Themes and Meanings
Readers should not regard “historical fiction” as a contradiction in terms. An imaginative extension of experience, fiction must be plausible to the extent that it cannot be documented. History, limited to what can be documented, is nevertheless subjective—not fact “as it actually happened” but an inevitably selective interpretation of the past from the perspective of the present. Historical fiction attempts to present a plausible and currently relevant imaginative representation of the past consistent with the documented record.
Unlike Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Shaara chooses in The Killer Angels to present clearly the essential strategies and salient events of the battle he recounts. Early in the novel, particularly, Shaara’s exposition sometimes results in rather wooden dialogue. However, Shaara’s novel is both less and more than merely another history of a widely studied battle. Shaara has changed some nineteenth century language to avoid any impression of quaintness that might compromise the immediacy of his narrative. If style is the man, these changes in language are misrepresentations, but they help readers to imagine actually being Lee, Longstreet, Armistead, or Chamberlain. Shaara’s presentations of these individuals’ responses to the problems confronting them and his sometimes vividly impressionistic descriptions of what they perceived often succeed, much as Crane’s novel succeeded.
Even while appreciating The Killer Angel’s successful re-creation of the past, the reader should also appreciate its relationship to the era from which it stems. Just as The Red Badge of Courage’s story of a vulnerable individual trying to cope with the confusions and threats of combat reflects Crane’s perception of his own era’s powerful but faceless pressures on ordinary people, so The Killer Angels reflects concerns of the 1970’s. The civil rights struggle prompts an interpretation of the Civil War as a conflict about slavery rather than one about constitutional law; the U.S. Vietnam experience prompts an interpretation of war emphasizing chance and coincidence, the miscarriage of plans, and the unpredictable ends that often await good and capable soldiers. This understanding of war is the novel’s main message.
The price of that freedom for Shaara is Gettysburg's eternal lesson, and he framed it in the most painful and glorious terms art can offer, the ancient mode of tragedy. Before the Civil War Lawrence Chamberlain had been a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, and after Gettysburg he became the North's most decorated soldier. Shaara gave Chamberlain his last words on the meaning of Gettysburg, when the night of July 3 was finally approaching and Chamberlain looked out at "the gray floor of hell" which he knew then had seen "one of the great moments in history." His "professor's mind" acknowledges Pickett's Charge as "the most beautiful thing he had ever seen," because Chamberlain — and Shaara and his readers — see that that "unspeakable beauty" was born when human pity and terror were purged in the crucible of Gettysburg: "So this is tragedy . . . great doors open to black eternity."
Lesser themes embodied in a host of personal tragedies also crowd The Killer Angels, a title that implicitly conveys the Elizabethan concept of man's precarious position between divinity and the beasts. Nearly every one of Shaara's descriptive passages bears out Sherman's laconic summation, "War is hell," not only for the horrors of a nineteenth-century battlefield, but most of all, perhaps, for the fatal ambivalence of the concept of honor. Shaara shows that the Southern aristocracy often flung away their lives and forswore their oaths out of hubris , enduring psychological conflicts far more bitter than the ones they faced at Little Round Top or in the center of the Union line, where their former brothers in arms awaited them; the South's tragedy here lies in the flawed beauty of the act, and Shaara never...
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