Every so often as we read, we writers run into a sentence that is so spot-on perfect that we say, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” Such writer-envy is not uncommon, and at its heart, it springs from a deep appreciation for fine craft.
I recently came across just such as sentence as I was reading MacKinley Kantor’s novel Andersonville.
Published in 1955, Andersonville tries to capture the uncapturable: life inside the infamous Confederate prison known as Fort Sumter. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year.
One of Kantor’s strengths as a writer is his characterization—not just the way he describes them but the way he makes them sympathetic through their personal stories. As I read one such character sketch, I came across one of those writer-envy sentences.
At the beginning of Chapter XXXI, Kantor introduces an Irish priest who has been ministering to the imprisoned men. Kantor has mentioned Whelan once before in the novel, but because Andersonville is largely a series of episodic character sketches, Whelan finally gets his due to step into center stage for a bit. A man who “wet into death when he slept” because he worked so ceaselessly. “He must hasten,” Kantor writes, “he must treat far and pray long, he must not let the flames sear the young pale souls which had been caged within rotting ribs and horny skin, but which would soon be freed.” He is so rushed, he employs the short form for all his prayers and rites. “It is a sadness but— Give it, give it— Quickly— ”
It is within this context that I stumbled across what was, for me, a pitch-perfect sentence that made me go, “Damn, I wish I’d written that”:
Father Peter Whelan was a very old man, aging a year each day he served in Andersonville.
Can you even imagine the weight on this man? And Kantor captured it in one single, brilliant sentence.
Damn, I wish I’d written that sentence.
Aside from his extended scene in Chapter XXXI, Whelan plays a central role a short time later in Chapter XXXIII when the “Raiders” are executed for their crimes against their fellow prisoners. Predatory gangs of toughs that ruled through violence, the Raiders were led by six notoriously brutal “bosses.” The one Kantor writes about most, Willie Collins, is such a vile human being that I felt the same burning for justice and blood that the wretched men in the stockade felt. Confederate authorities let the prisoners finally try and sentence—and execute—the ringleaders. Whelan tried desperately to minister to them on their way to the gallows.
The scene as Kantor writes it strongly evokes a Palm Sunday reading of the Passion, with a chanting crowd, prayers of intercession, and a Pontius Pilate-like Henry Wirz, commandant of the prison, trying to absolve himself of any guilt. “To you I now return these men, good as I got them,” he decrees. “You say you try them yourself, you find them guilty. Nothing do I have to do with this—it is you, you prisoners” (353). The entire episode, which comes about halfway through the novel, is wonderfully crafted.
Most of the chapters read like self-contained episodes unto themselves, interspersed with chapters about several recurring characters, real and fictional. Kantor’s version of Wirz, for instance, has a sympathetic side to him as a man in way over his head, nagged by an unhealed war injury, still trying to do the best he can; at other times, he’s a comically cross-tempered as a spastic Donald Duck who can only swear and sputter ill-humoredly. (Wirz’s boss, on the other hand, Confederate Gen. John H. Winder, is truly a despicable human being made of bile and spite.)
Or take a skulky Union prisoner named “Chickamauga”:
His protruding eyes, green as peas, would glow devilishly. . . . [H]e has the sort of deformed lip which made it impossible for him to enunciate with complete clarity. . . . Chickamauga talked to anyone, everyone, jabbering on in every waking moment. . . . It was difficult to believe that he had come to exist through the natural process of conception and birth and growth; it was as if he were a changeling from a Grimm tale, delivered by a troop of elves, and wicked elves at that. It was impossible to believe that anyone had ever loved him, and yet somewhere sometimes someone must have kissed his horrid face and held him tenderly. (221-2)
Beyond his compelling characterization, Kantor’s writing often shines when he offers description, although it always seems to catch me off guard. That might sound contradictory, but it demonstrates Kantor’s ability to surprise and delight the reader—no small thing with a topic as grim as Andersonville. Take these two lines that have both just hung with me days after I first read them:
“Low in the west a bent flake of moon was receding and would soon be gone.” (393)
“He had a mane of hair black as a crow’s back at midnight in the dark of the moon.” (455)
A flake of moon. A crow’s back at midnight in the dark of the moon. Damn, I wish I’d written those things. What a pleasure to read the work of a writer who can show me the world in such ways.
I’m only about two-thirds of the way through the novel, so I’m not intending to offer a full review. Instead, I’m just reveling in good writing—and I want to urge you to revel in it, too. Andersonville is one of those novels we’ve all heard of, and many of us have probably seen the old Ted Turner production from TNT, but I wonder how many Civil War buffs have actually read it. I assure you, it is a novel worth revisiting: even after sixty years, it still holds up wonderfully well. As ugly as Andersonville was, Andersonville offers much that’s amazing.
 I have two editions of the novel: the one pictured and the one I’m reading, a tenth-printing paperback from 1964 published by Signet Books. The edition I’m citing is the 60th anniversary edition issued in 2016 by Plume.
 Father Whelan’s quotes come from, respectively, pp. 328, 330, 331, 328. I didn’t want to insert them into the text because I thought they’d disrupt the flow too much.