering an in-depth exploration of Anglo-American relations, trade, geography, military information, and the social and political environment that prevailed in Washington, DC, at the time. In Nevin's own words: "1812 … tells the story of Dolley and James Madison fighting the second war with Britain, the coming-of-age war that determined once and for all that democracy would hold and the United States would take its place in the family of nations." Other historical personages who play a major role in Nevin's narrative include Andrew Jackson, who wants to take Canada away from Britain, Jackson's wife Rachel, portrayed as a fervently religious manic depressive, and Jean LaFitte, the French pirate who offers Jackson his help in the siege of New Orleans. To round out the drama, Nevin supplements his cast of historical figures with fictional creations of his own. Some of the events covered in the novel include the burning of Washington, the writing of the "Star Spangled Banner," and the detailed depiction of numerous battles at sea. According to Ted Leventhal of Booklist, "Nevin pulls no punches when it comes to personal intrigue and sex…. At times the dialogue smacks more of Jackie Collins than Jane Austen." Nevertheless, Leventhal concluded that this approach "doesn't detract from the book as a whole; 1812 is a substantive work." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer found 1812 to be "less a glorious work of historical art than an insistently intriguing animated tableau … in essence, a patriotic pageant, but it's one crammed with color and captivating characters."
The next entry in Nevin's "American Story" series, Eagle's Cry, depicts events set roughly a decade before the War of 1812, covering the years 1799 to 1803, a period in American history that Thomas Jefferson called "The Second Revolution." The future of the new nation is still unclear, as to whether it will continue to move in the direction of democracy and a people's government, or retrench, to model itself on the prevailing examples of monarchy set by Europe. As the novel opens the Democrats, led by Jefferson and representing populist views, have won the presidential election, defeating the more conservative Federalist Party led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Meanwhile there is ongoing international conflict with the British, French, and Spanish. As in 1812, James Madison, Jefferson's Secretary of State, and his wife, Dolley, along with Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, emerge as significant characters. Reviewing Eagle's Cry for Publishers Weekly one critic noted: "Numerous parallel stories march along through the years as major historical figures maneuver, scheme and plot for personal advantage, the good of the nation, or both." Prime among such maneuvers are those of Vice President Aaron Burr, whose machinations include a conspiracy with a disaffected army general to establish a Federalist Empire in New York and New England. "While historically colorful and accurate," the Publishers Weekly critic concluded, "the narrative drags along, offering little suspense or excitement and succeeding better as a history lesson than a novel." Offering a sharply contrasting viewpoint was Margaret Flanagan of Booklist, who stated, "Brimming with personal and political tension, the gripping narrative vividly re-creates a seminal moment in the infancy of the U.S. An intelligent, well-crafted drama featuring a cast of authentically rendered historical characters."
The fourth novel in the "American Story" series, Treason focuses on the subject of the Burr Conspiracy. The cast of characters features Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's vice president who unsuccessfully plotted to steal the presidency from Jefferson and who later killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel after being defeated in a run for New York governor; General James Wilkinson, a traitor to the United States, working for Spain as a secret agent, who interests Burr in an attempt to steal the Louisiana Territory; James Madison, then secretary of state, who develops a plan to stop Burr and Wilkinson; and Madison's wife, Dolley, who is saddened by the situation involving Burr as he is an old friend. Calling Treason "vivid storytelling," a critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that the novel is "another lively look back at the newborn U.S. by a historical novelist who respects both his disciplines."
Nevin's next book in the series, Meriwether: A Novel of Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, was published in 2004, the same year that commemorated the bicentennial of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition known as the Corps of Discovery. The novel recounts the expedition's legendary 2,000-mile trek from what was then the gateway to the West, beginning in 1802 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into the still largely uncharted western part of the continent and eventually to the western coast, marking the end of the journey in 1804. But Nevin's focus is primarily on the troubled Lewis, who proved to be an excellent commander for the exploratory journey, but nevertheless struggled with inner demons. Nevin recounts the intrepid explorer's wild mood swings from euphoria to depression. Despite Lewis's psychological problems, Nevin explores how his "style" of leadership and guidance was an excellent complement to his co-leader of the expedition, William Clark. Although much of the book is taken up by the expedition itself, Nevin continues to follow Lewis after his return to civilization. Lewis eventually committed suicide. "A haunting portrait, just the kind of thing this author does so well, "wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Jay Freeman, writing in Booklist, commented, "In describing their journey, Nevin lets the daily sense of novelty and wonder shine through the narrative.".
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1996, Ted Leventhal, review of 1812, p. 1677; October 15, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of Eagle's Cry, p. 419; May 15, 2004, Jay Freeman, review of Meriwether: A Novel of Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, p. 1610.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 25, 1984, Jack Dierks, review of Dream West.
Detroit News, February 26, 1984.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2000, review of Eagle's Cry, p. 1309; August 15, 2001, review of Treason, p. 1156; April 1, 2004, review of Meriwether, p. 292.
Kliatt, March, 2002, Barbara Jo McKee, review of Eagle's Cry, p. 17.
Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1984.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 5, 1984, James D. Houston, review of Dream West, p. 1.
New York Times, January 18, 1984, Anatole Broyard, review of Dream West, p. 19.
New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1972; January 29, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1984; May 27, 1996, review of 1812, p. 64; September 25, 2000, review of Eagle's Cry, p. 89.
Saturday Review, June 3, 1972.
Washington Post, February 5, 1984, Michael Kernan, review of Dream West, and interview with Nevin, p. 1.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (September 25, 2005), Robert C. Jones, review of 1812.
David Nevin Home Page, http://www.davidnevin.com (January 6, 2001).