On this day in 1975, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, which, I’m told, is a good get. Killer Angels, for those of you who haven’t read it, tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, mostly through the eyes of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and James “Pete” Longstreet and Union officers Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford. The prose is vivid, the narrative taut, and Shaara’s command of tactics and history are both impressive.

I think it’s fair to say that Killer Angels probably had more of an impact on the collective memory of the Civil War than any work of fiction published in the second half of the twentieth century.* Shaara went a long way toward rehabilitating Longstreet’s reputation, which had suffered at the hands of the Lost Cause generation. And Killer Angels made a hero of Chamberlain. A friend who used to work at the Gettysburg Battlefield insists that more visitors there wanted to hear about the 20th Maine and visit Little Round Top than anything else.** Killer Angels, I seem to recall, was also influential with Ken Burns — though I can’t find a link*** proving this right now; sorry — who certainly followed the book’s structure when he made the episode on Gettysburg for the Civil War series.**** Perhaps more significant than any of that, Killer Angels remains a favorite of among military officers, as well as, I’m told*****, instructors at the service academies.

All of which is just ducky. But here’s the odd thing from my perspective: I teach Killer Angels almost every quarter. And I have no idea why. I suppose nostalgia plays a part in my decision. The great Dick Sewell had Killer Angels on his syllabus in the first class I ever took at the University of Wisconsin on the Civil War. I loved the book. No, I lurved it. And so maybe I hearken back to that experience when I put together my own courses. Also, I use it as candy, a kind of treat for the students at the end of a quarter in which they’ve done quite a lot of reading****** (about 250 pages/week). The undergraduates who take my courses still seem to like the book, much as I did almost twenty years ago. Honestly, though, the reasons I’ve just given aren’t great; there’s not a lot of thought about so-called learning outcomes in those answers. In short, I wish I was doing more with Killer Angels. Or, I at least wish that I had some idea of what more I could do with it.

For instance, maybe I should start spending more time talking to my undergraduates about the function of narrative or the importance of authorial intent. Also, there’s plenty of odd material in Killer Angels, especially the heavy emphasis Shaara places on Bobby Lee’s ailing heart. So I suppose, in a perfect world, I should revise my Civil War class next time I teach it so that I lecture about the uses and limitations of historical fiction. But that would mean first learning something about that subject.******* Come to think of it, that sounds like a good idea.

* Can I defend this assertion? Almost certainly not. But that won’t stop me from trying.

** It is with anecdata like this that I can win any argument. Except the ones where I’m opposed. Those, I’ll admit, are somewhat tougher.

*** Again, I’ll ask you please to note the rigor with which I’ve constructed this post. You could call this material battle tested. Or not.

**** “In no small measure, the Civil War, a battle between the mechanized Yankee forces and the hardscrabble Confederate heroes, is a near-perfect metaphor for American history.” That’s a fake quote that I’d like to attribute to Mr. Shelby Foote, Professor Emeritus of Cracker Studies********. You can tell it’s Foote (though not really) by the “in no small measure” part.

***** This part is true. Seriously.

****** Except, of course, for those students who do no reading at all. Those students get coal. The best students, ironically, also get coal. Though theirs is fashioned into a handsome bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

******* Beyond, that is, the research for a paper I wrote about fiction and history for Gordon Wood during my first semester of graduate school. Which paper, I should add, almost led to my dismissal from the program. For undergraduates who are looking to beat the rush, I sell that paper, while supplies last, for only $19.95 at my secret blog. You’ll probably do better with it than I did; I say that with confidence because you could hardly do worse.

******** The phrase “Cracker Studies” is of Eric’s coinage. I have ripped him off and used it here without his permission. As is my wont.

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