Writing the Story of `A Larger-Than-Life Time'

JAMES M. McPHERSON's ``Battle Cry of Freedom,'' which covers American history from the Mexican War through the Civil War, is the second volume published in Oxford University's `History of the United States' series. He recently won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book. The Princeton professor spent 4 years writing the 900-page book, only ``the tip of the iceberg'' of 20-odd years of teaching and writing on the subject.

First published in February 1988, the book was on the New York Times best seller list for 16 weeks and has sold more than 110,000 copies. In February this year, Ballantine published the book in paperback, after a record-setting bid - $504,000 - for a book first published by a university press.

Professor McPherson recently talked with a group of editors at the Monitor. Following is a selection of questions and his answers.

Most history books adopt a topical approach, analyzing parts of history rather than the chronological whole. Why did you choose the narrative style?

I wrote about the Civil War in the way that it actually happened ... the way a person living during that time experienced it.

Focusing around one topic may be easier [for the writer], but it gives the reader little sense of how everything - politics, economics, emancipation, the North, the South, military campaigns - was related.

You can't understand these things in isolation. They had enormous effects on each other.

Central to your approach is the ``contingency'' theory. Can you explain this?

Everything that happens is contingent on other things that happen, and we must understand the cause-and-effect relationships among these events. Things could have come out differently. There were a lot of ``ifs'' in the Civil War; Northern victory was not inevitable.

I tried to organize my narrative around this dimension of contingency, so that - if we could assume the impossible - if a reader didn't know how the war came out, he would not know until he got to the end of the book.

In fact, I got a letter from a Southerner who said one of the reasons he liked this book was that as he was reading it he thought to himself, ``Maybe this time it'll come out different.''

How much did the Americans living through the war years actually know of what was going on?

Americans in both the North and South were well informed about this war. The media brought the war home to them almost as effectively as it did in the case of Vietnam.

The two major differences were the forms of communication: newspapers rather than television, which meant that the timing was different. Soldiers often read about themselves two days later. There were reporters with all the major armies.

Photographers got to the battlefields within a couple of days after the battles. There are some powerful, grisly, moving, horrifying photographs.

The other form of communication that brought the battle directly into the home were letters home from soldiers, and letters from home. Civil War armies were the most literate in history. Union armies were 90 to 95 percent literate. There was no censorship of active soldiers' letters. That's not been true in recent wars.

Why are Americans so fascinated with the Civil War?

There are two reasons. First, for Southerners, the impact of the Civil War is still central to their consciousness. It was a punctuation point in their history. A new kind of society had to evolve, and it took a long time.

The second aspect is what I call the ``Gone With the Wind Syndrome'' - the nostalgia, romance, and mythological aspects create an aura of a past which may or may not have existed.

It was the largest war our country [had] ever fought, and on our own soil. We can still stand where they stood. It was a war of men against men, rather than machines against machines. There were colorful characters in the Civil War.

It was a larger-than-life time, full of larger-than-life characters.

What steps are involved in your writing process?

I sit down with a lot of books on one topic, and read them all. When I go into archives, I take my typewriter and type out my notes. When I write, I don't do an outline first. I write the whole chapter out in pencil. I write in pencil because I can think better. Then I type, then revise. And no, I don't use a word processor, though my colleagues say I'm crazy.

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