1956 Pulitzer Prize Review: Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

One of the longest Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, MacKinlay Kantor’s nearly 800-page tome Andersonville is a dense modernist examination of the monstrously inhumane Confederate prisoner of war camp of the same name which once housed some 45,000 Union prisoners during the American Civil War. Often regarded as Mr. Kantor’s greatest achievement, Andersonville took approximately two decades of research to complete, during which Kantor sought to capture numerous different perspectives throughout the book. Indeed, despite being a work of historical fiction, Mr. Kantor decided to include a detailed Bibliography at the end of Andersonville, which demonstrates his thorough research efforts.

As with other Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, like The Grapes of Wrath, All the King’s Men, and Tales of the South Pacific, Andersonville explores an extraordinary historical epoch through the fictive lens of literature. In this respect, its verisimilitude is only matched by its sheer breadth. However, straddling the fence between fiction and history serves as a double-edged sword for Andersonville. At certain points, it veers far too heavily into fond, sympathetic portrayals of white slave-owning southerners, and in other cases it fails to capture the full nuance of Confederate treatment of Union POWs. It is a tricky issue, especially in our day and age wherein scores of Americans have allowed their minds to be polluted by neo-Confederate propaganda splashed across the internet.       

At any rate, Andersonville takes us on a journey back to the final fourteen months of the Civil War as a new prison camp is constructed in rural Georgia dubbed “Camp Sumter” (commonly known as “Andersonville”). As recounted in the novel, black slaves are ordered to build a large stockade of pine logs enclosing a 27-acre open-air prison with no shelter under the summer heat or the winter cold. It is surrounded by tall sentry towers and a “deadline” zone which divides the inner prison from the outer wall where numerous prisoners are later shot dead while attempting to escape. After the first prisoners begin to arrive by train, it becomes apparent that Andersonville will not be a place with a decent chance of survival. As time passes, in desperation, numerous prisoners attempt to fake their own deaths or tunnel under the camp walls in the hopes of returning home. A small creek weaves its way through the middle of the camp, but it is quickly used as a bath and a latrine by both prisoners and guards alike, and the creek is soon relegated to a swampy cesspool of stench and disease. Eventually, the guards allow some prisoners to dig wells in search of fresh water. With minimal fresh food and a poisoned water supply, prisoners at Andersonville suffer agonizing deaths due to scurvy, dropsy, gangrene, diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and other diseases. If I had to read about one more prisoner who was forced to eat their own feces, or who died of grotesque diarrheal conditions, I was about ready to set aside this novel. As the war comes to an end and the Confederacy continued to collapse, food grows scarce and many prisoners at Andersonville face starvation (though the guards at Andersonville face no such malnutrition problems). Bands of prisoners eagerly steal clothes and food from other prisoners. A gang of six known as the “Raiders” begin stealing food from the bread wagon and causing general mayhem for fellow prisoners (they are eventually hanged following a trial). As 1865 approaches and more Southern strongholds fall to the Union, prisoners housed at other camps are increasingly transferred to Andersonville until the camp is filled well beyond capacity. The situation inside the prison grows dire. By the war’s end, some 13,000 Union soldiers had died at Andersonville (out of a total of 45,000 prisoners) and thousands more would continue to die within a year or two of being liberated. By all accounts, Andersonville was an atrocious place. First-hand accounts invoke an odious stench emanating from inside the prison, piles of bodies left in unmarked graves surrounding the camp, and various personal writings recall images of emaciated skeletal men stumbling around, their teeth falling out, covered in vermin and disease. To be sure, there were also terrible Union prison camps during the Civil War, but none matched the sheer barbarism of Andersonville.

