MacKinley Kantor – “Andersonville”

I am just now sitting down to write this review of MacKinley Kantor’s Andersonville after some time away from it. As a part of our original rules, it was a rule that you couldn’t start to read another book until you had written the review of the book you just finished. I don’t know who came up with this rule, but I felt that it protected the integrity of the review so that it was an immediate reaction to the work you had just finished. I was not able to do that this time because my laptop’s power button broke and I no longer had access to a convenient word processing machine through the Christmas season until today, Christmas morning. I don’t want to go into a long treatise on the fragile nature of our existence, but truly I want to say it was a humbling experience to not have my trusty laptop on which so much my life depends whether it be my academic career, my writing career, or this stupid little project Drew and I started which has felt like an incumberance and an albatross hanging around my neck for so long.

Now, it appears I have rounded a corner and am fit to finish this project before the new school year starts and finishing Richter’s The Town, or Flavin’s Journey in the Dark, and just not Kantor’s Andersonville has put me in proper footing to make this push perhaps. In the in-between time between finishing reading Andersonville and getting started on writing this reflection, I picked back up with Faulkner’s A Fable which I truly despise reading and I will lambast it entirely in my next post which should be within the week as I have less than 100 pages to read of that book to.

The reason I reflect on the finishing of that book here in Kantor’s post is because they are similar works of different scopes perhaps and will occupy different considerations, if they will be considered at all, in the literary tradition. Kantor’s book is a straightforward work of its time. Kantor’s prose reminded me of another Pulitzer writer of his era, John Hersey or even James Mitchener. I don’t know if those are appropriate comparisons, as Kantor fancied himself a more significant writer, but they are who come to mind as I read this work. The reading is pleasantly paced and very accessible. Faulkner’s work is overwrought and densely unreadable to the point where I was not certain through the first half of the book exactly what is going on. Their inverses are what is very interesting to me and this only comes about because I read them at the same time. Faulkner’s subject matter is so much less horrific than Kantor’s, but Kantor tells his story in an earnest and deeply approachable way. It is odd that these two books are companions on this list. That is what I was thinking of when I finished Kantor is the space these books take up on my bookshelf and perhaps so many other bookshelves that have dared to take up this project of collecting these books.

Kantor sits just to the right of Faulkner here in the award winners of the 1950’s. Two completely unrelated texts and two completely unrelated authors. Kantor is from the Midwest, but chose as his subject a Southern land owner and his community as it wrestles with the repercussions of a prison camp during the Civil War. Next door to it, a truly Southern writer and his reflections on somewhat odd and obscure happenings of World War 1 told in a truly difficult way. I am uncertain of how I feel about Kantor including Ira Claffey’s perspective on the end of slavery and his defense of the institution. It seems odd, by 21st century tastes, to include it.

It is not as egregious as Margaret Mitchell’s penultimate chapter in Gone with the Wind which is a straight up defense of the institution of slavery which is deeply disturbing. Kantor’s is less so, and somewhat begrudgingly necessary in the moment of the novel and as a summation of this way of life, but the entire story is couched in this perspective and Claffey is portrayed in this heroic if somewhat behind the times way that I found an odd choice for this book. What is so odd about this book, and its inclusion in this list is that is a deeply sympathetic retelling of an awful moment in history and the party the book is sympathetic to is the perpetrators of the crime. It is not the same as Mailer’s Executioner’s Song where Mailer describes the murders and the murderer in full detail and has to get into the head space of the murder himself and could be see as sympathetic to him. Kantor chooses to tell the story of this Southern prison camp that treated its Union prisoners as non-human from many vantage points, one of which is a sympathetic Southern landowner and slave owner who loses three sons, his wife goes insane, and his daughter is left to defend her own honor and here again we are wrapped up in the drama of a Southern white woman whose honor we have to care about just as much as thousands of Union soldiers wasting away and dying of scurvy in the middle of Georgia.

It is an odd book to investigate, and perhaps later I will as an academic. I don’t know what writing is currently out there on this subject. Finishing Andersonville is a major accomplishment in the course of this project. It was the last major hurdle in my mind and I am glad I cleared it. I did want to mention, as I have throughout this project the different ways technology has played in my progress, that the app and website Goodreads has been instrumental in my chronicling my progress. I saw in my updating my progress in Andersonville that I originally started this book in 2014 which was depressing to me as I finished it. It was nice to see a timestamp on this book, and to be able to reflect on my progress, but I was saddened to see it took me 3 years to finish it. My Nook edition has 962 pages which is a weird way to conceive of an electronic document in ‘pages’ but that is a vestige of an older time back when we recorded documents on wood with ink.

I finished reading Andersonville in the physical book instead of the electronic format and I was glad to close the last page and put it back on the shelf where it will sit forever unopened after this completed task. It was the last of the big books of the Pulitzer Project, beside Gone with the Wind, Executioner’s Song, and Lonesome Dove, only one of which was truly worth reading and should continue to be read.

At one point, Drew and I had contests to see who would finish these big books first, I do not remember where left off on this challenge. I am certain Drew beat me at everyone of these challenges but one perhaps. I also remember that there was a significant contest to see who would finish the entire project first. Drew beat me by a mile and a half in that contest as well. I think the stakes for that were whose name would appear first on the cover of the book we will eventually write about this project. Let’s not forget though that I have approached two different graduate degrees in the meantime. Drew beat me handily in this contest, but I have persevered more out of a debt to my friend that I should finish. I have wanted to quit this stupid project so many times it is truly saddening to reflect on now. We decided to do something in our youth that seems so stupid now that I question the sunk cost fallacy of the whole thing, but then I would remember that my idiot friend finished these books and I have not and pure shame perhaps kept me from throwing all these books away. Then I would tell someone about why I was reading some specific book and they would be mystified and perhaps slightly curious why I had done so. The end result though will be that we finished something, and mostly together and that knitting together of our – what is now disparate – lives is what seems the most significant to me now. I am sure if we did not have this project together our lives at this point would most assuredly drifted apart by now. We might call each other still – complain about the politics together but we both have people in our lives that are closer and more convenient to complain to I assume. But we have the Pulitzer project that keeps our friendship together, and it is here at the end of December of the 7th year of this project, and I am typing this review simply to keep a friendship alive and finish what we had set out to do.

The review of A Fable is next, and perhaps less sentimental. Andersonville was good, not great, and perhaps will be lost to history of any sort except the very diehard, fool-hearted souls that dare to take on this stupid project after us.

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