Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It Feels Like Hell

Winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor is the story of the infamous prison camp at Anderson, Georgia that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers through a staggering mix of inhumanity and incompetence.

In the novel, some of the people are real -- like John Ransom, who kept a diary of his hellish experiences at Andersonville and miraculously survived; General Winder, who had such an insane dislike of the Federal government from an early age that he took great and sadistic relish in having a hand in destroying over 10.000 of its soldiers; Captain Henry Wirz, the German-born commander of Andersonville who thinks of the Yankee prisoners as little more than performing bears and encourages more and more punishment, but who is also continually distracted by the overwhelming throbbing pain (he describes it again and again like "frogs hopping under the skin") in his battle-injured arm. Kantor clearly sees Wirz as despicable, but also seems to have some sympathy for him as the scapegoat in the end.

Most of the other characters are fictional, but Kantor did such meticulous and thorough research for twenty-five years prior to writing the book, (if you read this novel, be sure to also read the excellent bibliography) that no one can doubt that they are firmly rooted in reality. Among these characters are the "Raiders" who terrorize Andersonville in the same fashion that they did when they were the "Gangs of New York", and finally meet with the rough justice from their fellow prisoners that is their due.

Kantor is determined to reveal everything about and around this microcosm, including the hearts and minds of those most affected: The plantation owner who lives nearest to the prison camp and lost three of his sons to the war yet has deep sympathy for the prisoners; an overworked surgeon at the camp who is conscience-stricken and determined to make a full report of all the atrocities at Andersonville; a young snotty-nosed sentry guard who would just as soon spend his pay on candy and wants desperately to impress the older guards; and the young sentry's mother, who is the local prostitute, a "working mom" who provides some of the rare moments of levity in an otherwise very bleak novel.

And there are the prisoners. Among the many: Merry Kinsman, a young fifer for whom patriotism and music are inextricably bound up together; Nathan Dreyfoos, a sophisticated, intellectual young man from the Continent who is determined not to succumb either mentally or physically to the horrible conditions around him; and Willie Mann, who manages to survive Andersonville because his father, a physician ahead of his time, always stressed the correlation between sickness and contaminated water.

The main character of the book is Andersonville, itself. The book begins when a Confederate soldier is scouting the perfect location for a prison camp and ends when the last soldiers are taken out of there in mid-1865. During the course of the novel, the land swiftly and inexorably goes from a charming picnic spot in the piney Georgia woods with a clear spring and stream of cold delicious water to a grisly disease-ridden pit whose mingled stench of foul excrement and death can be smelled miles and miles away from the source.

There are many factors that make Andersonville a difficult read. First is the grim subject matter. Secondly, the book clocks in at about 750 pages. In addition, Kantor decided to forego quotation marks. (I really hated this at first, but finally decided that no quotation marks added rather than detracted from the novel, giving it the feel of a documentary.) Also, his vocabulary is authentically archaic -- while reading the novel, I broke down and borrowed CanadaBoy's dictionary permanently. (One thing did surprise me about the dialogue-- I didn't realize a certain rhyming 3-word obscene phrase featuring the word "duck" was around during the Civil War!) Also, there is a myriad of characters, and many of them are introduced then soon dead within a chapter, so it's difficult to form any kind of attachment. Finally, in several chapters, Kantor employs the stream-of-consciousness technique.

Andersonville is heavy and slow-going, as the author intended. It's not an enjoyable read that you're going to finish in an evening or two. All that aside, it's worth the trouble. It's not a novel that is for all tastes, but I highly recommend it to those who are willing to make the effort. If you read it, you'll never forget it.

Andersonville is arguably the best novel about the American Civil War. Many people reserve this honor for The Killer Angels, an excellent novel by Michael Shaara about the Battle of Gettysburg, and also a winner of the Pulitzer for Fiction (1974). Both novels are deserving of their prize, but they are very different in style and execution.

If you're working on a Pulitzer Challenge, and you're wondering how some of the recent winners managed to nab the prize, you won't ask that about Andersonville. I don't know who the other contenders were that year, but I can't imagine any of them being comparable to a work of this magnitude.

The cover pictured above is from the 1993 Plume edition, and it's some of the worst cover art I've ever seen in years. Bland and boring, it conveys nothing of the horror and greatness of this story.


jenclair said...

It is amazing how many people survived these prison camps. Sounds like a worthwhile, though depressing, account of a part of the Civil War permeated with misery. I'm impressed with Kantor's dedication to his subject.

Sam said...

At the risk of repeating myself AGAIN, this is one of my all time favorite books. I was lucky enough to walk the Andersonville cemetery one Memorial Day and that was an experience I'll never forget...all those little American flags flying.