Each chapter in the novel Andersonville presents a brief vignette with a distinct perspective on the unfolding situation at Andersonville –we are given personal reflections from numerous prisoners, Confederate guards, nearby residents, soldiers on both sides, as well as high-ranking military officers. Chapter after chapter in Andersonville dives into the background of each character –their family, career, and upbringing—only for them to die by chapter’s end. Some of the various characters include the following: plump and squat Reverend Cato Dillard who hates the North along with his wife Effie (no surviving children, but five of eight grandchildren serve in the Confederate army); a prisoner named Eben “Ebe” Dolliver who is a bird-lover originally from Iowa (sadly, he is forced to kill and eat a bird in order to survive); a corporal in the First Rhode Island Cavalry named Edward Blamey who is captured and sent to Camp Sumter; a somewhat notorious prisoner named William “Willie” Collins who is hanged as one of the six Raiders; the Puckett family under Captain Oxford Puckett and his son “Flory”; John Winder who is the former provost-marshal of Richmond and Confederate general in charge of POWs; General Howell Cobb who is a one-time cabinet officer and now serving as commander of the department of Georgia and of the reserve troops; a crippled and deranged prisoner named Chickamauga who is tragically beaten by other prisoners and becomes an informer for the Confederates but he is tragically shot and killed by guards while attempting to cross the “deadline”; Bill Rickson and Al Munn along with a group of six or eight “hyenas” who are hanged as punishment for being part of the villainous “Raiders” inside the camp; Boston Corbett (the future killer of John Wilkes Booth); the Tebbs family; a Confederate drummer boy dubbed Red Cap; an armless prisoner named Nazareth Stricker who manages to escape before running into a legless Confederate veteran; the elderly and imprisoned Father Peter Whelan; a twenty-one year old prisoner from the Ninth Michigan Cavalry named Johnny Ransom who can barely walk while suffering from scurvy but later escapes from prison (he later publishes a famous diary recounting his experience); Robert Hall Chilton who was the Confederate Inspector General (upon receiving written reports from field surgeons about the atrocious conditions at the camp and he wondered in print if history would judge the Confederacy for such egregious inhumanity); Colonel Chandler; Nathan Dreyfoos (a leader among the prisoners who tries and executes the Raiders); a prisoner named Eric Torrosian who is killed; Willie Mann of the Twenty-Ninth Missouri Volunteers; a prisoner known as Old Tom Gusset Saddler of the Ninth Ohio Cavalry; twenty-six year old Judah Hansom who is one of the many men who tried to escape Andersonville by digging a tunnel, and many other characters.

The protagonists we return to time and again are the Claffey family. Ira Claffey (whose name means “watcher” in Hebrew) is a fifty-one-year-old plantation owner who resides near the Andersonville prison along Sweetwater creek. His slaves, who are portrayed as generally amiable and happy-go-lucky, include names like Coffee, Jem, Naomi, and Jonas. Ira is highly respected in the community as a former member of the State Legislature. He had eight children, but only four survived past childhood (as was common in those days). His three sons all died in the war (the youngest ws named Moses, the middle-child was named Badger, and the eldest was named Sutherland “Suthy” who died at Gettysburg). Ira’s wife, Veronica, has fallen into a deep state of mourning (she eventually dies) and his daughter, Lucy, is a lonely girl with an ongoing sensual desire to marry a man. In time, the Claffey family is visited by Captain Harrell “Harry” Elkins, an awkward and shy man who served alongside one of the Claffey sons, Sutherland “Suthy,” before he was killed. With ambitions of being a surgeon and physician, Elkins is initially summoned to Andersonville to inspect the health and safety of the prison, but his job quickly turns into round the clock care for the sick and dying as hospital beds run scarce and bodies begin to pile up in unmarked graves. As you might suspect, before the novel ends Lucy Claffey marries Harry Elkins.

The other chief character whom we return to frequently throughout Andersonville is the historical figure of Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born, German-speaking leader of Camp Sumter/Andersonville. “He was a round-shouldered thin-faced man, past forty, sallow of skin,  and with blood vessels apparent in his pale eyeballs which suggested constant pain, sleeplessness, a constriction of various forces clamoring for release” (30). Wirz is portrayed as an essentially helpless and somewhat indifferent figure amidst an abhorrent crisis which he is woefully unprepared to handle. He faces the growing logistical problem of what to do with all the sick and dying people inside the prison, even as new prisoners continue to arrive from throughout the south owing to a failure to manage food shortages and resource scarcity. After the prison is finally liberated, Wirz is one of the only Confederates to be tried and hanged at the war’s end. Unfortunately, like the Caffeys, Wirz is also portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light, lamenting the fact that he was only following orders as the Andersonville situation grew dire (Kantor drew inspiration for some of these scenes from the horrors he witnessed when liberating a Nazi concentration camp during World War II). To this day, there are certain revisionists who still regard Henry Wirz as a noble “martyr” who died for the supposed “lost cause.” At any rate, the novel ends as Ira Claffey is forced by the “Yankee Nationalists” to free his slaves and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In response, Claffey’s teary-eyed slaves begin shrieking and protesting, “We all belong to you, like it say in the Scriptures!” And Ira wonders “Would the National Government establish schools quickly for these dogged capricious beasts now designated as humans?” The novel ends as it began, with quiet reflections of Ira Claffey, who alludes to the fact that Lucy may soon be expecting a child. He compares the Rebel institution of southern slavery in the south to wage slavery he believes exists in Yankee factories. He laments the many lost lives that will never return home now that the tumult of war has passed over the land like a fierce storm.

