Deep in his novel Andersonville, Mackinlay Kantor asserts that, "few people will assemble to watch a man living, most will congregate to watch him die." (p. 361) While this idea is offered as a capsule of life inside a Confederate war prison it stands also to show us why the book was so immensely popular. Despite mixed reviews (some very harsh), questionable literary value and historical accuracy, little plot continuity, and considerable length, Andersonville managed to become a bestseller and win the Pulitzer Prize. It is the vividly (and shockingly) related dying of men, juxtaposed with the stories of those living, and the place of the Civil War in popular culture that earned Andersonville its place on top of the bestseller lists, and a lofty chair in the halls of historical fiction.
Prior to its actual publication in October 1955, an advance demand for Andersonville had been created by Kantor's publisher, World Publishing Company, through advertisements in publishing trade journals and the distribution of a large number of "reading copies" by World. Upon its actual publication, Kantor's novel gained generally positive reviews in widely read sources like the New York Times. These widely read analyses of the novel seemed to have far greater effect on the book's reception than the criticism found in more academic reviews.
The most sprawling review is that appearing on the first page of the New York Times Book Review three days after the novel's first publication. This review, along with a similar New York Times review three days earlier, emphasizes many times the role of death in the novel. The earlier Times review goes to the extent to state that the novel "reeks, rather frequently, and usually with the stuff of life in the midst of death" (Poore, p. 31). Upon reading the novel this is immediately apparent; in one particularly disturbing scene, a crippled, dying prisoner searches for sustenance in the excrement of another prisoner. The death and sickness inherent in the novel, and well documented in the review, manifests themselves in the fact that few characters survive for more than several chapters, dying from causes as varied as scurvy, hanging by fellow prisoners, musket fire, and collapsed tunnels.
Of course, a certain preoccupation with death comes along with the subject matter of the novel, but these early reviews seem to applaud Kantor's treatment and expansion of such grisly details. The Book Review article goes to extra length to illustrate the numbers that died at the prison, expressing the magnitude by the sum of the dead of several other battles. Accompanying this review is an article by Kantor himself, where he explains his duty to the dead of the camp in writing the story. Kantor's article is embellished by descriptions of the thousands of graves on a bleak day, and his communing with the spirits of the Andersonville dead at night. Likewise the Book Review describes the elements of the story in terms that go over and above those necessary for a simple book review ("This is the story of how Andersonville drank the blood of its victims" (Commager, p.1)). While the prison was indeed horrible and merited such description, such dramatization in a book review doubtlessly provided quite a boost in interest for the treated novel.
Another element praised at length in the Times reviews was Kantor's relation of many different characters, some rather in depth, in a short period of time allotted for each character. As aforementioned, few soldiers survive more than several chapters, and yet Kantor manages to skillfully describe the elements that each character brings into the prison camp. Kantor usually does so by a relating a life episode such as how a Union soldier entered the army, or how he met his sweetheart back home. In this same fashion, the Times reviews present a small sample of the characters, making sure to remind readers that it's "barely a start for Mr. Kantor" (Poore, p. 31).
In the longer-lived characters, the Kantor offers up an antithesis to the "infinitely disparate individuals" (Poore, p.31) wrapped in death shrouds inside the prison. Understandably the characters that live longest rarely, if ever even enter the prison, and are generally enemies of the Union (whether by birth, fortune, or choice). Kantor usually endows them with a compassion for the enemy prisoners. Explained rather in depth in the Book Review article is the nursing to health of an escapee by the crippled ex-confederate soldier Coral Tebbs. Of course, the reviewers stress this evidence of humanity through conflict, and understandably so. Kantor speaks to the positives of human nature through these characters, drawing readers in by asking them to invest more emotionally than just disgust.
Not all reviewers would admire Kantor's "imagination" (Commager, p. 1) in creating the characters of the book. In his review of Pulitzer Prize winning novels, J.W. Stuckey finds the characters unconvincing, and Kantor's style heavy handed. Stuckey deplores the book as being excessively long and without plot and theme. He finds the combination of these flaws with the "emphasis on blood, pus, rotting corpses, vomit, diarrhea, and gangrene" to result in a good deal of shock value. While Stuckey maintains that Kantor does not convey the horror especially well, he does acknowledge that the terrible details are an effective tool drawing readers in. This same presence, this shock, is the same which the popular New York Times reviewers described ("The stuff of life in the midst of death" (Poore, p. 31)). It was this shock value, highlighted for readers in popular and literary analysis that brought interest into the walls of Andersonville.
In a similar way, reviews with an academically historical slant found problems with Kantor's characters. Similar to Stuckey, William B. Hesseltine found the characters "conventional sand stylized" (p.98). Upon examination, Kantor makes sure to include several characters that are atypical of Civil War fiction: the noble planter (Ira Claffey), the slaves that are satisfied with servitude (the Claffey servants), the heartsick young woman (Lucy), and tortured commanders (Winder and Wirz), among others. Hesseltine's major problem with the book, historically, also sheds light on one reason why the book was so popular. Hesseltine asserts that in doing research for characters of the novel, Kantor not only resorted to stereotypes, but he also bought into the propagandized accounts of the Andersonville debacle, and painted a skewed picture of what life was really like.
