Telling History vs. Making Art: Gods & Jacksons

Part four in a series.

One of my favorite places to work at FSNMP is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, the small plantation office building where the Confederate general died. It’s a story I love so much that I wrote a book about it, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson. But no book gives the story the kind of adoring treatment that Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals gives it. Shaara’s “sentimental remembrance” puts Jackson, and Lee as well, on such pedestals that many of us jokingly refer to the novel as “Gods and Jacksons” (some imbuing the phrase with more dismissiveness than others).

“He had tried not to think of Jackson, of the death,” Shaara writes of Lee near the book’s end,

had kept his mind on the papers, but there had to be the moment, this moment, when the distractions would fade, when he must talk to God, to ask, Why? There would be no reply, of course….

Now, [Jackson’s] face came to him, the clear image, and he let it come, would not block it out, saw the lightning in the ice-blue eyes, the old cap, and he felt something inside him give way, and he leaned forward, put his face in his hands, and began to cry.[1]

In God’s and Generals (and in his subsequent books), Shaara employs a technique used by his father, Michael, in the Pulitzer-winning The Killer Angels—a novel that tells the story of the men who led the fight at Gettysburg. “It was not an attempt to document the history of the event, nor was it a biography of the characters who fought there,” the younger Shaara explained of his father’s work in the forward to Gods and Generals.[2]

“I have not consciously changed any fact,” Michael Shaara wrote in The Killer Angels’ “note to the reader”:

I have condensed some of the action, for the sake of clarity, and eliminated some minor characters, for brevity; but though I have often had to choose between conflicting viewpoints, I have not knowingly violated the action. I have changed some of the language. It was a naïve and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases. I thought it necessary to update some of the words so that the religiosity and naïveté of the time, which were genuine, would not seem too quaint to the modern ear…. The interpretation of character is my own.[3]

It’s worth noting that Shaara faces many of the same issues a Civil War historian faces when constructing a battle narrative: What actions and which troops get more or less attention? Which competing accounts are more credible? How far should an editor go in correcting the poor grammar and erratic spelling and capitalization of soldiers and eyewitnesses? How do you determine a person’s motivation?

Most, if not all, of these issues are driven by the primary source material—how much is available, when was it written, what were the agendas of the writers, and so on. The methods for attacking such questions are different for historian and novelist, but the core issues remain the same. “Both types of writers seek truth, but the historian operates within the limits of the documents, and the novelist works within what is ‘historically possible’—whether ‘psychological fact, historical fact, sociological fact,’” explains historian Howard Jones.[4]

Shaara clearly outlines the aesthetic reasons that guide his choices: clarity, brevity, relevance. He’ll tinker with action but won’t tinker with the larger plot. He will, however, interpret character. The plot—the battle—is clearly predetermined for him as a novelist by the facts, although specific details of the plot can be tweaked as necessary; character is even less determinate because characterization gets built on opinion as well as fact, and Shaara had plenty of opinions to draw on.

Alas, in the Lost Cause tradition, opinions about Lee are so universally positive that he’s become known over time as “The Marble Man.” Not every shared that opinion, though. Ulysses S. Grant, in his Personal Memoirs, described Lee as “a good man, a fair commander, who had everything in his favor…a man who needed sunshine.”[5] He believed Lee was treated like a demi-god.[6] In the Lost Cause tradition, he still is. Shaara generally sticks with that interpretation. “He is a man in control,” Shaara writes. “He is the most beloved man in either army.”[7]

Where Shaara deviates significantly from Lost Cause tradition, though, is his choice to make Longstreet a hero of the novel….

Next: Killer Angels, real and fictional

[1] Shaara, Jeff. Gods and Generals. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Pg. 485.

[2] Jeff Shaara, ix.

[3] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974. xiii.

[4] Jones, ix.

[5] Waugh, Joan. “Ulysses S. Grant, Historian.” The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pg. 20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Shaara, xvi.

3 Responses to Telling History vs. Making Art: Gods & Jacksons

  1. Mr. Mackowski, I believe this is one of the best pieces you have submitted to “Emerging Civil War”!

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