Interestingly enough, Kantor used many direct quotes from real Civil War prison memoirs which are woven throughout the novel, such as the writings of John McElroy (who appears as a character in the novel). Kantor’s prose, particularly his limited use of punctuation and quotation marks, is a striking stylistic choice and it has been cited by Cormac McCarthy as a strong influence on his novels. And since the Civil War continues to be a controversial topic in American society, Andersonville, despite some efforts to convey a certain degree of nuance, has likewise remained controversial since its first publication. It was frequently challenged by school board members due to its use of vulgar and obscene language. In 1967, the father of an Amherst High School student claimed that the book was “1 percent history and 99 percent filth” and could not be read by his daughter. He called for the dismissal of the teacher who had assigned the book for her class to read. It was also banned by four Amarillo, Texas high schools as well as Amarillo College. Despite not approaching anything close to anti-Confederate in tone or content, Andersonville was regularly banned throughout the country. In an afterward to the novel, Kantor claims that he rejects the postwar revisionist “War Between the States” language, however his portrayal of happy slaves, and benevolent slave-owners, as well as sympathetic portraits of prison camp leaders calls to mind the nostalgia-bait found in another controversial Pulitzer Prize-winner, Gone With The Wind. Kantor did later sell the motion picture rights for Andersonville to a major Hollywood studio in the 1950s, but a film was never produced. And perhaps that is for the best.

The following are some notable quotations I found while reading:

“I was no secessionist” (11).

“On the afternoon of February fourteenth the eight surviving members of the Moon Hotel mess were counted out of Belle Isle with exactly five hundred and ninety-two other prisoners. Wishful gossip in camp suggested that they were about to be exchanged, perhaps aboard a warship at some coastal port, but most of the wiser guessed the truth. They would be sent South, possibly to Savannah or Charleston…” (84-85).

“…the Camp Sumter for which they were bound was in Georgia, not South Carolina, and was brand new –no prisoners had ever been kept there before. This was wonderful, for there would be no lice. Georgia in February would be Heaven compared to Virginia” (85).

“Ira Claffey was shocked speechless at the thought of a general abolition of slavery. He imagined hordes of illiterates trooping the highways with no roofs to lie beneath at night, with no one to buy food for them, with no money and without sufficient knowledge to buy sustenance for themselves. Worse than that, he saw them exploited as tools of unscrupulous white men who might fetter them in an industrial slavery in cities, where sun and comfort of wild places would be denied them… He did not see them or their descendants made respectable, dwelling in homes comparable to those of the whites, schooled, taught to work in trades or even in professions, making a satisfactory economic way as individuals and as a mass. He did not see how that transformation could be achieved in a thousand years, let alone a hundred. And the thought of black men given uniforms and arms and trained to make targets of the whites against whom they were marched” (97).

“Blamey watched the creek, and stiffened with disgust: some people were squatted down, there, doing their business. Fine business indeed –didn’t they realize that that was the only source of drinking water in the entire place?” (118).

“More and more the power of Andersonville poured over Ira Claffey like a glistening dark tide; it was there, reaching around him, it was sticky (he thought of molasses leaking from a barrel but the tide was not sweet)… Once more to the stockade the next day, wondering, staring, absorbing increased terror of the thing. The mean strength in number of the prisoners rose to ten thousand during April, the graves were said to be over nine hundred” (164).

“About the time of the arrival of the elegantly garbed prisoners from North Carolina, the quantity of rations began to decline, the quality had been non-existent for a long while. Men estimated as to whether they were getting one-quarter or one-third as much food as they needed to keep them going” (233).

“The farther advanced the summer, the death rate increases, until they die off by scores. I walk around to see friends of a few days ago and am told, Dead. Men stand it nobly, and apparently ordinarily well, when all at once they go. Like a horse, that will stand up until he drops dead… Was ever before in this world anything so terrible happening? Many entirely naked… Sores afflict us now, and The Lord only knows what next. Scurvy and scurvy sores, dropsy, not the least thing to eat can be called fit for any one, much less a sick man, water that to drink is poison, no shelter…” (350, written by Johnny Ransom from Michigan who is suffering from scurvy).

