David Madden

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The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war.

A MORAL AWAKENING
Since many books on the Civil War are so similar, books that provide fresh perspectives are always welcome, especially during the anniversary now under way. The freshest of the four books in hand is America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. The list of his previous books is impressive—seven major books and eight edited works on race and religion in the rural and urban South, past and present. Now he poses a crucial question for the Civil War sesquicentennial: “Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War?”

Goldfield’s unique argument, brilliantly executed in a distinctive style, is that one effect of the Second Great Awakening was to create a religious fervor that enflamed secular debate over slavery and economic forces from the 1830s to the end of Reconstruction. Contrasting concepts of good and evil across the nation led to the failure of the American experiment, and religious and political bombast lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. Out of the human carnage and destruction of the war that ended slavery evolved the great Northern industrial success and the still-lingering religion of the Lost Cause that kept the South in relative ignorance and poverty until the late 1960s.

A TURNING POINT
Readers will find another fresh take in 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. Plenty of historians have focused, with various emphases, upon the fateful year of 1861, but Goodheart wants us to know about some little-known actors in the dramatic effort to remake the country. He shows us a nation that had strayed from the vision of the Revolution into a country where democratic morality and liberty would prevail, with a cast of characters that includes an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, a regiment of New York City firemen, a close-knit band of German immigrants and a young college professor, James J. Garfield, destined to become our second assassinated president.

Goodheart's initial inspiration was the discovery in 2008 of a huge trove of family papers in the attic of a ruined plantation house in Maryland—13 generations, 300 years of American history. While his narrative will appeal to the broadest audience, scholars would do well to delve into this excellent, well-researched and convincingly argued study of those months in which forces tending toward either war or peace clashed in a final battle in which war prevailed. But ultimately, the winner was the conviction of many kinds of people that a second American revolution demanded the freeing of the slaves.

AT WAR WITH LINCOLN
Coming out of the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, it is altogether fitting that books on Lincoln, who remains the major Civil War figure, remain at the forefront of our consciousness. Although many books have collected Lincoln’s speeches and writings, Harold Holzer’s claim for Lincoln on War is that it is the first book to collect the president’s writings on the Civil War. In fact, he creates a very useful context for the Civil War pieces by including writings from Lincoln’s earlier life as well. The speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams and casual remarks are in chronological order, and Holzer, major-domo of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, comments upon and interprets each entry. The collection “embraces the soaring, practical, comic, distraught, and hectoring,” with topics including tactics, military strategy, the responsibilities of overseeing an army and even Lincoln’s interest in military technology.

In his introduction, Holzer notes that “Abraham Lincoln’s official White House portrait still dominates the State Dining Room.” And so, one hopes, his words still ring in the ears of the presidents and statesmen and women who dine there, such as this famous line: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

PICTURING THE CIVIL WAR
Not so well remembered is the statement by Robert E. Lee emblazoned on the back of The Civil War: A Visual History: “I wish that I owned every slave in the South. I would free them all to avoid this war.”

The Smithsonian has dared to add yet another lavishly illustrated picture book to the hundreds already on coffee tables and shelves—and it is one of the finest in every respect, especially the vivid page designs. Many of the best photographs, newspaper cartoons, maps, drawings and paintings are seldom seen in other books, so that for the general reader the images taken together will provide a fresh impression of every aspect of the war and Reconstruction, including the role of black soldiers, spies, politics and the home front. New photographs show galleries of uniforms, flags, pistols, artillery and other artifacts of the time, such as medical instruments. Two-page spreads provide timelines for each year, and the text that weaves in and out among the well-designed pages gives an excellent gallery of people and a summary of the war.

The first three books mentioned here may inspire readers to meditate on the war and its legacy, while the Smithsonian’s visual history may stimulate the commemoration impulse. Living in a time of civil wars that affect us all, we do well to experience our own in books such as these, especially during this major anniversary. As Shelby Foote said, the Civil War is “the crossroads of our being.”

The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war. A MORAL AWAKENINGSince many books […]
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Elizabeth Cox is among those rare Southern writers who bypass the expected and too often repeated elements of contemporary Southern fiction: stereotypical characters in bizarre situations, talking in colorful phrases, moving distractedly among the modern brand names of popular culture. Instead, Cox's fictive sensibility focuses on elements such as forgiveness, redemption and grace, giving her stories the deep and lasting appeal of those by Katherine Anne Porter.

