Kantor, MacKinlay (1904-1977)

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Kantor, MacKinlay (1904-1977)

In a literary career spanning nearly 50 years, MacKinlay Kantor grew from a pulp fiction writer who simply sought to earn a living to a highly respected novelist who made significant contributions in several genres. While he is perhaps best known for his 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Andersonville, Kantor also wrote influential works in the areas of detective fiction, westerns, and social commentary.

An Iowa native, Kantor began his writing career in the early 1920s, working as a reporter and columnist for an increasingly large series of newspapers in his home state and writing pulp fiction for various inexpensive publications. After several years, Kantor moved to Chicago, where he sought a larger canvas for his writing. Although he struggled initially, his first book, Diversey, which dealt with gang warfare in Chicago, was published in 1928, after which Kantor published a long string of books, articles, and short stories. Kantor served as a war correspondent during World War II from 1943 to 1944 and as a combat pilot for the U.S. Air Force in 1945. The latter experience provided the basis for his writing success that brought him national exposure.

While Kantor had published a number of works prior to the outbreak of World War II, his 1945 novella Glory for Me, based on his experiences as an air force gunner, was adapted for the big screen in 1946. The result was the film, directed by William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives, which traces the experiences of three World War II veterans and the difficulty they have adjusting after returning home.The film won several Academy Awards, including an unprecedented double award to veteran Harold Russell, who portrayed a sailor who lost both his hands in the war, for best supporting actor and for bringing hope to returning veterans. Kantor's story also served as the basis for the television movie Returning Home, made in 1975.

The publication of the historical novel Andersonville a decade later brought Kantor even greater recognition. Kantor had long been fascinated with the Civil War, and the book was the result of the author's renowned diligent and thorough research. The book, which recounts the suffering of Union prisoners in a Confederate prison camp in Georgia. Prominent Civil War scholars such as Bruce Catton and Henry Steele Commager praised Kantor's book as the greatest Civil War novel ever written. The book spawned several made-for-television films, including the 1970 The Andersonville Trial, which portrays the war crimes trials of the camp's commanders, including the head official, Wirz, who was the only Civil War soldier executed for war crimes. The book was later adapted into a television miniseries (Andersonville) in 1995. Kantor's final novel, Valley Forge, published in 1975, was another fictional work based on historical events. It portrays the difficult experiences of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Although best known for his historical fiction, Kantor drew fans for his works of suspense fiction, which largely have deal with criminal police and legal procedure in their plots. Throughout the 1930s, Kantor produced a large number of pulp fiction suspense stories, including a series dealing with the exploits of Nick and Dave Glennan, Irish-American brothers who are police officers. Kantor frequently rode along with police forces, partly for research for his stories, and partly because he developed friendships with a number of police officers.

Kantor credited his early experience in writing pulp fiction for his later success. He was quoted in Gale Literary Databases, "I used to write a great deal of stuff for the pulp detective-and-crime story magazines, in the years when I had to make my living that way, and I don't think that my rather complicated talents were harmed in the least. The severe routine of such endeavor stimulated my sense of plot and construction, which need stimulation very badly indeed."

Among the awards Kantor won during his career are the O. Henry Award for his short story "Silent Grow the Guns," as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his career work. He also received honorary doctorates in literature from Grinnell College, Drake University, Lincoln College, and Rippon College. In addition to his work as a war correspondent in World War II, Kantor served as a war correspondent during the Korean War in 1950 and worked as a consultant for the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1977. Kantor died of a heart attack on October 11, 1977, in Sarasota, Florida. He and his wife of over 50 years, Florence, had two children.

—Jason George

Further Reading:

Eckley, Wilton. "MacKinlay Kantor." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, edited by James J. Martine. Detroit, Gale Research, 1981.

Kantor, Tim. My Father's Voice: MacKinlay Kantor Long Remembered. New York, McGraw Hill, 1988.

"MacKinlay Kantor." Contemporary Authors. Gale Literary Databases. March 1999.

Zaidman, Laura. "MacKinlay Kantor." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel. Detroit, Gale Research, 1991.