James D(ouglas) Forman Elbridge Colby - Essay

Elbridge Colby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is difficult to characterize ["Code Name Valkyrie"]. We know of course how to distinguish between history and historical fiction; the latter adds to the bare bones of recorded fact certain imagined conversations in detail, certain interpretations of public trends as they may be assumed to affect individuals, and "purple passages" which may or may not be true. But what are you going to do with biography?… [Many] of the multitude of details are drawn not from records, not from facts, but from the biographer's attitude toward life and the biographer's vivid and consistent imagination of the times. What then do we call such a book?

This "Code Name Valkyrie" raises the question. It is, after all, a summary of the life of Count Claus von Stauffenberg…. It apparently is based upon an adequate and somewhat considerable bibliography on the subject. It names places, people, dates, and events sufficient to create an admirable verisimilitude.

The crippled colonel, the deus ex machina of the book, is represented in all of his hostile thoughts while lying in bed, and all his family thoughts in separation from the family. The language is decorated to distinction…. (p. 250)

If our reader today expects a former teacher of Freshman English to condemn this book as fine "writing" he is doomed to disappointment. It may not be necessary or true to say of living quarters in bombed Berlin that the "outside needed paint, the inside needed plaster, and glass blown from the windows crunched icily underfoot." But it does make for quickened reading. Let us make an end. Let us call it biographical fiction, and recommend it for exciting and suspenseful reading, even though "how it comes out" is already known. (pp. 250-51)

Elbridge Colby, "Nonfiction: 'Code Name Valkyrie'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 33, No. 11, September 1, 1973, pp. 250-51.