The Small Town in the Machine Age: Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”

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Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson

For those generally familiar with American literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, the name Sherwood Anderson likely brings to mind his famous collection of interconnected short stories called Winesburg, Ohio (1919). This book is one of a number appearing around the time that helped, as is often said in some literary histories, to “blow the lid” off of that venerated American institution–the small town. This “revolt from the village,” as it has often been called, was a central element of American letters from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1930s. Even after World War II novels continued to appear which probed the darker realities of American life behind the surface of small American communities. One such notable book is Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which created excitement and debate in its time and is still well worth reading today. Some of this writing was in reaction to the notion that American small towns and cities were bastions of goodness and wholesomeness in contrast to corrupt and filthy cities.

Spoon River in Illinois.

Spoon River in Illinois.

It was 100 years ago, in 1915, that Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry collection Spoon River Anthology appeared (which will be the subject of a special post here on buckeyemuse before the year’s end), a book in which the dead in the local cemetery speak of their thwarted dreams and desires, their sins and crimes, their adulteries and scandals. Sinclair Lewis published his notorious novel Main Street in 1920, and followed it a few years later with his satirical treatment of the small-time businessman Babbitt (1922) and his portrait of the corrupt minister Elmer Gantry (1927).

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Zona Gale, Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather and others created fictional works capturing the loneliness, alienation, narrowness and corruption in smaller communities. Thomas Wolfe wrote his four autobiographical novels about small town North Carolina that infuriated his former neighbors. Journalist H.L. Mencken famously excoriated the culture of rural America, particularly in the South. This notion, by the way, that small town life in these times was full of corruption, bigotry, complacency, mean-spirited religiosity and sterility is also sometimes referred to as “the village virus.” Mencken wanted to see American life inoculated against the virulent strains he believed residing in its provincial culture, and railed against them accordingly.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

But this literary history is more complicated than this short description may suggest. The more unflinching kind of literary treatment of small town life and everyday folk was part of a much larger movement towards realism in literature not only in the United States but Europe as well. Writers wanted to capture the realties of a changing modern world, a world that would be upended by the First World War and once again with a second conflict. The desire to throw off the inhibitions of the Victorian period was relentless, and novelists, poets, and short story writers began to more openly address issues surrounding sexuality. The influence of Sigmund Freud, to name but one important figure, was profound.

The critical examination of rural and small town life had roots extending back to the previous century. One of the first books to examine a sterile rural community is Edgar Watson’s The Story of a Country Town, published all the way back in 1883. Hamlin Garland wrote of bleak lives on the prairie in his realist classic Main-Travelled Roads. And Mark Twain was no stranger to the darkness of the human heart, particularly in the rural hamlets alongside the Mississippi River, and there are strange things that go on in the nighttime even in the sunny world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Last but certainly not least, I would be remiss not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne, who gave us one of the great treatments of hypocrisy and cold-hearted morality in the much smaller Boston of the 1600s in The Scarlet Letter.

Camden, Ohio--birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

Camden, Ohio–birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

There is yet another layer to this that demands our attention. This “revolt from the village” is further complicated when we look more closely at these books, such as Winesburg, Ohio. While there was at times a negative impulse animating this kind of writing that peered so deeply into the depths of small town and rural America, much of it was also driven by a desire not only to examine and expose, in the name of realism and honesty, but also to awaken others to what was missing in the lives of people and to raise questions about what had been lost in pursuit of opportunity in this fledgling nation.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Some of these writers were outraged idealists who felt deeply the rift between the positive forces and ideals that were supposedly present in American life and the realities they saw around them. In many of these novels and short stories there are moments of transcendence and vision, love and honesty, insight and inspiration. Positive people and influences in these small communities appear alongside of barrenness, rigidity, and pharisaical religion. Often we sense a love for these characters suffocated and oppressed by the forces and people governing their lives. Even the satirist Sinclair Lewis often reveals affection for the places and people he writes about, and Carol Kennicott, the outsider protagonist of Main Street who seeks to uplift the provincial types around her, can be seen as foolish and judgmental in contrast to the simple and straightforward people of the town of Gopher Prairie. The fact remains that, like much else in our world, these towns were a mixture of darkness and light. Human nature played its role in  shaping individual lives for good or ill. Any fair reading of history has to note that many people loved the places where they lived and chose to remain in the small communities they called home.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson's parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson’s parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

There is another predominant theme that emerged in American literature at this time, and that was the impact on American communities and people by industrialism and the rise of major commercial interests. These interests shaped not only the physical landscape of the nation, but the spiritual, moral, and economic dimensions of American society. The theme appears in works by writers such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and others, and operates as a low but audible hum in the background of many other narratives even when other themes are predominant.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

