I picked up Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels today, perhaps the best novel about the Civil War. Re-reading a book—this one after more than a quarter-century—gives the opportunity to savor what one gulped down the first time. And only a couple of dozen pages into it, I know that it is pointing toward that place in the narrative where Joshua Chamberlain and the Twentieth Main save the Union at Little Round Top.
That is perhaps an exaggeration, but it is not much of an exaggeration, and the story it tells is one that continues to hold meaning for us.
The narrative includes that story of who we are as a people reflected in Chamberlain’s inward meditation: “He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his belief in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth.”
It is part of his story that the men on the other side also have honor and nobility, and their deadly clash is part of our national tragedy, the convulsion that put an end to slavery and the fatal contradiction embedded in the Constitution of 1787 and kept alive the belief of freedom and autonomy for all men and women.
The stories that we tell one another shape how we understand the world, and we should be careful about which stories we tell. We are bombarded every day by stories that are cheap and meretricious and unable to stand the light of day. You’ve heard a score of them. Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya. George W. Bush connived at the September 11 attacks. Vaccines cause autism. Global warming is a fraud perpetrated by scientists just to get more government grants.
You may have seen on television ads for a forthcoming film called Anonymous, which presents as truth the crackpot claim that William Shakespeare did not write the works that bear his name.* No reputable historian thinks so.
Such a film would be harmless, no more to be taken seriously as history than the hare-brained Da Vinci Code, but Chris Le writes that “[t]he studio plans to concurrently release Last Will. & Testament, a documentary about the authorship debate, through First Folio Pictures ... and has been providing materials to educators that encourage teachers to “make this thought-provoking new film part of your class plan.” So we can expect weak-minded and gullible English instructors to “teach the controversy,” as if Oliver Stone’s JFK were to be presented in American history classes.**
So thus does the post-modernist principle that reality is a story that we make up to tell ourselves pass from the realms of Higher Thought in the universities to the level of history processed through the multiplex.
I know that Michael Shaara was writing fiction, somewhat florid and orotund fiction at that. I know that he steered his course close to the documentary sources of the Battle of Gettysburg and the participants. I know that he made up that passage about Joshua Chamberlain’s inward reflections but that it expresses an important belief for him, for that time and ours. I know that fiction can illuminate our understanding of the world and other people.
But I know that it’s important pay attention to what stories we tell ourselves and others.
*Perhaps it will explain how the Earl of Oxford continued to write plays for ten years after his death to be published under Shakespeare’s name.
**Dear God, please tell me that no one is actually doing this.