Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book of the Day: a first edition of a Civil War classic


MacKinlay Kantor, Andersonville (World, 1st ed. 1955). LOC 55-8257. Kantor’s best-selling novel of the notorious Civil War prison camp where thousands of Union prisoners died in fourteen months. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket in mylar, very good condition. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Rare in this condition.  HBB price: $59.95 obo.

An Iowan, Kantor (1904-1977) got his start writing for the pulp fiction magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s. He and his family moved to New Jersey in 1934, to be closer to the publishing hub of New York, and settled in a new planned community called Free Acres. The vision of an Irish enthusiast of the reformer Henry George’s Single Tax theories, its other early residents included the actor James Cagney and the writer Thorne Smith (of the Topper series).

A 1934 article in Collier's was Kantor’s break into the quality glossy magazines, and he embarked on a prolific career in books. Success came early, and by 1936 he could afford a winter home in the Florida Keys.

During World War II he was a European war correspondent and was there when Allied troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. Trying to make sense of, and describe, that experience became one of the underpinnings of his novel, Andersonville, a decade later.


A Civil War enthusiast from youth, Kantor took an unusual approach to writing of the conflict in Andersonville. Rather than focus on the great battles, he recreated the infamous Confederate prison camp where some twelve thousand Union soldiers died out of some 45,000 shipped there during the Civil War.

The 26.5-acre site in the Georgia woods was a hastily-constructed stockade, with little shelter or amenities. Food was scarce, and feeding enemy prisoners was at the the bottom of Confederate priorities. Starvation and disease were rampant. Kantor interwove the stories, and points of view of a large cast of characters, some real and some invented. His writing style was short on punctuation and quotation marks; considered offbeat in its time, it inspired the writer Cormac McCarthy, one of the most innovative American authors of the generations after Kantor.

The massive, 350,000-word novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956. Andersonville was the site of a national military cemetery from during the war on; about 150 burials a year are performed there today. The Andersonville National Historic site contains the cemetery, the prison, and the National Prisoner of War Museum.

Kantor was a giant in an age of literary giants. His grandson recalled,

My grandfather MacKinlay Kantor wrote innumerable works of fiction, including 31 novels, one of which, Andersonville, won the Pulitzer Prize. Another novel, Glory for Me, was the basis for the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which took seven Oscars, became the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind, and is often ranked among the greatest American movies of all time. These successes played out over more than three decades, during which Mack, as everyone called him, rose from near-starvation poverty to considerable wealth, performed on popular television shows, and made cameo appearances in movies. He “discovered” Oscar-winning actor and folk singer Burl Ives, mentored the crime novelist John D. MacDonald, and hung out with the likes of Grant Wood, Gregory Peck, Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, James Cagney, and Ernest Hemingway.


But the Fifties was his decade, and once it ran out, so did his gifts. The books sold less well, the royalties got smaller and smaller. His politics got angrier and more right-wing.

He kept on living large until his death of old age and alcohol-related complications, forty years ago today. His books went out of print and he is, today, largely forgotten.

Yet in his heyday, Kantor was a Really Big Deal. Considering a book on him, his grandson, Tom Scholer, found an astonishing trove:

In the Library of Congress of the United States, which happened to stand less than 25 miles from my home, was a room stacked with 158 boxes filled with 50,000 items; countless pages of indexed correspondence, contracts, manuscripts, photo­graphs, journals, tax returns, paraphernalia, and even an unpublished autobiographical novel—all of it by or about my grandfather. This vast cache—collected because a committee at the Library in the 1950s determined that my grandfather represented a “typical American writer”—was supplemented by the 40-some books that he had pub­lished, including at least two autobiographies, as well as a memoir about him written by my uncle—almost none of which I had ever read.


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