Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Outstanding! A Profane and Unvarnished Portrait of the Horror of War

Although I rarely do reviews, this book deserves one.

To Hell or Richmond is a fictionalized version of very real battles on Grant’s drive to break Lee’s forces and destroy the mystique of one of the most admired military leaders in the annals of American military history.  The tale is peopled with historical figures who led men into battles that took a terrible toll on soldiers of both the Federals and Confederates.  From the impetuousness of the Chief General of the Army, Gen. U.S. Grant, to intellectual commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade to the fiery zealotry of Col. Emory Upton, and even to the earthy soldiers from Pennsylvania’s canal district, the portrait of men at war is stripped of glory and gentility.  Lee is portrayed in a more human than iconic manner, plagued with self doubts, infirmities, and at times confusion; Ewell as overly cautious, but competent; while Johnston, Cullen, Ramseur are resolute, but reactive; and yet J.E.B. Stuart maintains his image as the dashing southern cavalier, just the way he would have wanted it.  All are caught in the fog of war, making and recovering from strategic and tactical errors, all the while inflicting enormous casualties on one another in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  But that is the nature of war and in this realistic narrative, details of its horror are not spared.

From the griping of privates to the acrimony and strategic disagreements among the generals, this story rings true in a way that romanticized versions of Civil War campaigns fail to achieve.  To be sure, individual acts of bravery and cowardice, tactical genius and stupidity, politics, and just plain human foibles all are woven skillfully in the telling, adding to the brilliance of this tale.  Whether languishing in the commanders’ tents as they discuss grand strategies, or slogging through the mud with the men of II Corps, or behind the abatis and earthworks of the North Carolinians and Alabamans, it all just feels real... slaughter punctuated by spates of humor, malaise, boredom, and just plain exhaustion.  Through it all, one comes to appreciate that sheer industrial might and numbers will wear down even the most brilliant strategist and devoted army.  From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, to N. Anna’s Creek, to Cold Harbor, and on to Petersburg, Hell or Richmond is a book no Civil War buff will want to miss. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Learned From Papa Hemingway and John Steinbeck

From childhood I have done a lot of reading.  Early on I found that great writing can transport one to exotic places and different times.  Words, in the hands of a master, transcend the page and create images in the mind.  This is not simply excellent writing mechanics.  It is a product of life, an accumulation of experiences, and an uncommon perception of the human condition that makes writing compelling.

Ernest (Papa) Hemingway and John Steinbeck were and are two of my favorite writers.  Both are icons of American literature.  Each has a different style of writing.  Papa Hemingway wrote with an economy and clarity of words that was unique and often, but not well, copied.  Steinbeck painted scenes with a broad brush, but focused on characters with a fine point.  Both men won Pulitzer prizes for fiction. They came from different backgrounds, different places, and yet they shared something very important in common.  They lived life.  They were not mere observers.

In their books, it is the grittiness of the human condition that comes to full flower.  The loves, the disappointments, the hardships, the victories, the horror, and the beauty that touches it and leave indelible marks on the human soul.  Only by living, really living, can a writer understand that.  The writer who is immersed in life writes from experience and, provided a facility with words, conveys the substance and captures the essence of life.  Writing simply by observing life lacks substance.  That is not to say a writer is not, or should not observe life.  The fact is, a good writer is a consummate observer.  What a good writer cannot be is only an observer.

Hemingway had great powers of observation, but more importantly he lived and how he lived was, in many respects, extraordinary.  Simply reading his works, one cannot escape the feeling that Papa pursued life like a lion pursues prey; that he lived in the moment without losing sight of the future; that he loved and hated with equal passion; and he did it on his terms.  In his biography, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, A. E. Hotchner quotes Hemingway as saying, “Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”  How he lived was integrally entwined with how and what he wrote.

Steinbeck also had unique, some say a holistic, powers of observation.  He understood that life is not a series of unconnected vignettes, but a web of events and environment that cannot be separated.  Those powers of observation, however, would never have borne such ripe fruit as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and even Travels With Charlie, had he not worked as a laborer, interacted with people, and developed a deep understanding of the human condition, particularly of the Salinas Valley where he was raised.  As with Hemingway, how Steinbeck lived was integrally entwined with how and what he wrote.

What am I getting at?  Consider this a piece of advice for young writers.  Live, don’t simply exist.  Dare, don’t just watch.  Get your hands dirty.  Get your heart broken.  Do something dangerous.  Live on the edge a bit.  Put down the video games, turn off the TV, and don’t Google it.  Experience the rhythm of life... and let your writing reflect it.  Your work will be better for it.