Given MacKinlay Kantor’s ambition to re-create with encyclopedic detail the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war (POW) prison and the deaths of more than thirteen thousand Union army soldiers, Andersonville, not surprisingly, can be a daunting read of close to eight hundred pages. The novel’s narrative structure is on the grand scale of nineteenth century historical novels, like the work of Leo Tolstoy, with their multiple plot lines and hundreds of named characters. The most immediate achievement of Andersonville is the sheer visceral impact of Kantor’s account.
Drawing on nearly six years of investigations into the conditions of the POW prison near Anderson (now Andersonville), Georgia, Kantor delivers with unblinking journalistic fidelity the appalling reality of the camp. He had been a career newspaper reporter and also had written about, before Andersonville, prison camps of the Civil War: Arouse and Beware (1936), for example, recounts conditions at the Confederate camp at Belle Isle, Virginia. What separates the earlier account from Andersonville, however, is Kantor’s experiences as a reporter during World War II.
As Kantor would explain to interviewers concerned about the impact of reading about such shocking horrors, he was compelled to write about Andersonville after being assigned to cover the Allied liberation of Buchenwald, a notorious German concentration camp where thousands of Jews were killed. He came to believe that the fullest story of war, indeed the only honest account of history, had to include accounts of horrific inhumanity. Thus, the narrative of Andersonville is presented without emotional coloring—the narrative voice describes with care and precision the horrors as the numbers of prisoners escalates. Kantor dispenses with quotation marks in dialogue, unnerving at first read but part of his attempt to make the experience of the prison immediate without the niceties of conventional prose.
Despite its graphic nature and epic scale, the novel was a best seller for more than two years and won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a testimony to Kantor’s belief that the story of the Civil War, the pivotal trauma for the United States, had been incomplete...
(The entire section is 930 words.)