In her short story collection, Bargains in the Real World, Cox examines the lives of 13 people struggling with tough choices. We meet Cox's characters long after real life has shattered whatever visions of the ideal they may have nurtured in childhood.

"Old Court" is the first person account of a fatherless 11-year-old girl's struggle to survive, with her mother's guidance, in the Reconstruction era. "The Last Fourth Grade" brings an unusual perspective to the problem of child abuse by focusing on the effect upon the wife, a beloved fourth grade teacher, who shoots her husband; the female narrator, a former student, visits her in prison.

One of the most haunting stories is "Land of Goshen." A childhood fever arrests the mental development of a boy whose mother comes to feel her life has been blessed. In this story, as in all her fiction, Cox sustains a plain and simple style. "The hour would be late before they stopped talking and playing games. Sara could hear the thunder grumbling in the distance, and the water dripping from the leaves gave an ending effect to the day that eased their minds." Cox brings her characters and her readers together on a level where seemingly small bargains are gains enough Cox won an O. Henry Award for "The Third of July," a story that follows a woman planning to leave her husband after 30 years, who reconsiders her decision after witnessing a fatal car crash. But all of the stories in Bargains in the Real World are winners. Elizabeth Cox's impressive career so far deserves more recognition than she has received. These 13 short stories demand and may get that attention.

David Madden has published 10 novels, including Sharpshooter, most recently, and over 30 works of nonfiction, including Revising Fiction.

 

Elizabeth Cox is among those rare Southern writers who bypass the expected and too often repeated elements of contemporary Southern fiction: stereotypical characters in bizarre situations, talking in colorful phrases, moving distractedly among the modern brand names of popular culture. Instead, Cox's fictive sensibility focuses on elements such as forgiveness, redemption and grace, giving her […]
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In Confederates in the Attic, journalist Tony Horwitz scours Civil War battlegrounds adjacent to shopping malls and sends dispatches to his fellow Americans that sound less like news bulletins than wisecracks in a musical comedy.

After nine years in foreign countries, Horwitz moved to Virginia, where he discovered an America obsessed with the war in ways that stirred up his own memories of photographs that he had studied as a child with his father. "Lying awake in the night, pondering Civil War obsession, I'd plotted a hard-core campaign of my own. Super hard-core . . . The scheme . . . was to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keep memory of the conflict alive in the present day."

Chapter by chapter, Horwitz travels to each of the Eastern and Western Southern states where great battles were waged and pictured in etchings his grandfather showed him through a magnifying glass. His power to magnify the emotional impact and significance of details has evolved from childhood into a skill enjoyable to watch. Horwitz's re-enactor friend Rob takes him on what he calls "The Civil Wargasm," a high-speed car tour of the war's greatest sites. "This is my true calling a Civil War bum,' he said, biting into the day's first plug of tobacco. "The Gasm's a Bohemian thing, like a Ken Kesey bus tour, except that we're tripping the 1860s instead of the 1960s.'"

Experiencing what Rob calls a "period rush," Horwitz, too, becomes a captive of the past. "Our Gasm wasn't yet a day old but already I resented"—at Manassas—"the intrusion of current events."

Horwitz's single-minded comrade Rob exhibits in speech and behavior his evolution into what he is: a macho male accoutered with all the gadgets of the late 1990s and speaking its lingo to express a mania for every detail of the Civil War. Roving over hallowed places at a speed Civil War soldiers never imagined, Rob consumes facts and fables of the war the way he wolfs down Big Macs.

"The Old South was plowed under," wrote Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare in 1945, after a journey similar to Horwitz's. "But the ashes are still warm." Horwitz elaborates upon that epigraph throughout the book. "Vicksburg confirmed the dispiriting pattern I'd seen elsewhere in the South . . . Everywhere, it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents, one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past."

If Horwitz wields humor as a shield against a hydra-headed monster of obsession, in the end, it doesn't save him. "While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I'd come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War race in particular remained raw and unresolved . . . But while my travels had brought me to some understanding of others' obsession, I still felt strangely unable to explain my own."

