MacKinlay Kantor Essay - Critical Essays

Kantor, MacKinlay

Kantor, MacKinlay 1904–

Kantor, an American author, is best known for his historical novels, especially Andersonville, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

[In] "Long Remember," MacKinlay Kantor gave us a moving picture of the impact of battle on the little town of Gettysburg. Even before he wrote that book his imagination had been stirred by the possibilities of a story that mirrored the whole of the Civil War, and "Andersonville," as he tells us…, is the product of a quarter-century of study and writing. Onto the warp of history Mr. Kantor has woven with the stuff of imagination an immense and terrible pattern, a pattern which finally emerges as a gigantic panorama of the war itself, and of the nation that tore itself to pieces in war. Out of fragmentary and incoherent records, Mr. Kantor has wrought the greatest of our Civil War novels.

There is neither hero nor villain here, nor narrative nor plot in the ordinary sense, but the prison embraces them all, submerges them all in a common humanity or inhumanity, reduces them all to agonized parodies of men. (p. 1)

[This book] is crowded with hundreds of characters, but only a few carry through the whole book, affording it not so much unity (the prison itself does that) as vantage points from which we may view the changing scene….

Mr. Kantor has provided us with scores of portraits, each against a rich background, and we cannot but stand amazed at the fecundity of imagination he has displayed and by the prodigality with which he has thrown in material for a dozen novels. He says of his prisoners that, "Andersonville reduced them to a single pattern: they were stamped out of that pattern by the enormous heavy die of confinement, like a row of toy tin wretches holding hands." But except in their suffering and death, his characters are not cut from a single pattern, but are sharply drawn individuals, or groups of individuals.

The selection of individual portraits seems miscellaneous, but is designed to represent the whole of American society. (p. 32)

Henry Steele Commager, "A Novel of an Infamous Prison in the Civil War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1955, pp. 1, 32.

Uninfluenced by any critical scholarship which might have appeared, [for his novel Andersonville] Kantor has drawn upon the official propaganda accounts of Andersonville, and upon the personal accounts which, in their turn, derived largely from the official versions. In addition, he has drawn upon the conventional stereotypes of "Southern characters" to make a novel which fulfills the apparent formula for a best selling "historical" novel. It has excessive length, excessive exposition of the unimportant fornications of uninteresting people, and an excessive cast of conventional characters.

Aside from a half-dozen prison officials in the book, all the Southerners who appear in the book are fictional. They are, however, so long familiar to readers of "Southern" novels that they appear real indeed. There is the old tried-and-true slave, and the younger slaves who were eager for freedom. There is the well-meaning but ineffective gentleman planter with his even more ineffectual wife, and their competent daughter. There are the doddering preacher and the disheveled storekeeper. And of course there is the local prostitute with her bastard brood of degenerate whites. Finally, as might be expected, there is the high-minded young doctor who seduces and marries the competent daughter. Altogether, the fictional characters are, for all of their familiarity, fictitious indeed.

The other fictional characters are the prisoners. Ostensibly they represent the various types who were confined in the prison and are a fair cross-section of the men who served in the national army. Yet here too the figures are conventional and stylized…. Their prewar conduct, detailed for the most part at great length, seems to have been preoccupied with sex. In dealing with such matters, the author rises frequently to the literary heights of Mickey Spillane. (pp. 97-8)

The real persons portrayed in the book are even more fictitious than the imagined ones…. The character of [William Collins, chief of the "Raiders,"] comes in for extensive treatment, none of it documented. The only record shows Collins to have been from Pennsylvania, but Author Kantor endows him with a delinquent childhood in New York City. Equally imaginative, but with less reason, is the character imposed on some of the Confederate prison officials…. In all of this, the author is perpetuating the myth of Andersonville, capitalizing on the official propaganda, and proceeding without benefit of scholarship. (pp. 98-9)

More serious even than the ascription of fictitious motives to the characters is the author's failure to set the Andersonville debacle in its true perspective…. The failure of Author Kantor is not alone a failure to evaluate his evidence critically, not alone his willingness to perpetuate the official propaganda and the Southern stereotypes. His failure is the failure to see the greater tragedy of which Andersonville was a lesser part.

