Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront by Harry Katz and Vincent Virga
As a coffee table book, Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront is beautiful. As a repository of some of the best Civil War artwork done by the “Special Artists” of New York’s Harper’s and Illustrated News, it is invaluable. Not only is the volume itself well put together, it is written in an insightful, respectful manner. Both are worthy of the subject itself.
Author Harry Katz served as curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art and Head Curator in the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress from 1991-2004. He has put together two dozen exhibitions at the Library of Congress, and has led the Library’s unprecedented effort to collect and consolidate graphic responses relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He has written several books prior to the publication of Civil War Sketch Book. Baseball Americana is one of my favorites, and has been referenced at emergingcivilwar.com in previous posts.
Knowing my personal interest in the Civil War, several friends (and my sister) mentioned the May 2012 issue of the National Geographic to me. The issue contains an article written by Mr. Katz called, “Bringing the Civil War to Life.” It concerns the “Special Artists” of the Civil War, and is an admirable introduction to Mr. Katz’s Civil War Sketch Book. Imagine my delight when offered the opportunity to submit questions to Mr. Katz personally. What follows is my virtual interview:
1. How did you make the leap from baseball to Civil War “Special Artists?”
As a visual historian, I am always looking for ways to explore history and art through vintage images. Baseball Americana came out of my love of the game and the knowledge that the Library of Congress holds the most comprehensive collection of historical baseball images in existence.
My interest in the Civil War goes back to high school and college. I have been looking at Civil War prints, drawings, and photographs for thirty years. I am particularly interested in original works and Civil War Sketch Book includes sketches from numerous collections nationwide, including the LoC, the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the recently revealed Joseph Becker Collection, now on loan to Boston College.
2. Why did you decide to write Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings From the Battlefront?
When I arrived at the LoC as a curator in 1991, they put me to work on the Civil War collections. I quickly realized that these were immensely important artifacts that were virtually unknown and unappreciated. We have all studied the war based on photographs, newspaper engravings, and popular prints, yet it is in the original sketches that the war is revealed most fully. It is astonishing to me that I had the opportunity to do this book, as it should have been done long ago! The Specials were celebrated in their own time, and their work is remarkable, yet most people know the war only through the photographs of Brady, Gardner, and their colleagues. That needs to change. The Specials produced important work. Their drawings need to be seen and their contributions recognized.
3. What is it about these men that you find so fascinating? What is it about their stories that you like so much?
I started with the drawings; they are incredibly evocative and faithful, produced under unbelievably difficult conditions. Many of them are as beautiful as they are terrifying, which speaks to the Special’s skills.
The Specials themselves went through amazing ordeals to get their sketches. They responded with courage and ingenuity. As a writer, I could not make up Frank Vizetelly’s defection to depict the Confederate armies or Theodore Davis’s treacherous journey South in the summer of 1861. You cannot anticipate Winslow Homer’s horror at the scenes he witnessed, Edwin Forbes’ courage or Alf Waud’s bravery. These are just some of the stories that captured my imagination.
4. The work of the “Special Artist” was a form of mass media for its day. How do you equate that to the way embedded journalists do their jobs now?
War correspondents and photojournalists are now commonplace, if no less courageous. Their images are transferred instantaneously with the push of a button. Reporters and artists went to war in America before 1861, but in an informal, disorganized manner. The Civil War spawned mass coverage in newspapers and greatly increased circulation of pictorial journals. For the first time, newspapers sent artists and reporters into the field in large numbers. People could read war news almost as it happened, while illustrations appeared within a couple of weeks. It was the dawn of our media-driven age, and the Specials were at the front lines of information.
5. Can you tell me a little bit about your process for researching and writing?
I always work from the images: the narrative grows out of the pictures. I draft an outline and build the book one image at a time to let the pictures tell the story.
The process of locating, identifying, documenting and reproducing is painstaking, and that’s even before you sit down and write. The biggest challenge is to gather as many images and as much information as you can before starting to select and eliminate.
6. Has your work with the Library of Congress specifically impacted your research/writing at all?
The LoC has been critical to my career, no question. My knowledge of the collections and relationships with the staff and former colleagues has enabled me to pursue the difficult assignments with confidence. The material wealth and level of supporting expertise is unmatched. The Library is one of the world’s great treasures, and I have been fortunate in my opportunities there.
7. How has the book been received so far?
I am really pleased with the way the book turned out, and the reviews I have read are all very positive. W. W. Norton and our designer, Laura Lindgren, produced a beautifully designed and printed book, which shows the sketches to advantage. The book has been picked up by both the History Book Club and the Military History Book Club, and I can see online that re-enactors and others interested in how the war actually looked are picking it up. I like to think the Specials would be pleased.
8. What is next?
I am writing Mark Twain’s America. Twain “lit out” from the Civil War and became a national celebrity shortly thereafter with his brilliant short stories, sketches, and novels, which transformed American humor and letters. Although the events and accomplishments that shaped his life are well-known, my approach reveals his character and career through period prints and photographs, portraying him not simply as a brilliant writer and humorist, but as an extraordinary and singular man of his times.
Both Mr. Katz and National Geographic’s Anna Kukelhaus have been very gracious in helping bring this interview to Emerging Civil War. In addition, many of the Specials discussed above and in Civil War Sketch Book have been featured in our ongoing series, “Drawing the War,” as well. When Mr. Katz says of the mid-nineteenth century, “The times are so rich,” he reaffirms the work so many historians continue to do. Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront belongs in every Civil War book collection. It probably belongs on the coffee table as well.
In addition to Mr. Katz’s words here, National Geographic has a podcast series on line, called “Behind the Words.” Oliver Payne interviews Mr. Katz. http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/behind-the-words/id522434974
Here is a link to Mr. Katz’s article in NatGeo: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/05/civil-war-sketches/katz-text