As a qualifier to an underlying purpose that couldn't be more serious, Horwitz's humor has the effect of luring and then lulling those readers who may think preoccupation with the Civil War is ridiculous. Such readers will come away from Horwitz's battleground scenes more open than before to possible ways of seeing and feeling the relevance of the war to their own lives.

 

In Confederates in the Attic, journalist Tony Horwitz scours Civil War battlegrounds adjacent to shopping malls and sends dispatches to his fellow Americans that sound less like news bulletins than wisecracks in a musical comedy.
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The saga of Hattie Shepherd, an African American who leaves Georgia in 1925 in pursuit of the American dream in Philadelphia, may sound as if it would be made of common elements. But the talent of her creator, first-time novelist Ayana Mathis, is uncommon, as the opening pages of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection—make clear.

Her preacher in Georgia declared the North to be “a New Jerusalem,” but Hattie’s long road of trouble and travail over six decades begins very soon after she arrives in Philadelphia, where her twin babies become desperately ill. “She pressed her cheeks to the tops of their heads. Oh, their velvet skin! She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body.”

Out of fear that her nine later children and her grandchildren will fail to survive in a world of hatred and poverty, Hattie becomes a hard, demanding woman. Mathis dramatically shows this shift through the perspectives of 12 different characters. The author’s electric style is both tough and compassionate, creating almost unbearably poignant moments.

Mathis moves the reader from Hattie’s perspective to the story of her grown son Floyd, a horn player, 23 years later. Then the focus shifts to Six, a preacher; then to the child Ruthie; and on to eight more of Hattie’s descendants. But Hattie is a vibrant participant in the drama of each separate narrative. In fact, the dialogue throughout is achingly real. This is a novel of distinctive and haunting voices that yearn for love. 

The Promised Land of the North fails Hattie and her family. What succeeds is the culture of a people, of a family, that has struggled to endure.

The saga of Hattie Shepherd, an African American who leaves Georgia in 1925 in pursuit of the American dream in Philadelphia, may sound as if it would be made of common elements. But the talent of her creator, first-time novelist Ayana Mathis, is uncommon, as the opening pages of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—an Oprah […]
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Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure brings a unique and monumental father-son trilogy to a triumphant conclusion.

Michael Shaara’s powerful novel, The Killer Angels, appeared in 1974, winning critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize. It did not, however, gain wide appeal until the movie version, Gettysburg, was released in 1994, six years after the author’s death. With Gods and Generals, published in 1996, Shaara’s son, Jeff, continued the story of the same generals. This sequel was an immediate bestseller, and filming is now underway.

With The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara sustains a major achievement that distinguishes this trilogy from most other Civil War novels: He gives a balanced experience of the temperament, sensibility, and character of generals on both sides of the battle lines. Shaara also proves once and for all that, though influenced by his father, he has a voice and talent all his own.

The author spoke with BookPage from his home in Missoula, Montana.

BookPage: You strike me as a natural born writer. With no training or experience, you took up the challenge of writing Gods and Generals. At what point did you realize that you had the ability to do the job?
Jeff Shaara: From the time I tried to do it all the way through the book tour after it was published, I didn’t know. I was scared until I showed to my wife the first couple of chapters of The Last Full Measure that focus on Lee, and she said, "This proves you can do it on your own." Then I knew.

BP: Reading The Last Full Measure, I sensed that in General Grant you had discovered your own special subject.
JS: I’m glad you felt that way. I loved writing about that man. I wanted to shatter the myths about him and tell his story fully and truthfully. I liked being able to bring out the differences between Lee and Grant. People are emotional about Lee, a beloved figure, an inspiring figure. But Grant is cool and aloof, so I wanted to bring him alive for the reader. Writing about him was a little like writing about Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals — exciting, discovering the man as I tried to recreate him as a real person, not just an awesome legend. Both men were hard to get close to in life.

BP: Of all the generals in the trilogy, who is most like your father?
JS: Two men, not just one. As a man, my father was most like Joshua Chamberlain. I think my father felt an affinity with him. My father was idealistic (although he became a cynic in his later years), an intellectual, a scholarly kind of man, like Chamberlain. . . . And then the other side of my father that I was quite aware of as I wrote comes out in General Hancock. Hancock is very good at what he does. After Reynolds died, he was perhaps the greatest Union general in the field. Like Hancock, my father had no patience for incompetence, stupidly, inefficiency. You know that scene [in Gods and Generals] in the newspaper office when Hancock reaches across the desk and grabs the newspaperman by the throat? I felt my father guiding me as I wrote that scene.

