Jeff Shaara Criticism - Essay

Thomas L. Kilpatrick (review date 1 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gods and Generals, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 8, May 1, 1996, p. 134.

[In the following review, Kilpatrick praises Shaara's depiction of the novel's four main protagonists, Generals Lee, Jackson, Hancock, and Chamberlain.]

In his 1974 epic novel, The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara focused on the Battle of Gettysburg and the four men—two Union, two Confederate—who led their men in bloody battle. Twenty-two years later [in Gods and Generals], Shaara's son follows the same four men—Lee, Jackson, Hancock, and Chamberlain—through the years leading up to that pivotal battle. Shaara captures Lee's and Hancock's disillusionment over their early careers, Lee's conflict in loyalties, Jackson's overwhelming Christian ethic, and Chamberlain's total lack of experience while illustrating how each compensated for shortcomings and failures when put to the test. The perspectives of the four men, particularly concerning the battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, make vivid the realities of war. Considered together, the two novels by father and son present a powerful portrait of the generals who won and lost the Civil War. Recommended for most libraries.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gods and Generals, in Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1996, p. 633.

[In the following review, Shaara is lauded for his character depiction and attention to detail in his "impressive debut." However, the reviewer considers Gods and Generals somewhat lacking when compared to Shaara's father's Civil War novel, The Killer Angels.]

First-time author Shaara comes of a distinguished lineage: His father, Michael (who died in 1988), wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels (1974) about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.

It's some testament to the younger Shaara's skills that his own debut [Gods and Generals], meant to be a prequel to that earlier book, can often hold its own with that work. Like Killer Angels, this new novel focuses mostly on actual figures swept up in that immense conflict: Robert E. Lee and Thomas ("Stonewall") Jackson on the Confederate side, Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock on the Union, most prominently. Shaara follows these figures, and a score more, from the onset of the war up to the days just before the 1863 battle at Gettysburg. (A sequel will follow the surviving characters through to the war's conclusion.) And like Killer Angels, this novel displays an impressive grasp of the particulars of the conflict. The author projects some believable, idiosyncratic life into such familiar figures as Lee and Jackson. Lee's early disbelief in the possibility of war, and his growing, almost mystical conviction in the war's necessity and outcome, are all nicely conveyed, as is Joshua Chamberlain's harsh coming-of-age in battle. Shaara is particularly good at rendering the reluctance of many of the combatants. But while this prequel offers a robust portrait of the early years of the war, it lacks something of the impact of Killer Angels. That novel's great resonance had something to do with the intense focus on just three days of battle: Gettysburg became a particularly apt metaphor for the entire conflict. This new book, by having to plod dutifully across several years of battles, seems at times more like an impressionistic work of history than a work of fiction.

Still, Shaara's wonderful command of detail and his generally shrewd depiction of character make for an impressive debut.

Publishers Weekly (review date 13 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gods and Generals, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 20, May 13, 1996, p. 55.

[In the following review, the reviewer praises the novel's "sweep, depth of character, and historic verisimilitude," at the same time declaring that the wealth of detail sometimes overwhelms the narrative.]

Like father, like son? The publisher is aggressively linking Shaara's first novel [Gods and Generals] with The Killer Angels, the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning (1974) novel about the Battle of Gettysburg by his father, Michael Shaara (d. 1988). Indeed, the son's book is a prequel to the father's, following some of its central characters, generals all, from 1858 until 1863 and Gettysburg. The good news is that, while not matching his father's beautifully wrought prose, Shaara tells a tale impressive in its sweep, depth of character and historic verisimilitude. Generals Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock are back fighting for the North, and Robert E. Lee for the South. The story is told from their points of view, along with that of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Each is a reluctant warrior who emerges as a gifted soldier possessed of a strong moral conscience in a time of bitter partisanship and hatred. Because it covers five eventful years, the narrative is sometimes overwhelmed by its wealth of dramatic material; the battles, though convincingly realized, tend to blur into one another. Yet, like his father, Shaara gets deeply into the minds of his protagonists, particularly Stonewall Jackson, who, though shy and deeply religious, proved to be a brutally efficient military leader. Like father, like son? Not quite, but the Shaara genes, it seems, are in fine shape.

Barry Williams (review date August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gods and Generals, in School Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 8, August, 1997, p. 190.

[In the following review, Barry Williams praises the "Factual detail and deft character development" of Gods and Generals.]

Shaara [in Gods and Generals] has chosen four major figures of the Civil War—Generals Lee, Jackson, Hancock, and Chamberlain—and woven an excellent novel told from their individual viewpoints. The author excels at showing the personalities and lives of these key men. The central person in each alternating chapter moves the story toward the bloody battles of the Wilderness and Chancellorsville, and finally to the eve of the Gettysburg campaign. The compassion and religious convictions of Lee and Jackson are contrasted with the equally strong beliefs of Hancock and Chamberlain against secession and the destruction of the Union. All are frustrated by the political and administrative blunders that affect both armies. The author skillfully involves readers with each of the participants. Those unfamiliar with the period will appreciate the introduction and afterword that place the events within the context of the men's lives. Factual detail and deft character development create fascinating historical fiction.

Publishers Weekly (review date 20 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Full Measure, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 16, April 20, 1998, p. 44.

[In the following review, the commentator asserts that The Last Full Measure is "a stirring epigraph to his father's remarkable novel," but criticizes "the occasionally coarse grain of Shaara's characterizations."]

