The Killer Angels Book Review
1641 WordsOct 24th, 20127 Pages
The Killer Angels Book Review
June 21, 2012 The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: The Random House Publishing Group, New York, 1974.
The Killer Angels is a stunning recollection of the telltale battle of the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg. Set from June 29 to July 3, 1863 and told from the vantage points of several soldiers and commanding officers from both sides, including Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain, Michael Shaara effectively paints a picture of the war that divided America, from the tactical planning to the emotional hardships The book opened with a sodden Confederate spy as he blazed through the Union lines in the dead of night on June 29, 1863 toward the headquarters of Confederate general Robert E. Lee with…show more content…
During one such moment, Chamberlain is reminded of a Shakespearean speech: “What a piece of work man is…in action how like an angel!” (page 126). Upon hearing this, Chamberlain’s father commented, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” (page 126). From this interaction, Chamberlain came up with “Man: the Killer Angels”, a thought he often revisited over the course of the Battle of Gettysburg, and from which the book acquires its title. Chamberlain acted with the intention of getting something positive out of the war. He never treated the Confederates as though they were less than him: “ Chamberlain put out a hand. ‘Sir’ he said. The Alabama man nodded slightly. His voice was so low Chamberlain could hardly hear it. ‘Do you have some water?’ ‘Certainly.’ Chamberlain offered his own canteen.” (page 243). It is even known that he had his troops salute the surrendering South at Appomattox. Overall, I found Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels an interesting book; it shed a new and different light on the Battle of Gettysburg by showing it from multiple points of view. I believe that Shaara was successful in writing in the diction of his chosen narrators; he used slang and dropped “g’s” for the Confederate soldiers and used proper grammar and British terminology for the Englishman, Freemantle. I was also impressed by his knowledge of military terms and the effectiveness of which he used them. The terms were used enough that
One-hundred-and-one summers after the Battle of Gettysburg, a family of four stopped their Nash Rambler at the site during a 1,000-mile drive from the New York World’s Fair to Tallahassee, Fla. The father was a New Jersey-born former boxer, paratrooper and policeman who became a creative writing instructor at Florida State after enrolling to study opera. Before arriving at the park he had published dozens of science-fiction short stories, but nothing about history. But he had researched several Gettysburg participants for the trip, and he fascinated his daughter Lila and son Jeff with stories of his favorites while the family walked the grounds. They ended up staying for several days, because Michael Shaara was in the early stages of creating his masterpiece novel, “The Killer Angels.”
Partly owing to meticulous research, it took Shaara (pronounced “Share-a”) seven years to finish the manuscript. Relying chiefly on first-person accounts like memoirs, diaries and letters, he pioneered a new type of historical novel. Normally such stories revolve around fictitious characters in real events: the protagonist in “Rifles for Watie,” the 1957 novel by Harold Keith, is an imaginary Union soldier who fights at Wilson’s Creek and Prairie Grove. In contrast, “The Killer Angels” uses a combination of recorded and fictional dialogue, as well as imagined thoughts and incidents, to tell the Gettysburg story from the viewpoint of actual participants.
Shaara’s extra burden was to portray such speculation in a manner authentic to the characters, which compelled him to research men like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Winfield Scott Hancock and John Buford in such depth that he once told an interviewer he was “visited” by them. Thus, when the author has the Confederate general Longstreet advise a poker-playing neophyte that his odds of drawing an inside straight are “none,” he foreshadows the general’s future anguish when ordered to direct Pickett’s Charge while simultaneously hinting at the temptation the assault presented to Lee, desperate for a winning hand.
When attempted by a less conscientious researcher, Shaara’s technique brims with danger. As a science-fiction writer he understood Oscar Wilde’s implication, “Audiences will believe the impossible but never the implausible.” By definition science fiction is fantasy, but the genre’s good examples deliver credible stories, like the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey” that overrules human decision making. Thus, both Shaara and his readers recognize that Lee would have been as unlikely to give poker advice as Stuart would have been to ignore a newspaper reporter.
Shaara succeeded so brilliantly that he shifted the accepted historical interpretations and even changed the park’s landscape. Before the publication of “The Killer Angels” in 1974, academics thought that the ailment that waylaid Lee during the battle was most likely a virulent form of indigestion. They failed to consider incipient heart disease. But Shaara did. Having suffered a heart attack of his own while researching Lee and writing the book, the four-pack-a-day author recognized symptoms others overlooked. Similarly, the novel’s implication that the Union general Buford’s delaying action west of Gettysburg was intended to preserve defensible ground south of the town for Gen. George Meade’s army has become the received wisdom. Before the novel, park grounds contained no monument to Longstreet, while its most popular site today, where Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment fought on Little Round Top, was hard to find. Shaara resurrected Chamberlain as a hero, and he has remained one of the most popular figures associated with the battle ever since.