Even in a book like Winesburg, Ohio, which focuses so much on the interior lives of its characters, there is the knowledge that the world around them is being transformed, a point that is highlighted at the conclusion when the central character, George Willard, departs from Winesburg to make his way in the big city. There is little opportunity for a young man like him in the town of his birth. Larger forces have sent their tremors into the countryside, bringing inevitable change with them.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Poor White is a novel by Sherwood Anderson that examines this transformation of agrarian America, but also explores the forces that shape life in a small community, the lives of some of its people, and asks what is it missing in the lives of Americans. Poor White is often considered Anderson’s best novel. Although best known for Winesburg, Ohio and a number of other short stories, Anderson wrote novels, memoir, autobiography and journalism as well.

A fictional memoir of Anderson's:

A fictional memoir of Anderson’s: “Tar: A Midwest Childhood.” Sherwood is the boy seated at far left.

Poor White appeared in 1920. It tells the story of Hugh McVey, a young boy who grows up in conditions not unlike Huck Finn’s in a squalid Missouri riverfront town called Mudcat Landing. His father, like Huck’s Pap, is a drunken loafer. Hugh grows up in a state of torpor, spending his days idling by the river. It is only when he takes a job at the Mudcat Landing railway station that his life changes. The telegraph operator’s wife, a New England woman who senses Hugh’s potential, encourages Hugh to put his mind to work. Hugh soon leaves Mudcat Landing and heads east to Ohio, drifting from job to job and eventually landing in a town called Bidwell. He carries in his mind the images of thriving factories after hearing the telegraph operator’s wife speak of vibrant industrial New England towns.

Sherwood Anderson's

Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White.”

In Bidwell, Hugh explores and develops his capacity for creating labor-saving machinery. His first machine is a cabbage-planting device. This invention ultimately proves unsuccessful, but Hugh’s talent for invention becomes clear, and in turn attracts the attention of a budding capitalist named Steve Hunter. McVey’s friend and associate Hunter is a man interested only in profits. McVey develops a successful farm machinery business—but at a cost he doesn’t expect. Farm hands find themselves out of work because of McVey’s machines. Some find themselves factory hands, removed from the lands on which they labored in close connection with the farmers who employed them. The factories also attract outsiders, many of them job-seeking immigrants who do not understand the local culture of Bidwell. Slums begin to appear in the town. Men also leave Bidwell to work in other places. Older businesses, mainly small operations run by artisans and craftsmen, such as a harness making shop, are casualties of the machine age.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that's seen better days.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that’s seen better days.

McVey, a kind of natural man and innocent, is disturbed by the changes he unknowingly helps bring to Bidwell. Much of the second half of the book concerns his relationship with a woman named Clara Butterworth and McVey’s efforts to untangle himself from what he has wrought and live a life in alignment with his true values. Critics are correct in finding the structure of the book unwieldy. But it has many rewards for the reader willing to follow this ambling tale.

I first read Poor White in 2001, and I had never before encountered a book that captured for me so completely much of what I felt to be the Midwest of the late 1800s and early twentieth century. McVey is a witness to history and change, and agent of the same, and we follow him along the country roads and over the bridges of the great rivers as he makes his way across the land, a figure working on the railroads and in the fields, searching for some purpose in life as he makes his way to Bidwell. He is like the Midwest itself awakening to its destiny in the life of the nation.

Dirt road outside my mother's hometown of Richland, Missouri.

Dirt road outside my mother’s hometown of Richland, Missouri.

The book is powerfully evocative. The drowsiness of Bidwell after all the hands have left for the fields, the joking and raillery around the dinner table among farmers and hands, the great Ohio oil field boom, the passage from bucolic town to thriving industrial city—all of this is wonderfully captured in Poor White. I have thought often of this book through the years when driving the back roads and highways of the Midwest, seeing the farmland rolling away on either side and wondering about all the untold and forever unknown histories of the people who lived upon that earth.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Horace Gregory, a distinguished poet and translator, wonderfully captures the qualities of Poor White in an introduction he wrote to The Portable Sherwood Anderson:

“Poor White belongs among the few books that have restored with remarkable vitality the life of an era, its hopes and desires, its conflicts between material prosperity and ethics, and its disillusionments, in a manner that stimulates the historical imagination.” Later Gregory writes that “No novel of the American small town in the Middle West evokes in the mind of its readers so much of the cultural heritage of its milieu as does Poor White; nor does Anderson in his later novels ever recapture the same richness of association, the ability to make memorable each scene in the transition from an agrarian way of living to a twentieth-century spectacle of industrial conflict with its outward display of physical comfort and wealth.”