“Ira believed that a new Nation was made. It was one which he had prayed not to see; but here it was. His own fields, were he allowed to retain them, extended to Maine and Texas and to the Oregon country; because granule of soil lay next to granule of soil, and small roots were intertwined, and fences broke down in one patch of woods but rose in the next; and rivers were not bottomless, there were earth and rocks beneath, the rocks touched, it was the land, it was all the American land and the American waters belonging principally to America and not to individual planters, and not to New York or Georgia, as had been so cruelly demonstrated” (759).  

On the 1956 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Apparently, while Andersonville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, one of MacKinlay Kantor’s few disappointments was that it lost the National Book Award to Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara. The 1956 Pulitzer Jury consisted of two returning members from the prior year:

  • Carlos Baker (1909-1987) was notable man of letters. He was a former Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton (his PhD dissertation explored the influence of Spencer on Shelley’s poetry). He wrote a critically lauded biography of Ernest Hemingway which was nevertheless criticized by Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn. Baker also wrote well-regarded biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Baker was the teacher of A. Scott Berg, the contemporary biographer who has written bestselling books about Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, Katharine Hepburn, Woodrow Wilson, Charles Lindbergh (which later won the Pulitzer).    
  • Francis “Brownie” Brown (1904-1995) served as editor of the New York Times Book Review from 1949-1971. During his tenure, he oversaw expansive changes to the Book Review as the American writing industry expanded drastically with rapid increases of public literacy. He commissioned contributions by important American writers like James Baldwin and Saul Bellow, and penned several historical/biographical books.

Apparently the two men wrote the following to the Pulitzer Board at Columbia: “Andersonville, a historical novel in the grand manner, recaptures the tragedy and drama not only of the prison stockade from which it takes its name, but of the Civil War itself.” Kantor’s grandson later reiterated an anecdote about how, at the time, his grandfather met for drinks with his friend Mike Cowles, who served on the Pulitzer Advisory Board, and Cowles accidentally shared news that Kantor was likely going to win the Pulitzer –and that it was a “unanimous” decision. This was an astounding bit of news that Kantor simply pretended he already knew.  

Who is MacKinlay Kantor?
Benjamin McKinlay “MacKinlay” Kantor (1904-1977) was born and raised in Webster City, Iowa, a town located in central Iowa. His mother was the editor of the local paper, the Webster City Daily News, and his father (who was Swedish and Jewish) struggled to maintain a job –he was a notorious con artist before ultimately abandoning the family. As such, MacKinlay Kantor was mostly raised at his grandparents’ home in Webster City. While still a young boy, he began adopting his middle name “McKinlay” with an added “a” (as in “MacKinlay” or simply “Mack”) because it sounded more “Scottish.” This was also his pen name. While attending the local public school, he frequented the library and here he began writing short stories.  

He spent time in Chicago and married Florence Irene Layne, a woman he had known for a mere three months, and they eventually had two children together –both Kantor’s son and grandson later wrote biographies of their famous family member, MacKinlay Kantor. At any rate, in order to support his young family, Kantor published a variety of stories in pulp magazines, including plenty of crime and mystery tales. He moved his family from the Midwest to New Jersey where the Kantors were early residents in the experimental community of “Free Acre” (which was founded on an unorthodox school of thought regarding land taxation). His first novel was published in 1928 (the first of over thirty novels published throughout his career), and he continued writing pulp fiction throughout the 1930s, as well as embarking upon his first foray into Civil War writing.

During World War II, Mr. Kantor served as a war correspondent for a Los Angeles newspaper, during which time he manned a machine gun (apparently against regulations) and he joined the party that liberated Buchenwald concentration camp on April 14, 1945. This latter experience would later influence his writing of Andersonville (1955). When he returned to the United States, he was hired by Samuel Goldwyn to write a screenplay about veterans returning home from war. The result was his blank-verse novel entitled Glory for Me (published in 1945) which was made into the Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), however according to legend, Mr. Kantor was extremely disappointed in the film, at one point even storming off the lot during filming. Kantor went on to write several more scripts and his novels continued to sell well, particular after his Pulitzer Prize win in 1955, and as the money flooded in, he settled into a comfortably excessive lifestyle which failed to abate when the royalty checks stopped rolling in. This led to financial troubles late in life.  

He conducted research far and wide for his novels, including among the New York Police Department as well as interviews with various war widows. But none of his short stories, screenplays, or novels would ever reach the critical success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Andersonville. After smoking a pipe and struggling with alcoholism for many years, he died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 73 at his home in Sarasota, Florida. His grandson later recounted Kantor’s final moments as his eyes popped open and he uttered: “Horrible… horrible…”

Kantor, MacKinlay. Andersonville. A Plume Book (Published by the Penguin Group), New York, NY, 1993.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s