Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Michael Shaara was born in 1928 in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father was an Italian immigrant who was active in local unions and politics. His mother was from the south and had family roots going back to Thomas Jefferson and "Light-Horse Harry" Lee.
After high school, Shaara served as a paratrooper, a merchant seaman, and a police officer. He graduated from Rutgers and it was during his college years that he realized he wanted to become a writer.
In his early thirties, Shaara published several award-winning science-fiction short stories in the most popular pulp magazines of the day. He then began to write straight fiction and published numerous short stories in Playboy, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan.
In the mid-50s he moved he wife and his young son to Florida. In 1961 he began teaching creative writing and literature at Florida State University. He worked as an award-winning teacher until 1973.
In 1968 Shaara published his first novel, The Broken Place. It is the story of Tom McClain, a Korean War veteran who seeks to be free of his demons and finds that freedom through his boxing. Although The Broken Place was a commercial failure, Shaara’s drive to write continued.
After finding old letters from his great-grandfather, a member of the 4 th Georgia infantry who had been wounded at Gettysburg, Shaara took a family trip to Gettysburg to learn more about the experience. The 1966 trip was followed by another trip in 1970 and seven years of work on the manuscript. In 1974, The Killer Angels was published.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975. Literary critics admired Shaara’s ability to narrow down a huge subject to a few people and events that could make it personal for the reader and the book’s objective portrayal of both sides of the conflict. However, there was little public acclaim because the novel came out during the Vietnam War.
The hard work that went into the novel took its toll: teaching during the day, writing at night, and smoking and drinking coffee around the clock led Shaara to have a major heart attack in 1965, at only 36 years old.
Shaara was in a motorcycle accident in Italy in 1972 that left him with stroke-like symptoms that greatly impaired his ability to write. He wrote a novel about baseball and began writing a screenplay for The Killer Angels before dying at the age of 59 on May 5, 1988.
Shaara’s son Jeff took over the literary estate and saw to it that the baseball novel, For Love of the Game, was published, and that the screenplay for The Killer Angels made it to film. In 1993 the film "Gettysburg" was completed. Following a suggestion from the director, Jeff made his father’s book the centerpiece of a trilogy by writing Gods and Generals (set before The Killer Angels) and The Last Full Measure (set right after it). In 1999 For Love of the Game was made into a movie starring Kevin Costner.
The Killer Angels is a fictional novel, not history
From Shaara’s message to the reader: "I have condensed some of the action, for the sake of clarity; and eliminated some minor characters, for brevity; but though I have often had to choose between conflicting viewpoints, I have not knowingly violated the action...The interpretation of character is my own." Shaara’s altering the events makes the work fiction.
The Killer Angels was written between 1966 and 1974, during which the Vietnam War was in full swing. A Vietnam timeline review: 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; 1965, first U.S. ground troops; 1968, Tet Offensive; 1969, bombing of Cambodia; 1973, U.S. troops withdraw; 1975, North Vietnam takes over South Vietnam.
The war seems to have had a minimal impact on Shaara and his writing. Nevertheless, the book contains a couple Themes that might have been influenced by the Vietnam conflict: the poor handling of the Civil War by politicians and the irony of being drafted for a war for freedom are the most prominent.