Concluding the Civil War trilogy that began with his father Michael's Pulitzer-winning The Killer Angels, Shaara (Gods and Generals) [in The Last Full Measure] chronicles Lee's retreat from Gettysburg and his valiant efforts to defend northern Virginia from Grant's superior, better-supplied forces. Seen alternately through the eyes of Lee, Grant and Maine abolitionist Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the narrative begins with the successful Union ambush at Bristoe Station in October 1863. It then details Lee's 18-month cat-and-mouse game as he outmaneuvers Grant, despite overwhelming odds and terrible deprivation, concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Impressively researched, this deeply affecting work can't be faulted for inaccuracy or lack of detail. But the occasionally coarse grain of Shaara's characterizations is a problem. Haunted by Stonewall Jackson's ghost, 56-year-old Lee frequently appears to be a semi-senile neurotic. Grant, more concerned about his supply of cigars than battle losses, comes across as a dolt. This tendency toward caricature notwithstanding, Shaara has produced a stirring epigraph to his father's remarkable novel.

Gilbert Taylor (review date 1 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Full Measure, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 17, May 1, 1998, p. 1478.

[In the following review, Taylor is impressed with The Last Full Measure's characterization of the Civil War's great military leaders.]

Shaara capitalized on his father Michael's hugely popular Civil War novel The Killer Angels (1974) by writing a prequel (Gods and Generals, 1996). A sequel [The Last Full Measure] was natural since Gods was a best-seller for a few months. It resumes with Lee's retreat from Gettysburg and continues to his surrender at Appomattox. Perhaps the feature that makes the Shaaras so popular is their credible re-creation of the interior dialogue and attitudes of the Civil War's famous military figures; here, they are Lee, James Longstreet, Grant, and Joshua Chamberlain. The point is exemplified in Shaara's characterizations of the pressures in his leaders' lives: Lee expresses his frustrations about the course and length of the war within a fatalistic, thy-will-be-done religiosity, and Grant expresses his by bemoaning the incompetence of his officers. This aspect of the novel is supported by the texture of his battle scenes, rendered loudly, muddily, and bloodily. That's a captivating combination even for (especially for?) those Civil War-roundtable types who can talk an ear off about every regiment and all their equipage used at the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Crater, Five Forks … With massive publicity in store, biblio-quartermasters should stockpile accordingly.

Charles Michaud (review date 1 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Full Measure in Library Journal, Vol. 123, No. 10, June 1, 1998, pp. 158, 161.

[In the following review, Michaud writes favorably of The Last Full Measure, though he comments that Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels had greater dramatic intensity.]

The late Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (LJ 9/1/74), about the Battle of Gettysburg, is a classic Civil War novel.

His son Jeff has written two novels that bracket it and complete a trilogy about the Civil War in the East. In his Gods and Generals (LJ 3/15/95), Shaara followed the fortunes of several men destined to fight one another in the great battles of Antietam and Chancellorsville, and in this book [The Last Full Measure] he writes about the course of the war in Virginia from Lee's retreat from Gettysburg to his surrender at Appomattox Court House. Ulysses S. Grant has come East to assume command of all Federal forces and to confront Lee, and the war they make is marked by such horrendous battles as The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. As characters, Grant and Lee dominate this book, overshadowing such other historical figures as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Gordon. Civil War buffs will find Shaara nodding on some small details, but they generally will be delighted with this book. More general readers, however, may find it lacks the dramatic intensity of his father's riveting novel. While not ranking with the very best Civil War fiction, it does take its place along side such fine ones as William Satire's Freedom (Doubleday, 1987).

J. Edwin Smith (review date 12 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bringing the Civil War to a Heartfelt End," in Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1998, sec. 5, p. 3.

[In the following review, J. Edwin Smith, though writing that The Last Full Measure does not quite reach the artistic heights of Gods and Generals, praises highly the character development in the former.]

The War Between the States has never been as realistically presented as in The Killer Angels, the late novelist Michael Shaara's you-are-there depiction of the genocidal horrors of Gettysburg.

Shaara's son, Jeff, approached that brilliance in the 1996 release of Gods and Generals, the prequel to his father's classic. But he stumbles a bit in the final volume of the Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure, which covers events following the Battle of Gettysburg. By the time a reader is a third of the way through this book, his or her nerves are likely to be raw at listening to an apologetic Robert E. Lee lament the loss of Stonewall Jackson. At the halfway mark you want to scream: "Yes, general, he's dead. But John Gordon is sitting out there in the wings. So bring him on!"

This nagging flaw aside, however, the chaos that was the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg will keep historical purists flipping the pages. Similarly riveting are Shaara's vivid depictions of Union indecision and of Confederate incompetence on the general-officer and political levels.

Shaara also has accomplished something that no writer before him has—put a human face on and a compassionate heart within one of the war's most vilified warriors, Ulysses S. Grant.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the brilliantly depicted siege of Petersburg when Grant weighs the wages of total war against his oldest son's desire to join the crusade:

"Yes, Fred would stare out past the front lines, see only the adventure, the daring, the heroics…. The thought gave Grant a cold chill…. He stared into the dark, saw the boy's face, then remembered another face at Cold Harbor, the nameless young man who had died right in front of him. No, he thought, my son will not have the chance.

"What we do here, what I must order this army to do … this will never happen again. Once this is over, this country will carry this forever, the faces, the blood, the horror. It will be the last time. It must be."

Keith Henderson (review date 18 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "How Civil War Generals Thought and Fought," in Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1998, p. B7.

[In the following review, Keith Henderson, though pointing to some possible historical and stylistic oddities in The Last Full Measure, praises Shaara's artful blending of "novelistic license with a deep reverence for history."]

Americans may never stop peering back in wonder at their Civil War. How did the young country survive that terrible conflict? What did the men who shaped the conflict think as they led tens of thousands of their countrymen toward the carnage of the world's first modern war, with rifled guns, exploding shells, and rail transport vastly...

(The entire section is 717 words.)