There is one other dimension of Poor White worth noting, and it harkens back to the material at the beginning of this post about the community life of small town America. McVey, by the end of the book, has not only taken stock of what has happened to Bidwell. His marriage to Clara Butterworth and the future of their unborn child directs him back to deeper needs within himself—his need to love another person, to be more truly connected to others, to find meaning in life beyond worldly success. The things that separate one person from another, especially men from women, were an important concern for Anderson. His work is filled with people who yearn for connection, who are bursting with unlived life, who ache for relations with others that are anchored in real values.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

The Midwest is home to culture aplenty now, but our American economy still leaves too many victims in its wake, and our small communities especially have been profoundly damaged by the terms upon which we live. We face a new threat to community life by the isolation and anomie bred by technology. We are in some ways as mute and disconnected as any character in these books of long ago, while we face threats unimaginable in the heyday of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson. This deeper search for reconciliation and connections remains with us. Our country’s recent confrontations with the long and bitter heritage of racism underscore the need for all of us to live in right relation as one people. As another Midwestern writer of a different kind—John Mellencamp—once put it, “the air could be cleaner/and the water could too/ but what we do to each other/ are the worst things that we do.”

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1993. First published in 1920.

Sherwood Anderson by Rex Burbank. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

The Portable Sherwood Anderson, edited and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. The Viking Press, New York, 1949.

“Another Sunny Day, 12/25” by John Mellencamp and George Green from the album “Dance Naked.” Mercury, 1994.

America’s Teacher: William Holmes McGuffey

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William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey

American educator William Holmes McGuffey, famous for creating his McGuffey Readers, an influential series of school texts in 19th century America, was born on September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania. He received a sparse education in his childhood and youth, but learned enough to eventually teach in the one-room country schools of rural Ohio after his family moved to the buckeye state. McGuffey eventually earned an A.B. from Washington College in Pennsylvania and took an appointment as professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served for ten years.

McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader

McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader

It was at Miami that he began collecting and organizing the material that became the first of the McGuffey Readers with the assistance of his brother Alexander, a teacher and a lawyer. Visitors can tour the McGuffey House near the Miami campus and see the room and desk where McGuffey worked on the Readers. In the coming months I will write a post about this site as part of a road trip segment.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

McGuffey left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College (a forerunner of the University of Cincinnati) in 1836, and later took on the presidency of Ohio University in 1839. He returned to Cincinnati and taught at Woodward College (later Woodward High School) before becoming professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Virginia. He held this position until his death in 1873. In addition to his teaching and editorial work, McGuffey was also a Presbyterian minister and one of the founders of the public school system in Ohio.

A later edition of McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

A later edition of McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

McGuffey was the driving force behind the first four readers, which were published by Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati company, in 1836 and 1837. Later readers were compiled by others. There were a total of eleven McGuffey school texts. Scholars estimate that 122 million of the McGuffey books appeared between 1836 and 1920, becoming a part of the school experience for millions of American children.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

The historian Henry Steele Commager gives a good summary of McGuffey and the importance of the Readers in the life of the nation. Here is Commager:

“Justice Holmes said of John Marshall that part of his greatness was in being there; so, too, we can say that part of the greatness of the McGuffey Readers was that they were there at the right time—they were there to be read by millions of children from all parts of the country, from all classes, of all faiths. They gave to the American child of the nineteenth century what he so conspicuously lacks today—a common body of allusions, a sense of common experience, and of common possession…The McGuffey Readers, then, are far more than a historical curiosity. They played an important role in American education and in American culture, and helped shape that elusive thing we call the American character.”

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader, 1879 Edition. With a Foreword by Henry Steele Commager. Signet Classic—The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. New York, 1963.

Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

Der Dunbar: Paul Dunbar’s German-American Dialect Poem “Lager Beer”

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Paul Dunbar

Paul Dunbar

It’s Oktoberfest season around the world, so I’ve decided to highlight an interesting poem of Paul Dunbar’s in honor of the occasion. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day long beer and folk festival held in Munich each year in September that has inspired other similar celebrations around the world. The poem is “Lager Beer,” an early dialect work Paul Dunbar published in 1890. He was only eighteen years old when this appeared.

