Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Not your father's Civil War. . .

A columnist I enjoy reading in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Carroll, had a piece published on July 31st talking about culling his burgeoning library, but instead of discussing the books that were being jettisoned, he gave a little synopsis of some of those books that survived the cut. I was pleased to see a Civil War-related title among the survivors. He wrote:



"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara. This is just a stunning book, a historical novel that reads like a work of history. It's about the battle of Gettysburg, not exactly unmined territory, but the deft and compassionate prose makes this a must-read anyway.


Michael Shaara's son, Jeff Shaara, tried to duplicate his father's techniques in a string of historical books. Alas, like father not like son. Stick with the original; accept no substitutes.

Sure, anyone can talk up a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and remain on safe ground, but it’s the warning at the end that will save you some grief, and possibly money. Carroll’s summary is spot on. Ironically (sadly?), Jeff Shaara’s sequels and prequels, not to mention the movie rights, made a lot more money than Killer Angels, without ever replicating the gripping narrative or approximating the literary merit of the old man’s work. I was interested to learn that Killer Angels enjoyed no commercial success during the author’s lifetime, and that he was shocked when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975.

There is a very interesting biography of Michael Shaara, penned by his son, here. Did you know he had more than 70 short stories published in the 1950s, and that two of them were produced as television dramas? Me either.

As a disclaimer, I should mention that I’ve never read a single one of Jeff Shaara’s books from start to finish. I have sat in the bookstore and read passages, and I read lots of reviews. And I queried people I knew had read them. I do not begrudge him his success. If anyone should be able to cash in on the name of an author and his work, it should be that author’s offspring. I give Jeff Shaara credit for actually writing the books, and fully acknowledge that people read his novels and enjoy them.

Am I qualifed to criticize? Well, I just recently put up posts on the baseball Giants, and the 49ers, and drew Civil War connections in both cases. That's no mean feat.

8 comments:

Mark said...

I have a friend who is a retired Lt. Colonel. He claims that "The Killer Angels" has turned military people on to the Civil War than any other book.
I know it led me to read a lot more about Longstreet and Chamberlain than I probably would have without it.

dw said...

Thanks for the note Mark. "Killer Angels" seems to have created a new generation of Chamberlain fans, bolstered even more by the movie.

David

Remo said...

Good points about "The Killer Angels," but, well, I don't know, I've always liked nonfiction rather than fiction. The true gems in life are history books that read like fiction, but are all true. A few writers can pull this off, like Barbara Tuchman, William Manchester, John Toland, and my personal favorites, David McCullough and James McPherson. I guess I've always believed if you're going to read about a real event, read a nonfiction book about that event. Now there are plenty of nonfiction history books out there that are just plain dull, but I guess the same can be said for a lot of works of fiction. So I guess I'm a fan of the "theater of the real," as opposed to fiction. As always, David, you have a great blog here. Keep up the good work!

Remo

Jim Schmidt said...

Thanks for the post. I have to say I'm in agreement with you on Jeff Shaara. I was always amazed that the publisher ever gave him a pencil and paper to write the prequels/sequels. From what I can tell from his biography, he's strongest credential as a writer is that he is a professional coin collector.

For all it's faults, *Gettysburg** - as a film - remains one of my favorites because it's a good movie based on an excellent book. **Gods and Generals** is a bad mvie based on an even worse book...and we have Jeff Shaara to blame for that.

Just my opinion.

Keep up the good work,

Jim Schmidt

Jim Schmidt said...

Remo - Just wanted to second your thoughts on nonfiction vs. fiction. For my part, there are so many stories in the Civil War that are interesting in their own right that they require no embellishments that fiction writers have license to create. The truth is indeed stranger (and more interesting) than fiction.

Best Regards,

Jim Schmidt
http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com

dw said...

Hi Remo,

Thanks for the kind words. It is one of life's great pleasures to read a well-written, non-fiction history. I think this is why Shelby Foote's trilogy is so well liked -- he was a novelist. Likewise, people hold up Catton's books as masterpieces of story-telling. Not every historian can pull it off, that much is certain. I like the work of the historians you mentioned.

That said, some historical novels are so brilliantly crafted, they are "remembered" as history by the reader (not necessarily a good thing if you make it on to Jeopardy). I felt that way about Allan Eckert's "The Frontiersman," which caused me to seek out some of the locales in the book. Another one that stuck with me was Evan Connell's, "Son of the Morning Star," which I loved so much, I wrote to the author.

I need to re-read both of those, now that I think about it. It's been about 20 years since I've seen either book.

David

dw said...

Jim,

Thanks for the note. I really _wanted_ to like Jeff Shaara's writing, but these things can't be forced.

Your message gave me an idea for another blog entry on this subject. Maybe I'll try to whip that out tonight.

David

Remo said...

Hi David,

I just had to reply to your comments. "Son of the Morning Star" was a great book and it taught me so much about the West and the Indian Wars. A real eye-opener. Few books can match that sort of grandeur and it truly is a remarkable book. One author of fiction that did his historical homework was James Mitchner, although his books tended to be a little long. And I agree with you that Shelby Foote is still the master of Civil War history, in some cases better than Catton. Now if we can only get a writer as good as Foote or Catton writing about the naval aspect of the Civil War we'd be in business!

Best Wishes,

Remo