Michael Shaara Essay - Critical Essays

Shaara, Michael


Shaara, Michael 1928–

Shaara is an American novelist and short story writer. His best known work is The Killer Angels, a historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, for which he won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Richard Rhodes

The author spars like Hemingway through much of this first novel ["The Broken Place"] about a soldier-prizefighter who kills a man in the ring. It's probably inevitable. Writers are mostly violent people who act gentle. When a writer is a gentle person who acts violent, as Michael Shaara seems to be, Hemingway is one of the few guides available….

McClain [Mr. Shaara's protagonist] is strong and silent, lives in a cabin on a mountainside, hunts in the early morning. It's still good coinage, whatever the original mint.

Yet the best of "The Broken Place" suffers from no such deprivation. When Mr. Shaara writes at ringside he writes as well as anyone around. He makes McClain an outstanding fighter, intelligent and deadly; he shows us how that kind of fighter fights, then shows us why….

McClain's is a rare sickness, and more rarely still does someone write it truly. Mr. Shaara generates fits of murderous rage at least as well as Hubert Selby Jr., and somewhat better than Truman Capote. Having done so, he seems ready to explain McClain's violence away. But answers proliferate in his search for them, and we get so many that none is conclusive….

Mr. Shaara piles up these reasons for his killer drive because he knows it's that complex. He's right. We are all that resilient; we require that much provocation before we are capable of killing….

For all its early sparring, "The Broken Place" doesn't pull its final punches. Michael Shaara, one novel in, comes on at least as a middleweight.

Richard Rhodes, "Boxer Gone Beserk," in The New York Times, Section VII (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 7, 1968, p. 36.


"The Killer Angels" is not without flaws. It begins with a "You Are There" portentousness and sometimes lingers too long on personality for its own sake, but Shaara's organization is clear and his prose flexible. Civil War buffs will probably argue with his concentration on Longstreet and dismissal of Meade. Others will condescend to "another historical novel."… [I believe] that even the best historical novel does not keep the reader within its bounds but sends him elsewhere—to history or another kind of fiction.

Thomas LeClair, "Fiction: 'The Killer Angels'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974, p. 40.

Edward Weeks

The best way to write about a battle is to tell it as the men who went through it saw it and felt it—and that is what Michael Shaara has done in this stirring, brilliantly interpretive novel, The Killer Angels. It is written from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and their lieutenants, disclosing only as much as they knew at the time, and using the words of the men themselves, drawn from their letters and documents. The author keeps the field glasses on his particular heroes, in the Gray and in the Blue, and by their acts he judges them, admiringly or with compassion for their mistakes. (p. 98)

Edward Weeks, "The Peripatetic Reviewer: 'The Killer Angels'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 235, No. 4, April, 1975, pp. 98-9.

Thomas Leak

It is easy to see why Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels," which has just received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was so honored. It is a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, a subject of almost hypnotic fascination to laymen and military historians alike, and Mr. Shaara's narrative conveys the drama, the courage and the heartbreak of those days….

Mr. Shaara, author of a number of short stories and a previous novel, "The Broken Place," writes that his aim was to tell "what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what men's faces looked like." For this purpose he stayed within the historical record, but blended two fictional approaches: a careful expository description of strategy and tactics, aided by a series of eloquent maps, and a graphic evocation of the clashes themselves, wherein it is shown how the small happenings, the human elements and chance occurrences confound the plans of the greatest chiefs. The blurred, obscure, smoke-covered meetings continually mock the higher strategies….

The novel is a portmanteau form, capacious enough to accept any hybrid that goes by its name. Yet it is not quite clear from this book why a straightforward narrative would not have served Mr. Shaara as well as the fictional form he chose. He writes that he has altered the language: "It was a naive and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases." Impossible as these phrases might be in a novel, how much closer they would bring the reader to the temper and atmosphere of their day in an authentic history.

The fact is that his fictional touches do not add much to the dimensions of the men we know. Their character is underlined rather than deepened. The author's prose is low-keyed, devoid of effect. His humor is pawky; his invention of incident limited. Gettysburg is such a dramatic story that no one who comes near covering it within the compass of a book can fail. And Mr. Shaara doesn't. His story sweeps on and takes the reader with him.

Thomas Leak, "High Tide of the Confederacy," in The New York Times (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 10, 1975, p. 27.