“Chamberlain closed his eyes and saw it again. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. No book or music would have that beauty. He did not understand it: a mile of men flowing slowly, steadily, inevitably up the long green ground, dying all the while, coming to kill you, and the shell bursts appearing above them like instant white flowers, and the flags all tipping and fluttering, and dimly you could hear the music and the drums, and then you could hear the officers screaming, and yet even above your own fear came the sensation of unspeakable beauty. He shook his head, opened his eyes. Professor’s mind. But he thought of Aristotle: pity and terror. So this is tragedy. Yes. He nodded. In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”
This review is the last of the four Pulitzer-winning novels that I read before Joshua and I officially undertook this project. I read Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Killer Angels, maybe ten years ago during a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield for the 140th anniversary of the famous battle that changed the course of the Civil War.
That literary experience, I can tell you, is among the most memorable of my life; reading this incredible novel is one thing, but reading it while hiking the grounds, seeing where Joshua Chamberlain staged the fish-hook offense, where General Pickett led his suicide charge over a mile of open field, where General Sickles camped out in the peach orchard allowing almost his entire platoon to get slaughtered, being able to picture the two armies fighting it out in the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top…
That’s an entirely different experience all together.
In The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara transforms the three day battle from a scholarly text to a deeply personal, moving, engaging, and intense piece of literature by shifting his focus from the macro to the micro; rather than viewing the battle as an omniscient narrator in 1975, he puts himself in the mind of several characters on both sides of the battle. The decision to do that gives the book a feeling of urgency, it puts the reader on the battlefield with the troops, and it turns the people involved from black and white photos in a textbook to very colorful characters; it turns them from historical figures who are permanently fixed in the past because of a major historical event to ordinary, flawed people like you or me who find themselves in an extraordinary situation.
And, honestly, that’s what makes this novel work so well. Shaara could have written it as a piece of historical non-fiction, he could have made it a piece of biography, but it wouldn’t have been as engaging. And what I think is most interesting about the style that Shaara chose to wrote this novel in is that, because of how revolutionary it was in the 1970’s, he had a really hard time finding a publisher. Nowadays, this style is practiced so often that we take it for granted; but in 1975, Shaara was on the cutting edge of historical fiction.
As far as Civil War novelizations go, The Killer Angels is among the very best. Among Civil War novelizations that have won Pulitzer Prizes?—definitely the best. While this book won’t tell you anything factual that you can’t learn from watching a documentary or reading a textbook, it will certainly help you imagine the horror of the battle on a much more personal level.