Despite its ultimate triumph, the novel’s history is convoluted. When Shaara began sending the manuscript to publishers in 1971, our country was in the late stages of the Vietnam War. That war’s casualty lists, combined with its protracted length and our failure to win it, left much of the public disrespectful of anything military. “The Killer Angels” was turned down by 15 publishers before it was accepted in 1972 by the David McKay Company, which was best known as a publisher of comic books like “Blondie,” “Dick Tracy” and “Popeye.” McKay was acquired by Random House in 1973 and published the book in 1974. The initial production run was only 3,500 copies.
Initially the novel sold modestly, but its critical reception was astounding: the following year, “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize. Together with other Pulitzer winners and dignitaries, Shaara and his wife joined Gerald Ford for a White House dinner. The author was seated next to Henry Kissinger, with whom he had a brief disagreement on a forgotten intellectual matter.
Although he lived for another 14 years, the 1975 Pulitzer and White House visit were the author’s lifetime high points. While on a teaching assignment in Italy in 1972, a motor-scooter accident put Shaara in a coma for seven weeks. He never fully recovered. His writing skills were diminished, and he was left with a permanent speech impediment. “The Killer Angels” was popular among Civil War buffs and certain military enclaves like West Point — where at times it was required reading — but otherwise the novel remained obscure.
Further commercial success was also probably handicapped when Shaara disregarded advice to consider other Civil War projects. His daughter, Lila, to whom “The Killer Angels” is dedicated, believes her father was determined to let his own wide-ranging interests dictate future subjects. Two later novels published while Shaara was still alive are presently so ignored that neither has a single reader review at Amazon. Only after his death did his son, Jeff, manage to secure a publisher for his father’s previously snubbed baseball story, “The Love of the Game.”
Then came Ken Burns. When PBS unexpectedly captured 40 million viewers in 1990 with his Civil War documentary, interest in the war’s most famous battle spiked, and new readers began to buy copies of “The Killer Angels.” Among them was Ted Turner, who was told that the director Ron Maxwell had a film script based on the novel and was seeking financing. Mr. Turner agreed to provide funding, but changed the title to “Gettysburg” when market research demonstrated that uninitiated moviegoers said Shaara’s title suggested a film about motorcycle gangs.
Through a combination of box office receipts, video tape / DVD sales, and online rentals the film became a commercial winner; since its premiere in October 1993, over 33 million people have seen it. Thanks to the film’s success, Shaara’s novel shot up to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for four weeks. That was almost 20 years after it was published and 5 years after the author’s death. It has since sold some 3.15 million copies, about 90 percent of the total copies sold since it first appeared, 40 years ago.
The commercial success of “Gettysburg” led Turner to suggest that the director consider a prequel and sequel. Maxwell agreed that Shaara’s son, Jeff, should make the first attempt at the screenplay. When Random House was told of the project, they requested a copy. The publisher liked it and gave Jeff a contract to turn it into a novel. The result was “Gods and Generals,” which was his father’s original title for “The Killer Angels.” the book was popular, but the film script was radically altered, resulting in success for the story as a novel, but failure as a film.
Jeff feels his father most likely identified closest to Chamberlain, a Union colonel whom he portrays as both masculine and intellectual — resonant of Shaara’s Hemingway-esque life as a boxer-soldier-professor-novelist. But while Shaara may have identified with Chamberlain, his life after the book was more like that of an iconic Confederate soldier. In the book he quotes Lee addressing Longstreet:
To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love … that is the trap. You can hold nothing back when you attack. You must commit yourself totally.
Likewise, Shaara committed himself totally to “The Killer Angels” for seven years. It marked the high tide of his capabilities. But in his achievement, it was also his bid at posterity.
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Sources: Special thanks to Helen, Jeff and Lila Shaara – widow, son and daughter – for generously sharing reminisces.
Phil Leigh is an armchair Civil War enthusiast and president of a market research company. He is the author of “Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated,” an illustrated and annotated version of the memoirs of Confederate Pvt. Sam Watkins.
Correction: July 1, 2013
An earlier version of the cartoon caption incorrectly identified the two characters as Civil War veterans. The man on the right is a Revolutionary War veteran.
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