The father of writer Michael Shaara (SHAR-uh) was five years old when in 1904 he was brought to the United States from Italy by his parents, Giuseppe and Anna Russo Sciarra, whose Old World family name was altered by an Ellis Island immigration clerk. He was twenty-nine and married to Alleen Maxwell of Texas when his son Michael Joseph Shaara, Jr., was born in Jersey City on June 23, 1928.
Educated at Rutgers University, Michael, Jr., early became obsessed with writing, and he began turning out magazine stories even before his graduation in 1951 and more feverishly during his postgraduate studies at Columbia University (1952-1953) and at the University of Vermont (1953-1954). He had served as a merchant seaman and also as a paratrooper (in the Eighty-second Airborne Division, 1946-1949). While a student at Rutgers, he married Helen Krumwiede, the daughter of Howard and Elizabeth Krumwiede of Highland Park, New Jersey. At the close of his graduate studies he took his family (which now included his son, Jeffrey, who had been born February 21, 1952, in New Brunswick) to Florida. There he served as an officer in the St. Petersburg Police Department (1954-1955). Shortly after his second child, a daughter named Lila Elise, was born in 1958, he accepted a position teaching English at Florida State University, where he was to serve for the years 1961-1973.
Through all of this hectic time he continued to produce science fiction for the pulps and eventually prizewinning imaginative short stories for such prestigious magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and McCall’s. Over the thirty years from 1952 to 1982, he sold some seventy tales under titles such as “Beast in the House,” “Grenville’s Planet,” “Man of Distinction,” and “The Vanisher.” These stories are much reprinted in science-fiction and short-story anthologies; sixteen appear, with Shaara’s introduction and afterword, in his 1982 collection Soldier Boy.
Shaara’s first novel, The Broken Place, is a moving tale of Tom McClain, a Korean War veteran at loose ends on his return to the United States. It was published in 1968 and, though noted favorably by critics, was scarcely read. Even The Killer Angels, today perhaps the most popular and highly regarded of all battlefield novels set during the Civil War, was rejected by the first fifteen publishers to whom Shaara dispatched it. An absorbing psychological study of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the central military figures of the four days at Gettysburg, it was seven years in composition. It was finally published in 1974 by the David McKay Company and issued in paperback by Ballantine Books in 1975, when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and began to attract a steady and enthusiastic readership. It contributed greatly to Ken Burns’s 1990 television documentary of the Civil War and was also the basis for Ronald Maxwell’s motion picture Gettysburg (1993), one of the most powerfully moving of all war films. Today the novel remains in print, a best-seller at all Civil War battlefields and at bookstores everywhere.
An active, adventurous man (who even tried his hand at boxing), Shaara lived three years in South Africa and two in Italy. In 1965 he suffered a serious heart attack, and it has been suggested that the nearly fatal motorcycle crash he later experienced in Florence, Italy, in April of 1972, may have been caused by a related stroke. In any case the accident left him brain-damaged and in such poor health that he was able to write little. He did complete a third novel, a science-fiction nail-biter titled first The Herald
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The Herald and later The Noah Conspiracy, which appeared in 1981. Although his failing health had led him into discouragement and bitterness, he was able to ready for publication one additional beautiful book. He died of cardiac arrest on May 5, 1988, at his home in Tallahassee, Florida.
He did not live to see the publication of his last novel, For Love of the Game, a touching story of a baseball pitcher in the twilight of his career (discovered among his papers by son, Jeff), nor would he see the popular 1999 motion-picture version starring Kevin Costner as Billy Chapel. He did not live to see his Union and Confederate heroes take to the stage in the motion picture Gettysburg. He did not live to read the books produced by his son, Jeff, which would have made him proud: Gods and Generals (1996), a prequel to The Killer Angels; The Last Full Measure (1998), a sequel to The Killer Angels; Gone for Soldiers (2000), a novel of the Mexican War; and Rise to Rebellion (2001), with its Revolutionary War sequel, The Glorious Cause (2002). The Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction is presented annually by the United States Civil War Center at Louisiana State University. Madison Jones, author of Nashville 1864, was the first writer to be so honored, in 1997.