Perhaps it will be argued that Kantor's Andersonville is a novel, intended in general only to amuse. Whatever the validity of such an argument might be, it holds no water when applied to a historical novel. The novel is nothing more than a literary form, differing only in form from the drama, the epic, or the monograph. The results of historical research may be cast in either of these forms, but the selection of one of them does not exempt the writer from the canons of scholarship. Had Andersonville been written as a monograph, its perversity would have been immediately apparent. Its errors and its inadequacies should not be allowed to hide behind the literary form in which it appears. (pp. 99-100)

William B. Hesseltine, "Andersonville Revisited," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1956, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1956, pp. 92-100.

[In "Story Teller"] MacKinlay Kantor's subject matter and techniques are sentimental, unsophisticated, and old-fashioned. He writes really for a pre-World War II audience, an audience that would be at home with "Liberty," "Collier's," and the old version of the "Saturday Evening Post." Kantor is direct, avoids subtleties of style and technique, and eschews internal probings and intriguing interplay of poetic emanations, mood, and symbolic analysis. He seeks to tell a story, to entertain, to write in the O. Henry vein; thus, he works in the opposite direction from what is now considered to be the highest approach to short story writings—as found, say, in the work of Katherine Anne Porter.

Under these circumstances this reviewer is put into a position similar to that of the critic who censures the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To do so, said Bliss Perry, is like carrying a rifle into a national park. Kantor has a wide reading public. With his pronounced patriotism and immersion in America's folklore, folkways, and history, Kantor is wholesome and uplifting. Your grandfather and grandmother would take him to their respective bosoms. Your present-day college son and daughter would find him strictly from "Squaresville." Optimistic, tender-hearted, hearts-and-flowers, essentially simple narratives are not today regarded, in college circles, as the basic ingredients of effective short stories. The literati of academe are correct. (pp. 396-97)

Paul A. Doyle, in Best Sellers (copyright 1967, by the University of Scranton), February 1, 1967.

["The Day I Met a Lion," a] selection of non-fiction pieces,… was compiled by the author himself [MacKinlay Kantor] and is made up of pieces written during a period of thirty-one years. Although the expanse of years Kantor deals with saw great changes in the world, a record of those changes appears here only in the choice of subject matter. As a stylist and a thinker Kantor had gone as far as he was ever going to go back at the point of time when Edward VIII was deciding that he wanted Wallis Warfield Simpson more than Britain's kingship.

When Kantor writes about the past he turns on a Walt Disney type of nostalgia which compels you to feel (he wants you to "feel" rather than to "think") that the millenium was strangely compressed into the era of his boyhood. Noble men of science and superb village cooks, winsome pets and dedicated grandmothers combined resources to give life meaning and nobility. The memory of their worth persists in a world which has had its moral fabric rent asunder by war and the general disrepute into which traditionalism has fallen.

Kantor's world abounds in noble personages—heroic stewardesses who die serving the public, GI's nursing plague victims, self-sacrificing artists, kindly schoolmistresses, and plucky invalids. He is careful to explain that religion is something which he outgrew when he came to maturity. That is his sincere conviction and he is entitled to it. But when he asks sentimentalism and superstition to stand muster for religion, as he does habitually, there he loses us. He loves virtue and he loves the occult and he stands in reverence before them but draws no conclusions from them. Honest perplexity has our respect but not meretricious exploitation. Kantor has gone to experience, he says, for the pieces which appear in this collection, yet usually he writes like a skilled journalist adapting materials for their human interest value. Reality is given the slickness of a Norman Rockwell supper scene and twists which O. Henry would blush at conveniently appear to round out account after account…. In short, everything's … gimmicky…. Never do sentiment and sham seem more mocking than when they appear in fine muscular prose. No writer who professes to shoot straight from the shoulder should adulterate his work with charlatanism. If he does so he sins against his own integrity. Ernest Hemingway should have taught Kantor that much even if sect and society did not. (p. 479)

John J. McAleer, in Best Sellers (copyright 1968, by the University of Scranton), March 15, 1968.

