Shaara, Michael 1929–1988
Shaara, Michael 1929–1988
(Michael Joseph Shaara, Jr.)
PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1929, in Jersey City, NJ; died of a heart attack, May 5, 1988, in Tallahassee, FL; son of Michael Joseph, Sr. (a union organizer) and Alleene (Maxwell) Shaara; married Helen Krumweide, September 16, 1950 (divorced, June, 1980); children: Jeff, Lila Elise. Education: Rutgers University, B.A., 1951; graduate study at Columbia University, 1952–53, and University of Vermont, 1953–54.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as merchant seaman, 1948–49; St. Petersburg Police Department, St. Petersburg, FL, police officer, 1954–55; short story writer, 1955–61; Florida State University, Tallahassee, associate professor of English, 1961–73. Guest lecturer at universities. Military service: U.S. Army, 1946–49, paratrooper in 82nd Airborne Division; became sergeant. U.S. Army Reserve, 1949–53.
MEMBER: International Platform Association, Authors Guild, Omicron Delta Kappa, Gold Key.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award from American Medical Association, 1966, for article "In the Midst of Life"; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1975, for The Killer Angels; short story awards include Dikty's best science fiction of the year awards and citations from Judith Merrill.
The Broken Place (novel), New American Library (New York, NY), 1968.
The Killer Angels (novel), McKay (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2004.
The Herald (novel), McGraw (New York, NY), 1981, revised edition with additions by son, Jeff Shaara, published as The Noah Conspiracy, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Soldier Boy (short stories), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1982.
For Love of the Game (novel), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1991.
Author of screenplay Billy Boy, 1980. Contributor of stories to magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Playboy, Galaxy, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan, as well as to various newspapers.
ADAPTATIONS: The Killer Angels was adapted into the film Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell from his screenplay, starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Martin Sheen, and produced by Turner Pictures, 1993. The Killer Angels was also recorded in an unabridged audio version by Books on Tape, 1985. For Love of the Game was adapted into a feature film, directed by Sam Raimi from a screenplay by Dana Stevens, starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston, and released by Universal, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Shaara published his first story while still an undergraduate at Rutgers University, even though his creative writing teacher had been less than impressed with his manuscript and urged him instead to write "literature." His professor's criticism notwithstanding, Shaara continued to publish many more stories and four novels, one of which, The Killer Angels, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975.
Shaara became a full-time writer after working for a year on the police department in St. Petersburg, Florida; while at Rutgers, he had attended a lecture by author John O'Hara, who commented that being a police officer or a doctor would be good preparation for a writing career. Shaara's first success as a writer came with science fiction and fantasy stories that he sold to several magazines in the 1950s. These early works have since been collected in the volume Soldier Boy, which a Publishers Weekly reviewer thought showed Shaara to be "a master of a particularly humanistic brand of SF." Shaara's humanistic bent is also evident in his novels, the first of which, The Broken Place, owes a debt to Ernest Hemingway. Like much of Hemingway's work, it follows a man emotionally scarred by war whose psychological return to society is attained by grueling physical trials—boxing in the case of Shaara's Tom McClain. McClain searches for meaning in a world that seems devoid of it: "In all this world there are no signs and no miracles and nobody watching over and nobody caring," he tells a friend. "But I believe anyway." Shaara's novel was received favorably by several critics; John C. Pine of Library Journal praised it for "a natural rhythm that is unmistakable."
By this point in his career Shaara was teaching at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He had joined the faculty in 1961 as writer-in-residence, and he was soon promoted to associate professor. He was popular with students and encouraged them in their creative writing efforts, but the university would not promote him beyond associate professor because he lacked a graduate degree. This was a source of ongoing friction between Shaara and the university administration.
In 1971 Shaara, inspired by visits to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania and by eyewitness accounts of the U.S. Civil War, finished The Killer Angels, his second novel, which was published in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The Killer Angels recounts the events of the July, 1863, battle in which nearly 50,000 men lost their lives. Historians have often considered Gettysburg a turning point in the Civil War, as Union forces, often beaten by the Confederates up to then, were able to turn back a Confederate incursion into Union territory. Shaara's goal in writing the novel, he once told New York Times interviewer Thomas Lask, was to know "what is was like to be there, what the weather was like, what men's faces looked like." To do this, he deployed multiple points of view, from generals Lee and Longstreet of the Confederacy to General John Buford and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain for the Union. He also blended two fictional elements, according to Lask: "a careful expository description of strategy and tactics,… and a graphic evocation of the clashes themselves." Best Sellers reviewer L.C. Smith praised the former, making note of Shaara's "particularly good description of the military problems caused by the terrain at Gettysburg." Lask praised the latter, observing that "The pages in which Win Hancock, the Union general, canters slowly along in the very hell of battle looking after his men, is not a passage a reader will soon forget." Thomas LeClair, writing in the New York Times Book Review, added that Shaara's "achievement is combining these passages of apocalyptic immediacy with smaller scenes that dramatize the historian's cultural understandings."
