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Telling stories

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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:25 PM | | Comments (5)


Not every English teacher will "teach the controversy," I promise you. In my 12th grade literature classroom we have just begun King Lear, and I have touched on the Anti-Stratfordians only enough to equip my students to detect such particularly noisome varieties of nonsense. Irivin Leigh Matus' "Shakespeare, in Fact" and Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare" both provide excellent refutations.

Notice that, after quotiing Chamberlain's reflection on how the country was supposedly " of tradition and blood ties...", you begin the next paragraph with: " on the other side also have honor and nobility..."

Why hasn't "nobility" become a pejorative for Americans, if we really value what Chamberlain ostensibly did?

I wrote a paper for my 12th grade English class (back in the dark ages) refuting the Shakespeare was written by (fill in the blank) theories. My bottom line is that when Shakespeare was writing he was simply one out of many. His great enduring fame came later--and then we had those who felt this common country bumpkin couldn't possibly have been a great genius.

If I had remained in academia, I think I would want to examine the worldview that insists that Shakespeare can't have written Shakespeare--its philosophy, its history, and its psychology. It seems somehow akin (and I really mean "somehow," because I can't entirely explicate this sense) to the way in which seminal figures like Jim Morrison and Elvis are endlessly said not to be dead. Or, I suppose, some of the other ridiculous conspiracy theories you mentioned.

But the Shakespearean version is particularly interesting, because it uniquely suggests not that man (or a man) is extraordinarily deceitful and fiendishly clever, as so many conspiracy theories do (have these people who think The Government was responsible for JFK's assassination or 9/11 actually observed their government in action?), but that middle-class man is kind of dopey, while aristocracy is brilliant.

That's the most distasteful element of the Shakespeare nonsense to me: it rests on the assertion that someone of Shakespeare's background couldn't have known what he knew, couldn't have understood what he did, couldn't have had the vocabulary and mastery of languages, the geography, the science, or fundamentally, the sheer brilliance to write what he wrote.

The fact that whole periods of his life are unknown to us, and that biographical information on Tudor commoners is generally nonexistent whether they wrote plays or not, seems not to carry any weight--no no, they insist, he couldn't have had access to the right kind of library and he couldn't have learned this that or the other thing...

Whoever wrote Shakespeare's works was a brilliant mind, and a uniquely brilliant one. We see those, now and then, in one area of accomplishment or another, and the point is that they ARE unique. They aren't subject to the normal rules of human development and action, because by definition, they're geniuses whose accomplishments lie far outside the norm.

After 400-plus years, I'm confident we're unlikely to learn a great deal more about the man. I can rest content with that. I can even attempt a pre-Romantic appreciation of the artist without undue concern to the details of the artist's biography and inner life.

(Come to think of it, if I ever found a literary movement, it'll be the pre-Romantic, analogous to the pre-Raphaelites who thought Raphael screwed up art; I like the Romantics just fine, but I could do without their creation of the Cult of the Artist.)

I would like to thank you for allowing me the space to indulge in a bit of faux-academic tut-tuterry. Quite satisfying. My compliments to the blog master.

Oops, didn't mean to be anon - nice touch, though, in context. 'Twas me above.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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