MacKinlay Kantor

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Kantor, MacKinlay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2,481 words.)