Hesseltine sets up his argument by explaining that following the war, when Captain Henry Wirz was put on trial for war crimes committed at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, numerous accounts were written of life in the prison. In the two years immediately following, twenty-eight books and articles were published related to Confederate prisons, either to gain sympathy from legislators (and thus pensions) or just express ideas about the horrors of war at the time. Many of these accounts were largely falsified, aided by evidence form the trial of Wirz. As the accounts seemed to mirror each other, they contributed to the Nation's collective memory of the conflict and "passed securely into American legend" (Hesseltine, p. 97). What Hesseltine fails to conjecture is that, by inadvertently furthering common perceptions (correct or not) Kantor perpetuated the very legend of the Civil War itself. This legend is what helped make both the accounts of the prison and Andersonville so immensely popular.
It is entirely understandable that the Civil War occupies such a prominent place in our national consciousness. Not only was it the most costly in terms of humanity in this nation, it is our standard by which to measure bloodshed. In The Civil War in Popular Culture, his study of the Civil War's place in American popular consciousness, Jim Cullen states that "as 'the crossroads of our being' [the Civil War] has become a key battleground in struggles to envision the possibilities and limits of U.S. society" (p.13). The war, and its participants and bystanders, have been romanticized, chastised, idealized, and commercialized. In the process, the entire phenomenon has passed into the popular legend alluded to by Hesseltine.
Following the end of the war, literature sought to push forward ideas that were not quite resolved after armed conflict was finished, in the South especially. After a few decades however, an almost literary reconciliation occurred in that writers in the North and South strove to move past partisanship that predated the war. Differences were still stressed however, but more so in stereotypes that would further creation of the popular memory of Civil War days.
In this tradition, Andersonville portrays Yankee and Rebel characters, in both positive and negative light. Native Georgians like the planter Ira Claffey are kind and compassionate, as are prisoners like Nathan Dreyfoos, world traveler who rid the stockyard of raiders. On the other hand, prisoner Willie Collins is a thug and criminal, while Commander Henry Wirz unfairly takes out his emotional and physical pain on soldiers. The equal treatment of characters and romanticization of their lives, however simply conveyed, lend Andersonville a place in the popular conception of the Civil War.
The fact that these characters fit a popular ideal of the war so well seems to negate any questions of historical and literary accuracy. In public opinion, because these characters are the characters that would have worn blue and gray, they are rendered believable and made much more popular. As in Gone With the Wind, another Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War novel, what is offered in Andersonville is a "distillation of a very specific?experience and memory of the Civil War" (Cullen, p. 4). By nature, any such memory is rendered instantly and widely popular. The fact that many characters fit stereotypical "Civil War" roles seems to boost Andersonville's popularity, by fitting it comfortably into public perception of the war.
Beyond stock characters, Kantor does do a good job of covering other aspects of military life during the Civil War. The novel contains an extensive bibliography at the end, documenting Kantor's extensive research. In addition to attempting to portray real and imagined participants Kantor includes many true details about the history of the prison. He effectively portrays the existence of the Confederate force towards the close of the war and their armament and uniform (or lack thereof). Details about diet (salt pork and corn meal), battles elsewhere (Sherman's march to the sea), and technology (railroad transport), among other things, enhance Kantor's telling in terms of fitting into the popular idea of the Civil War.
To this day, the Civil War is highly profitable and marketable. Cities like Gettysburg and states like Virginia have built entire industries on drawing Civil War tourists. In 1990, Ken Burns' Civil War mini-series debuted to 14 million viewers, and the books spent six months on the New York Times Best Seller list. Thousands of people pursue reenactments as a hobby, despite huge costs. What these, films, books, and activities offer, as Andersonville did, is "history as a form of communion" (p. 5), both for the producers and the participants. Readers of Andersonville, Mackinlay Kantor as a writer, and visitors to the National memorial in Andersonville, all gain at least some relation with the nation's past and contact a legend of our national identity.
It seems that Andersonville was a can't lose in terms of how many copies it was destined to sell, and its place in historical fiction. True, there is no plot and little unity of any one story throughout the book. Characters fit stereotypes one would expect to find in a civil war novel, and some historically important figures might have been taken liberty with. However, it is just hose historical liberties and stereotypes that insure reader interest merely through the drawing power of the Civil War legend. On top of this, Kantor adds the shock value of a terrible tragedy in our Nation's history. The dying of men, and the story of those living among the dying, drew many into the pages of Andersonville.
Commager, Henry Steele. "The Last Full Measure of Devotion: A Novel of an Infamous Prison in the Civil War" The New York Times Book Review. Oct. 30, 1955. VII, p.1.
Cullen, Jim. The Civil War in Popular Culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington: 1995.
Hesseltine, William B. "Andersonville Revisited." The Georgia Review., 1956, p 92-100.
Kantor, Mackinlay. "The Last Full Measure of Devotion: The Author Tells How He Relived the Tragedy" The New York Times Book Review. Oct. 30, 1955. VII, p. 1.
Kantor, Mackinlay, Andersonville. Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York : 1955.
Poore, Charles. "Andersonville (Review)." The New York Times. Oct. 27, 1955, p. 31:4.
Stuckey, W. J. The Pulitzer Prize Novels : A Critical Backward Look. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 1981.