The main trouble with Missouri Bittersweet, I suspect, is that MacKinlay Kantor writes too fast. This is the thirty-ninth on a list of almost yearly products, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville. While not without merit, it is on the whole a bad book—erratic in architecture, riddled with half-baked opinions, written with a touch that ranges uncertainly from fine narrative harmonies to the merest keyboard banging.

Mr. Kantor writes so ably at his best that his worst, which tends to be marked by coy colloquialisms like "scairt to death," "hearn tell," and "parm me," is all the more atrocious. Does he seek to ingratiate himself with the plain folks who tire of fancy writing and like it when a literary gent pushes back and burps out a slang word? It seems unnecessary. If the "shock-haired way-out book reviewers" whom he excoriates are sharpening their knives, the plain folks must love him. Mr. Kantor speaks their mind with flawless insight.

The author apparently lives in dread—or, more precisely, in defiance—of the critics. In Missouri Bittersweet, alas, he delivers himself into their hands. One really doesn't care about Mr. Kantor's social and political views as such, but they are always in the way. We are on the subject of catfish one moment and the outrage of having to use zip codes the next. If you say "silver" to Mr. Kantor he will lecture you on the iniquity of copper-filled coins with pictures of President Kennedy on them. Even so, a few good pages and good causes survive: good pages on Mark Twain and Hannibal, on old Missouri murder tales, on Ozark mountain country and people; good passages of lament and outrage at the spoliation of land and roadside by commercial claptrap that are quite to the travelogue writer's purpose.

But Mr. Kantor nags the reader with crypto-reactionary and crypto-xenophobic views to a degree no reviewer could ignore. (pp. 50-1)

I suppose Mr. Kantor did not intend to be as stuffy and insular as he sounds. At the risk of having my hair-length and ancestry investigated, I suggest that Mr. Kantor could have saved himself and the reviewers (long- and short-haired) trouble by serving his Missouri reveries without homiletic sauce, saving his political views for another volume. Then he would have produced two books the same year, one an unmarred travelogue and the other a good ripsnorter of raging at the beats and swingers. (p. 51)

Edwin M. Yoder, "Upbeat on Catfish, Down on Beats," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 17, 1969, pp. 50-1.

MacKinlay Kantor, the man whose Andersonville won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize and whose Spirit Lake documented better than any other American novel the white side of that Iowa Indian massacre, revisits Missouri in this personal memoir [Missouri Bittersweet] and manages to sound as garrulous as Polonius in his cups and as self-conscious about it. And worse: as bigoted as a Wallace and as belligerent as a LeMay (the General, one gathers, is an old friend of Kantor's). And even worse: as cantankerous as a retired Midwesterner a-settin' on his front porch in Sarasota retirement, which is exactly what and where Kantor is.

Even Kantor as Polonius cannot entirely outshoot the Kantor of the big novels. The novelist's iron-butt attention to detail from time to time pushes through the jeremiad. When Kantor describes the taste of a Missouri tomato picked hot from the vine, the emotions of the owners of an old family house that is burning down in front of their helpless eyes, the tang of McCormick jugged corn whiskey, he leaves no doubt who is talking. But for every juicy tomato he bites, we are drowned in diatribes against Nigras and students and big government and America gone to hell in a handbasket that might have come from a smeared issue of the Minutemen newsletter (published in Norborn, Missouri, Minutemen headquarters)….

Missouri ought not to have a sense of place about it, but it overwhelms with place. It could easily yield thousands of pages of words about it and yet not exhaust description, and Kantor manages some of those words. But reading Missouri Bittersweet is like driving through good country with a droning old uncle at the wheel complaining about everything he sees out the window.

Kantor proudly notes that he filled up more than 150 tapes recording his book. He might have been considerate enough to edit them.

Richard Rhodes, "Cantankerousville," in Book World (© The Washington Post), June 15, 1969, p. 9.

[In Hamilton County] Mr. Kantor, born in Hamilton County, Iowa, has investigated the other nine Hamilton Counties in the nation…. The resultant book tends to be rather old-fashioned in the manner of the thirties, salt-of-the-earth way. The other extraordinary feature of the book is that all ten counties seem to merge into one. Although sentiment is strong in this lovingly put together book, one wonders about the sharpness of observation. Is there no more variety than this in ten states? (p. lxxxii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1971, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1971).