Paul Dunbar—poet, short story writer, novelist, librettist—was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of former slaves. Despite the racial injustice of the era in which he lived he had a remarkable career. In his short lifetime he was prolific, creating a rich body of work, particularly in poetry that alternated between standard English and dialect forms. Although much of his dialect verse was in African-American dialect, he also tried his hand at some other dialects—in this case, a German-American one.

Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. "The Rhine" was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. “The Rhine” was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Two aspects of nineteenth century culture are reflected in this poem. One is that literary works in dialect were common at this time, particularly in stories or poems with a rural “local color” setting. Comic works often employed dialect. One poet who was especially popular during Dunbar’s lifetime, and who influenced Dunbar, was Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. Many of Riley’s poems were set in rural Indiana and featured rustic characters. The other cultural aspect is the widespread dissemination of German culture, particularly in the Midwest. German immigrants have powerfully shaped my own city, Cincinnati, as well as cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. There is also a large German-American presence in Texas. Dunbar would have encountered Germans and German-Americans during his time in southwestern Ohio.

Here's a good lager beer made in Ohio: The Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

Here’s a good lager beer made in Ohio: the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

In “Lager Beer,” Dunbar experiments with German-American dialect for humorous purposes. “Lager Beer” appeared on December 13, 1890 under the pseudonym “Pffenberger Deutzelheim” in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper Paul Dunbar created and edited to serve Dayton’s black community. His good friends the Wright brothers printed the paper. The poem has also been set to music recently.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

The poem has a kind of lurching quality and a ponderous humor, which richly evokes the image of a drunken German man stumbling around the city (“shumps aroundt”) and getting himself in trouble. I can picture a German workingman, clad in the rough clothes and boots of the time, woefully reciting this to himself in his kitchen while watching his fellows troop down to the corner saloon.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

The second and fourth lines of each stanza are indented, but the wordpress format is fighting me on this one. Anyway, here is the poem, which you might want to enjoy with a good lager beer.

“Lager Beer”

I lafs and sings, und shumps aroundt,
Und somedimes acd so gueer,
You ask me vot der matter ish?
I’m filled mit lager peer.

I hugs mine child, and giss mine vife.
Oh, my dey was so dear;
Bot dot ish ven, you know, mire friend,
I’m filled mit lager peer.

Eleetion gomes, I makes mire speech,
Mine het it vas so glear:
De beoples laf, und say ha, ha,
He’s filled mit lager peer.

De oder night I got me mad,
De beoples run mit fear.
De bleeceman gome und took me down
All filled mit lager peer.

Next day I gomes pefore de judge,
Says he, “Eh heh, you’re here!”
I gifs you yust five-fifty-five
For trinking lager peer.

I took mine bocket book qvick oud,
So poor I don’t abbear;
Mine money all vas gone, mine friend
Vas gone in lager peer.

Und den dey dakes me off to shail,
To work mine sendence glear;
Und dere I shwears no more to be
Filled oup mit lager peer.

Und from dot day I drinks no more,
Yah, dat ish very gueer,
But den I found de tevil lifed
In dot same lager peer.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Go easy on that lager beer!

Patrick Kerin

 

Resources:

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London. 1993.

Our “Greatest Civil War Novel?”: MacKinlay Kantor’s “Andersonville”

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This picture provides a dramatic example showing just how overcrowded Andersonville was.

This picture provides a dramatic example showing just how overcrowded Andersonville was.

Deep in the quiet Georgia countryside lies twenty-six and a half acres of land that once were home to 45,000 men. The very silence of the spot stands in sobering contrast to the constant din that resounded here one hundred and fifty years ago. What was once a landscape of squalor, disease, and suffering is now a well-manicured area that invites reflection and remembrance. This bucolic place was the site of Andersonville Prison, the most notorious of all POW camps during the American Civil War, now a National Park dedicated to preserving the memory of not only Andersonville but the American POW experience in all wars.

Andersonville, officially called Camp Sumter, opened in February of 1864 in southwestern Georgia and existed until the end of the war in 1865. Andersonville was originally sixteen acres designed to hold 10,000 men, but the site expanded to twenty-six and a half acres. By August of 1864 it was home to 33,000 men, a number that swelled to 45,000. Thirteen thousand men perished at the prison, most of them from scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and exposure to the elements. There were no wooden structures for housing prisoners. Men constructed what shelter they could out of tent halves, pieces of clothing, and stray pieces of wood. A stream that ran through the prison served as both latrine and drinking water source. It quickly became fouled, contributing to much of the sickness that reigned at Andersonville.

bwanderson

Its commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate brought before a military tribunal to stand trial for war crimes during the American Civil War. He was convicted and hanged in November of 1865. General Lew Wallace, an Indiana native who later wrote Ben-Hur, presided over his trial. Historians have criticized this trial and Wirz’s treatment, arguing in large part that the suffering of Andersonville’s prisoners was due to conditions beyond Wirz’s control, such as a consistent and widespread lack of fresh vegetables that could have prevented scurvy.

