Book Review: Michael Shaara's winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, The Killer Angels
Imagine my delight … at opening The Killer Angels, and finding a fast-paced narrative full of concrete, measurable historic events and famous military decisions that lives at about half the page count of its 15-Minute Pulitzer Predecessor, Gravity’s Rainbow.
Imagine my delight at realizing that Michael Shaara, who’s book I quite enjoyed, taught for a while at Florida State University, my alma mater.
Imagine my delight at realizing that I might actually be connected to some sort of artistic spirit when I realized that Michael Shaara’s son is the writer of Gods and Generals, a book I had begun, as I worked my way through The Killer Angels, feeling inspired to read (or at least watch on the big screen).
Imagine my despair at the unfolding of this battle of Gettysburg as that battlefield was brought to life on the page and I realized in a whole new way the tragedy of the American Civil War. Brother against brother, old friend against old friend, but perhaps most disturbing, men who are on the same side hating each other more than more obvious enemies. The posturing and maneuvering against one another becomes so astounding the reader may find themselves shouting at the characters, “You know the men across the Emmitsburg Road want to see you dead, right?!”
And this despair can’t be completely attributed to Gettysburg. It also comes from the fact that I see similar forces at work in my own life. Have I grown so frustrated with my neighbor that I secretly hope for the compromising of all his plans, even the best ones? Why are not all of us more united by a common enemy and why does there have to be a common enemy for us to be united? We’re all in this together, right? We’re all people with “inalienable rights,” correct? Even adversaries can respect the spark of life within the other’s breast, yes? Not always, I guess. It’s just easier to hate than it is to empathize.
But perhaps we can take hope. As Shakespeare says (the Bard who indirectly gave Shaara’s book its name), “What’s past is Prologue,” and maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from the past. Maybe the past can really be the antecedent to something better, something informed by the facts of history and enlivened by powerful narratives like The Killer Angels and yes, even Gravity’s Rainbow. (I mean, my reading and quite potential re-reading of Pynchon’s novel has to count for something, right?) At the very least we’ve got to dream.