Michael Shaara Thomas Leak - Essay

Thomas Leak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.