Little Noted, But Long Remembered:
Jersey City Native And Pulitzer Prize Winner
Michael Shaara And The Battle of Gettysburg
by Christine Wiltanger
When Florida State University Creative Writing Professor, writer, and Jersey City native Michael Shaara took his family on a trip to Gettysburg in 1968, he had no idea he would get so caught up in the bloodiest, most decisive battle of the Civil War that he would spend the next seven years of his life reliving the battle through four of the War’s most compelling figures – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford for the Union and James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy.
“He became obsessed with who these people were,” recalls his son, the writer Jeff Shaara. The book which resulted from Michael Shaara's obsesssion, The Killer Angels, was published in 1974. While it received critical acclaim, the work was a commercial failure.
It came to everyone’s surprise then when The Killer Angels was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. Yet, unlike most Pulitzer Prize winners, The Killer Angels did not shoot to the top of the best seller lists, becoming a financial success. Instead, the book languished, selling few copies.
“All we can figure out,” recalls Jeff Shaara, who is a noted author of World War II and Revolutionary War historical fiction, “is that in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, no one wanted to read about generals.”
The son of Italian immigrants, and the nephew of 1928 Golden Gloves Champ Eddie Shaara, Michael Shaara was born in Jersey City on June 23, 1928, where he grew up in the midst of a large and colorful family, whose lives, for the most part, followed a familiar immigrant pattern. First, somewhere between getting off the boat and settling in Jersey City, the Sciarras from San Giorgio, Italy, became the Shaaras of Jersey City. According to Jeff Shaara, no one in the family today remembers exactly how that change took place.
“We speculate that, as happened to so many immigrants, our family name was Americanized at Ellis Island by some guy who happened to be Dutch,” jokes the younger Shaara. “That’s the only way to explain the double A.”
Like many immigrants, his great grandparents went into business for themselves, opening and running a neighborhood confectionary shop at 35 Orchard Street, which they and their growing family lived above for many years. Michael Shaara’s uncles all grew up on the streets of Jersey City, boxing and competing in Golden Gloves Championships and working construction jobs paving roads. According to Jeff, Michael Shaara’s father, Michael Senior, also worked as a ward boss and driver for both Mayors Frank Hague and A. Harry Moore.
“It really was like in the film On The Waterfront,” Jeff Shaara says. “My great grandparents immigrated here, and my grandfather’s generation became the boxers and the workers, paving streets and doing street repair work. My father’s generation is where the education begins.”
Growing up, Michael Shaara attended P.S. # 11 and was a 1945 graduate of Lincoln High School. He went on to Rutgers University, where he began publishing science fiction alongside Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury in magazines like Argosy and Dude. His police fiction appeared in the major magazines of the day - The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy.
Sadly, Michael Shaara, who died of a heart attack in 1988, would never live to see the profound influence The Killer Angels would have on a whole generation of historians and filmmakers, chief among them Ken Burns. According to an email from Burns, “It was the book which finally pushed me over the edge to do the Civil War. I finished it Christmas Day 1984 while I was visiting my dad in Michigan. I told him that I knew what my next project was, the Civil War. ‘What part?’ he asked. ‘All of it,’ I naively replied. My dad just shook his head and walked out of the room, like I was crazy, biting off more than I could chew. But The Killer Angels gave me the strength.”
In 1990, Burns’ epic and landmark documentary, The Civil War, premiered on PBS, shining new light on the bloody struggle which would eradicate the practice of slavery in the South, turning “these United States” into “the United States."
“What surprises people most is that my father was not a history buff. He always told his students to write a good story. He spent forty years of his life perfecting his craft, which had this great effect on people and he saw none of it,” Jeff Shaara says. “My father’s life didn’t work out the way he wanted.”
In the early 1990s, Ted Turner approached the younger Shaara about making The Killer Angels into a film. In 1993, the film Gettysburg was released, and almost 20 years after it was published, The Killer Angels, shot to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. It is now in its 109th printing, which the younger Shaara admits, "Is almost unheard of."
In the years since, Jeff Shaara, at the request of his father’s publishers, has written both a prequel and a sequel to The Killer Angels. Based on his father’s extensive research, both books, Gods and Generals, which was made into a major motion picture and The Last Full Measure, made their debuts on the New York Times Best Seller list. “They were his stories to tell,” the younger Shaara says. “He never got the chance. He deserved more than he got and his legacy is alive and well now.”
Since its publication in 1974, The Killer Angels is credited with having a profound influence on modern scholars' interpretation of the Civil War, its combatants and its importance in American history. In the past, it has been on the required reading lists at The Citadel, The U.S. Officer Army Candidate School, the U.S. Army War College, and the Basic Military History course at West Point.
It has also singlehandedly saved Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top, from historical obscurity. A professor from Bowdoin College, Chamberlain’s innovative and stunning military move in the face of certain death by the Confederate army is still studied by military historians today. Chamberlain, who was later promoted to Brigadier General, was also present when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. After his military service was over, he went on to become the President of Bowdoin College and Governor of Maine.
In 1997, Jeff Shaara established the $5000 Michael Shaara Prize For Excellence In Civil War Fiction, awarded annually at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa. Previous winners include Nick Taylor for The Disagreement, Donald McCaig for Canaan and E.L. Doctorow for The March.
On June 23, 2010, the Jersey City Municipal Council honored Michael Shaara by resolution on the 82nd anniversary of his birth.
In addition to The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara is also author of the novels The Broken Place, about a Korean War vet turned prizefighter and For The Love Of The Game, a novel about baseball which was published posthumously and which was made into a major motion picture of the same name in 1999. Shaara’s science fiction stories were anthologized in Soldier Boy, published in the 1960s. Unfortunately, both The Broken Place and Soldier Boy are currently out of print.
2011 is the Sesquicentennial of the start of the bloodiest war in this nation’s history. The Killer Angels, Jeff Shaara says, “Is now a part of the Civil War canon. It will have a whole new generation of readers; it will be discovered again and again. Nobody would be more amazed than my father.”