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.