Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The American Iliad

You may have asked yourself, as I asked myself, "Do I need to read another book about the battle of Gettysburg?" If you're thinking about the recent novel "Cain at Gettysburg" by Ralph Peters, and whether you're thinking about reading it because either you want to know more about the turning-point battle of the Civil War or you already know too much about it, the answer is probably yes.
            Much of the battle's storyline will be familiar to those who've read the earlier popular fictional treatment of Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels" or any of the many nonfiction books about his great fraternal blood-letting. The battle is America's "Iliad," in which truly valiant figures, some of them long inscribed in the nation's legends, struggled
over a great prize according to very personal code of honor, and thousands died in a terrible apotheosis of violence that can only be described as tragic and perhaps, in a fierce Homeric way, as poetic.
            The over-arching character conflict between hero of his fledgling nation, Robert E. Lee, and his best surviving general, Longstreet, remains a key stone in the narrative arch of Peters' novel, as it was in the recent books and films on the subject. Peters' contribution is giving equal focus to the neglected, underestimated Union commander George Meade, who was given command of the Army of the Potomac only a week before the climactic battle. Meade is often viewed as a stodgy, cautious general. What he was, as this book shows, was rivetingly competent. An engineer by training, determined not to make mistakes, Meade persevered and won a great victory that crippled the South's military capacity.
            My only quarrel with this novel is that while it teaches non-military types like myself more about how to run an army than I have ever learned from any other book, it spends too much time with generals and too little with its cast of heart-breakingly human privates, noncoms and lower-rank officers on both sides of the battle. Some of these soldiers are pure inventions, others are drawn from history but given a rare prominence they richly deserve. The great gift of fiction is that its best invented characters are often more "real" to readers than the those whose biographies are purely factual; perhaps, even, more real, to some of us, than those flesh and blood humans we meet in life but whose inner lives remains closed to us.
            The novel's deepest portraits are of the Confederate sergeant "Quaker" Blake, whose breakthrough into self-knowledge comes only hours before his last breath on earth. So it goes in war, the book seems to say, but having been through so much with this character we can't help feeling cheated that we don't get to learn how the rest of his life goes -- there's no "meaning" to his growth because there is no "rest of life." His death is one small measure, among thousands, of the price paid for Lee's desperate, hopeless gamble on the the battle's final, decisive day.
            I cared just as much, probably more, for an array of Union soldiers who fought in a regiment consisting of German immigrants who fled to the new world after failed democratic revolutions in their own country. America or, as we say, "history" never pays enough attention to this element of our past -- the story of immigrants who found sanctuary in this country for the best the reasons, because they had first risked their lives to make their own countries better and now were forced to bring those ideals here. They are educated, idealistic, often utopian, brave survivors; their minds molded by poets and philosophers. Having fought for freedom in countries like Europe, they came to the land of the free only to find themselves swept up in another cause, anti-slavery, that once again required an ultimate choice and too often an ultimate sacrifice.
            At the novel's end I wanted to know what happens to the fictional survivors of this battle such as the lieutenant who spent the war writing letters to a recent widow he has been in love with for years. This melding of this character's personal and Army life is moving and completely persuasive; but battle account novels can take us only so far.
            "Cain at Gettysburg" doesn't tell us what these incredibly courageous and human pawns in the great game of nation-building were fighting for. The novel is the other side of the story, a complementary cautionary tale to the idealism of historical portrayals such as the recent film "Lincoln." "Lincoln" tells us the cause. This book shows us the cost.
            Peters' battle scenes, especially the bravura yard-by-yard recreation of the accidental first-day battle, overlooked in most accounts, are incredible triumphs by an author with a military background coupled with a great gift for physical description of the way people move, sense, feel, and think in the most terrible and terrifying encounters human beings can have with one another. They die, or somehow survive, from the unbearable carnage on fields we've forgotten, ignored, or never knew much about because the mind has room to take in only so much bloodshed. Maybe that's the point.
            The Iliad, that great opening shout at the start of the western literary tradition, also devotes a great deal of language depicting how heroes died in battle. We still ask them to do it. Maybe that's why we have to keep reading these books.