Thursday, October 15, 2020
October 15, 2020: Confederate Memory: The Shaaras
[On October 12th, 1870, Robert E. Lee died—but not before the post-war deification of Lee was already well underway. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that process and other aspects of Confederate memory, leading up to a special post on a great recent book on the subject!]
On the benefits and drawbacks of bestselling historical novels about the Civil War.
As I detailed in this post on Joshua Chamberlain and his heroic, battle- and potentially Union-saving charge down Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, I first learned about Chamberlain the same way I imagine a great many Americans have: through Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Killer Angels (1974, and source for the 1993 film Gettysburg in which Chamberlain was portrayed brilliantly by Jeff Daniels). While of course a novel shouldn’t be the sole or central way we learn about history, that process has to start somewhere; and if a novel is a hugely successful and popular one (as Shaara’s was upon release and has been ever since), it can provide precisely such a starting point for further investigation and understanding for a great many audience members indeed. I know that Civil War historians are sometimes frustrated by how much emphasis is placed on Chamberlain, an emphasis that is certainly due to Shaara’s (and then the film’s) depiction; but from everything I can tell the book gets both him and the histories quite right, and in any case it helped add them to our collective memories which to my mind can only be a good thing.
While Chamberlain is a main character in Shaara’s novel, he’s far from the book’s only focus, and another key element of The Killer Angels is its presentation of multi-layered, deeply human versions of all the battle’s key generals and leaders, including Confederate ones like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and George Pickett. Of course those men were all human, and so there’s nothing necessarily wrong with depicting them as such (and indeed a novel that didn’t present its characters as human would almost certainly be a failure). But in a historical novel about a Civil War battle, featuring such prominent, humanizing portrayals of Confederate generals makes it quite likely (if not indeed inevitable) that readers will sympathize with those characters as much as with Union leaders like Chamberlain, and thus will find themselves in at least some key ways “rooting” for both sides in the battle. That may make for compelling fiction (and Killer Angels is indeed one of the most readable historical novels I’ve encountered), but it also makes for troubling (to say the least) history, for any Civil War battle and doubly so for one that so influenced the course of the war and American history.
After Michael Shaara’s tragic death from a heart attack in 1988 (when he was only 59 years old), his son Jeff took up the legacy of his Civil War historical novels, publishing both Gods and Generals (1996 and a prequel to Killer Angels) and The Last Full Measure (1998 and a sequel to both). I’ll admit that I haven’t read either of those books, nor any of Jeff Shaara’s many other historical novels (four of which are set in the Civil War’s Western Theater, and the others set during other time periods/wars), so I don’t mean to imply that this paragraph’s critiques are necessarily applicable to those books (I’d love to hear in comments from folks who have read either or both of Jeff’s books). But I have seen the 2003 film adaptation of Gods and Generals, and would entirely agree with historian Steven Woolworth’s assessment (in a scholarly review in the Journal of American History) that it is “the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason.” Again, I don’t know if that’s the case with the novel, and I’m not suggesting it’s the case with Killer Angels—but I would argue that there is a connection between depicting Confederate and Union generals at a battle like Gettysburg with equal sympathy and ending up another convert to that neo-Confederate, Lost Cause perspective on the battle, the war, and America.
Last memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Confederate or Civil War memory you’d highlight?