Although it was not a significant commercial success at first, The Killer Angels was reprinted several times and has proved enduringly popular with Civil War enthusi-asts. It was also adapted into the 1993 film Gettysburg. A paperback edition was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks following the film's release. Years after the novel's initial publication, on the occasion of Shaara's death, Washington Post writer Hank Burchard commented that The Killer Angels is "what many consider to be the best book ever written about the Civil War" and reported that it "is so meticulously true to the facts that it is used as a source book in many history departments." Shaara's son, writer Jeff Shaara, has written a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels—Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.
Shaara's literary achievement with The Killer Angels came against a backdrop of difficulties in his personal life. On a trip to Italy in 1972, he was involved in a motorcycle accident in which he suffered severe head injuries that left him unable to write or teach for a year and a half. He also had a dispute with Florida State University over disability benefits. After his recovery, he managed to lecture, travel, and write again, although some reviewers felt his later work did not meet the high standard set by The Killer Angels.
Shaara's next novel, The Herald, was a departure from The Killer Angels in terms of subject matter. The story's hero, Nick Tesla, lands his plane in a town devastated by a scientist whose goal is to kill most of the world's inhabitants in his efforts to create a master race. Some dismissed the book's ideas as simplistic, including a Science Fiction Review contributor who wondered "how Michael Shaara could have won a Pulitzer Prize." But others saw philosophical import in the novel; Algis Budrys, writing in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, called it "a must-read book that raises a profound question."
Shaara's last novel, For Love of the Game, was published posthumously, the book's manuscript only uncovered by his children while in the process of settling his estate. For Love of the Game is the tale of an aging baseball pitcher who, even as his life is falling apart, pitches a perfect game. As in Shaara's first novel, the story's central character plays out his emotional crises in the crucible of an all-out athletic challenge. Also as with Shaara's first novel, For Love of the Game garnered praise for its intense psychological exploration of an athlete pushed to his limits. Though criticized by some as falling short of Shaara's greatest work—a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "one feels he might have liked to give it a rewrite"—Bill Brashler wrote in the Chicago Tribune that "Shaara obviously had a love of the game, of its tradition and natural grace, and he left it this lovely token."
Shaara once commented: "I have written almost every known type of writing, from science fiction through history, through medical journalism and Playboy stories, always because I wrote only what came to mind, with no goal and little income, always for the joy of it, and it has been a great joy. The only trouble comes from the 'market mind' of the editor when the work is done. I have traveled over most of the world, lived three years in South Africa, two years in Italy, speak some foreign languages, and love airplanes, almost as much as women. I enjoyed teaching, because it taught me a lot."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2, 1986–1990, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
Shaara, Michael, The Broken Place, New American Library (New York, NY), 1968.
American Heritage, October, 1992, p. 103; April, 1994, p. 116.
American Spectator, December, 1988, p. 17; December, 1989, p. 28; December, 1993, p. 25.
Analog, August, 1982, p. 125.
Atlantic Monthly, October, 1974, p. 118; April, 1975, p. 98; August, 1981, p. 86.
Best Sellers, September 15, 1974, p. 281.
Booklist, June 1, 1968, p. 1129; May 15, 1981, p. 1214; May 1, 1982, p. 1148; May 15, 1991, p. 1781.
Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1991, section 14, p. 5.
Fantasy Review, August, 1984, p. 26.
Forbes, October 19, 1992, p. 28; March 15, 1993, p. 172.
Inc., January, 1987, p. 64.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1968, p. 72; July 1, 1974, p. 702; April 1, 1981, p. 457; March 15, 1991, p. 358.
Kliatt, fall, 1984, p. 19; September, 1992, p. 16; November, 1994, p. 65.
Library Journal, February 15, 1968, p. 772; September 1, 1974, p. 2091; June 1, 1981, p. 1246; March 15, 1982, p. 653; April 1, 1991, p. 156; February 1, 1992, p. 144; February 1, 1993, p. 132; October 1, 1994, p. 130.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 7, 1991, p. 6.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May, 1982, p. 33; September, 1984, p. 52.
New Republic, November 8, 1993, p. 32.
New Yorker, June 26, 1995, p. 57.
New York Times, May 10, 1975, p. 27.
New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1968, p, 36; October 20, 1974, Thomas LeClair, review of The Killer Angels, p. 38; June 12, 1994, p. 20.
Observer (London, England), August 14, 1977, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, January 15, 1968, p. 84; July 8, 1974, p. 69; June 2, 1975, p. 57; May 15, 1981, p. 49; January 29, 1982, p. 64; April 12, 1991, p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle, May, 1986, p. 38.
School Library Journal, April, 1995, p. 91.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review, June, 1982, p. 32.
Science Fiction Review, November, 1981, p. 54.
Tallahassee Democrat, September 15, 1974, pp. 410-411.
Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 1997, p. 25.
USA Today, July 10, 1991, p. D5.
Washington Post, September 29, 1982, p. B15.
Jeff Shaara Web site, http://www.jeffshaara.com/ (August 14, 2004).