Captain Henry Wirz

Captain Henry Wirz

Andersonville was the subject of a novel published sixty years ago that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville (1955) was the fruit of years of research and a longstanding interest Kantor had in the prison. It wasn’t his first Civil War novel. He published Long Remember about Gettysburg in 1934 and followed this two years later with Arouse and Beware, a novel about two Union soldiers escaping a southern prison.

General Lew Wallace of Indiana and author of "Ben-Hur."

General Lew Wallace of Indiana and author of “Ben-Hur.”

Kantor grew up with the legacy of the Civil War. Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1904, Kantor was fascinated by the old Civil War veterans he saw around town and during events held on Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day), and the Fourth of July. “I can remember parading through cemeteries on the Fourth of July, the old men of the town, and me, a skinny kid in his teens with a fife. Sometimes the Civil War seemed closer than the time I was living in,” recalled Kantor.

MacKinlay Kantor

MacKinlay Kantor

He worked for newspapers in Iowa and elsewhere while publishing stories, eventually publishing his first novel, Diversey, in 1928. A flood of books followed this first novel, a number of which were made into films. His books sold well. During WWII he served as a correspondent with the U.S. Army Air Corps in England. His verse novel about returning veterans, Glory For Me, was adapted for the screen as The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946. Kantor continued to publish books until his death in 1977 in Sarasota, Florida.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Andersonville may be Kantor’s best-known novel. It is episodic and a kind of ensemble piece. The closest thing to a central character is Ira Claffey, a southern planter whose land is used for the prison grounds. Claffey is a humane and reflective man appalled at what comes to be at Andersonville. The novel features a variety of characters from both north and south, military and civilian. The reader follows Kantor’s imprisoned characters as they endure life in the camp, and he provides a history for each man so we can see the stark contrast between their previous lives and the privation of Andersonville. Historical figures appear, ranging from Henry Wirz to Father Peter Whelen, a Catholic priest who spent a month at the camp ministering to its inmates, to Wirz’s supervisor General John H. Winder.

General John H. Winder

General John H. Winder

Kantor’s imprisoned characters reflect the diversity of the men trapped behind its walls. One character is a fifty-eight year old soldier named Tom Gusset. Another is a young Jewish soldier named Nathan Dreyfoos, an immigrant who traveled widely in Europe before the war and is well-educated. Union sailors are also held at Andersonville. Among the prison characters portrayed in the book are some who actually existed, such as the brutal “raider” Willie Collins. The “raiders” were a group of criminals within the stockade who preyed on their fellow captives. Other prisoners eventually formed a police force and hanged them with the permission of their Confederate overseers.

Union survivor of Andersonville

Union survivor of Andersonville. Photos such as these enraged the northern public.

Kantor’s novel met with high praise upon publication. The distinguished mid-twentieth century American historian Henry Steele Commager called it “the greatest of our Civil War novels” in an article in the New York Times. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, the noted Civil War historian Bruce Catton called it “The best Civil War novel I have ever read, without any question.”

This photo of Andersonville shows the "dead line" prisoners were forbidden to cross--the fence at right. Crossing it meant being shot, an option attractive for those who had had enough of Andersonville.

This photo of Andersonville shows the “dead line” prisoners were forbidden to cross–the fence at right. Crossing it meant being shot, an option attractive for those who had enough of Andersonville.

Kantor’s novel is long—my smaller sized Signet edition comes in at a whopping 725 pages—and while readable is still not an easy book to take on given the detail of squalor and suffering Kantor describes. I first read it as a high school junior in the spring of 1983, and I can still recall how I felt stifled by the descriptions of the oppression and misery of Andersonville. It was a fascinating but sobering read. Kantor did his job well.

There are many fine novels of the Civil War out there, and Kantor wrote three of them. I can’t say which novel among the dozens of truly high quality works is “the greatest.” But I would say that Andersonville is an excellent novel of the Civil War that deserves to be more widely known.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. World Publishing Company, New York, 1955.

Andersonville: The Last Depot by William Marvel. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1994. One of the best Civil War history books I have ever read. Fair, authoritative, well-written. If you’re looking for a good overall history of Andersonville, this will serve you well.

The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 1988. A monumental one volume history of the war by one of its most distinguished historians.

National Park Service site for Andersonville National Historic Site.