BP: As you wrote Gods and Generals, did your father’s style influence your own?
JS: Definitely. How else would I have known how to write? My sister Lila said to me, "This novel is being written by the ghost of our father." But then the style changed toward the end.

BP: Like your father, Grant is a great stylist, which is partly why Hemingway declared Grant’s autobiography to be one of the masterpieces of American literature. As you wrote from Grant’s point of view in The Last Full Measure, did Grant’s style influence you?
JS: My father modeled his own style on Hemingway’s, by the way. But yes, I tried to catch the simplicity and the flow of Grant’s style when writing inside Grant’s mind, and I worked to change my style to be more appropriate to Lee when writing from his point of view.

BP: As in Gods and Generals, you continue to use your father’s background and structuring devices.
JS: Yes. A conscious decision. My wife told me that she, who didn’t know all that much about the Civil War, needed the kind of background material my father provided, and, you know, most of my readers are like her. Also, I wanted all three novels to have the same basic features.

BP: But in The Last Full Measure, I see a difference in your handling of the structure. As an omiscient author, you venture into fewer minds than you and your father did in the first two novels.
JS: I agonized over that. I worried that there might be an imbalance between Union and Confederate points of view, but I really couldn’t think of a Southern general of great enough stature or interest for me or the reader. Longstreet gets wounded and is no longer of use to Lee. Stuart gets killed. I go into their minds once only to show that everybody is fading out, leaving Lee alone. It’s subtler in General Gordon’s one chapter because he can see, as Lee cannot, the futility of opposing Grant. One by one, all the great generals go — Jackson is already dead — and Lee misses each of them. So of the Confederate generals, I decided to show Lee’s mind isolated. Lee, who was the symbol of the whole war, of the whole confederacy, is out there by himself, facing Grant.

BP: This coming July will mark the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. People often ask you, I’m sure, why you think Americans are so intensely interested in an event that took place so long ago.
JS: It’s not that there is a general interest in Civil War history — the facts and figures — per se, but an interest in character, which my father helped to create and which I am trying to carry on — a demystifying effort to help the reader see that the generals are just like us. Grant and Lee didn’t start out as Grant and Lee the mythic heroes; they evolved in crisis action. It is through seeing them as like us that we truly realize how great they are.

BP: It’s always interesting to compare fictional renderings of famous people with biographies. Have you read the latest biography of Grant?
JS: No. For both novels, I didn’t want to read any of the great books by recent writers because I didn’t want to be influenced. I wanted my interpretations to be my own. I read very few books written after about 1920.

BP: I wonder whether you will someday write a novel or a memoir about your relationship with your father?
JS: Oh, yes, that’s very likely, and it’ll probably be a memoir. But in the meantime, there is this documentary movie in four parts that looks at the Union generals, the Confederate Generals, and the role of the Irish. The fourth part is a biography of Michael Shaara, and in that there is some sense of our relationship.

BP: The scenes between Mark Twain and Grant at the nnd of the novel are so appealing and moving. The two of them are like aged versions of Huck and Jim on a raft on the Mississippi River.
JS: I love this element, the contrast between the two characters. When I learned that Twain commissioned Grant to write his autobiogra1hy, I was ecstatic. Twain is such a public icon, he’s worked into Westerns, even science fiction movies, as a character. And so, yes, the parallel between Twain and Grant talking together with Huck and Jim on a raft on the Mississippi River rings true to me.

BP: The early scenes in Grant’s point of view moved me to tears, not out of sentimentality but out of appreciation for your artistic achievement. I knew then that you had demonstrated the steadfastness of your talent and that we can await, with no apprehension, your third novel. What will that one be about?
JS: It’s about the Mexican War, and I’m in the research phase. I get to write about General Scott. I love that old man.

Sharpshooter: A Novel of the Civil War is David Madden’s 11th work of fiction.

Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure brings a unique and monumental father-son trilogy to a triumphant conclusion. Michael Shaara’s powerful novel, The Killer Angels, appeared in 1974, winning critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize. It did not, however, gain wide appeal until the movie version, Gettysburg, was released in 1994, six years after the author’s […]

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