“Kill your darlings,” Hemingway said. He was talking about revision. Sometimes a writer needs to delete something that doesn’t belong or no longer works, or maybe sometimes he has to rewrite it—and that can all be tough to do because, after all, the writer has put so much time into each story, into each sentence, into each word. It’s tough to chop up something you’ve put so much effort into.
But writing isn’t sentimental business—not good writing, anyway. If a piece of writing doesn’t work, no matter how hard you worked on it or how much you love it, it has to go.
For that reason, as Kris and I finished up the revised draft of our latest book, Phil Kearny had to go.
Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front focuses on the battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church. By that point in the war—May 3-4, 1863—the hard-fighting Union general had been dead and buried almost eight months to the day (he was killed Sept. 1 at Chantilly and later buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where a fine equestrian statue now stands over his grave).
As part of the narrative, we were writing about the New Jersey Brigade’s initial deployment on May 3 for the Battle of Salem Church. The brigade had once been Kearny’s, and Kris decided to insert a nod to the tough-as-nails commander. I couldn’t blame him: Kearny’s story is a great one. His loss was a keen blow to the Union. In a narrative that tries to draw attention to things forgotten, a quick remembrance of Kearny didn’t sound like a bad idea at all.
Unfortunately, quick as it was, the story felt too tangental for that spot in the story. The battle was ramping up, troops were changing formation from line of march into line battle, banners were waving, flags were flying. Soldiers gritted their teeth and waited for impact. In the midst of that rising action, the reference to Kearny felt out of place.
He had to go. The rhythm of the piece demanded it. Reluctantly, Kris let me cut the passage. Somewhere in the future, Papa Hemingway nodded his approval (and then, perhaps, slammed down a shot of whiskey to salute a kindred spirit–as surely he and Kearny would have been and as surely as he and Kris would have been, too).
The nice thing about having a blog, though, is that such “darlings” can find new life. While Phil Kearny got chopped from the manuscript, I thought I’d bring him ’round here and introduce you:
On the north side of the road, swinging from column into line, was Col. Henry Brown’s fine New Jersey Brigade. The brigade had once been commanded by Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny, a one-armed, no-nonsense general from a well-to-do New York family who had experience in both the United States and French armies. Though influential, Kearny was unable to obtain a command in his home state due to a controversial divorce. Instead, Kearny skipped over the border to the Garden state and found a commission there, assuming command of the New Jersey Brigade.
The men lacked discipline, apparently. When the general entered their camp for the first time, he was dressed as a civilian, wearing a cap and carrying a cane. When he came upon the guardhouse, he found the men drinking whiskey. The general promptly smashed the bottle with his cane, and in the following weeks, whipped the New Jersey men into excellent fighting shape.
I liked Kris’s writing here, and I liked Kearny’s story. I didn’t want either to be forgotten.
Mr. Hemingway, the next shot is on us.