As novelist MacKinlay Kantor neared the end of his labors on Andersonville (1955), his magnum opus about the notorious Confederate prison in which thirteen thousand (out of forty-five thousand) Union captives died, he pronounced his book very good indeed: “There hasn’t been anything remotely resembling it in the annals of American historical fiction. Everyone has to go back to War and Peace for comparison.”
Reviewers did not go back so far as that. But historian Henry Steele Commager, in a front page verdict in the New York Times Book Review, declared that Andersonville was “the greatest of our Civil War novels.” Civil War historian Bruce Catton, writing in the Chicago Tribune’s Magazine of Books, called it unquestionably “the best Civil War novel I have ever read.” And the next year, Andersonville was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Nor was Andersonville merely a succès d’éstime: In January 1956, it began a long reign at the top of the Times bestseller list. By that November, Kantor had earned $150,000—the equivalent of $1.3 million today. Andersonville made him not only wealthy but a celebrity, featured, for instance, in a full-page Lord Calvert whiskey ad that appeared that year in Life, the New Yorker, and elsewhere.
Today, though, like such other once-celebrated novelists as James Gould Cozzens (whose Guard of Honor won a Pulitzer in 1949) and John P. Marquand (whose The Late George Apley won a Pulitzer in 1938), MacKinlay Kantor (1904–77) and his magnum opus are largely forgotten. But not by his grandson Tom Shroder, the author of several books and a former editor of the Washington Post Magazine. Born the year before Andersonville was published, Shroder looks back at Kantor in a biographical memoir, The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived—which is what Shroder’s mother once told him her father had led her and her brother to believe he was when they were growing up. (Kantor had had his first national bestseller in 1934 with a novel about the battle of Gettysburg, and a 1945 novel about American veterans returning from World War II became the basis for the Oscars-winning 1947 film The Best Years of Our Lives.)
Before Shroder embarked on his memoir in 2014, he had paid scant attention to his grandfather’s forty-some books, including thirty-one novels. “Though his many books lined a shelf in my bookcase, I never so much as cracked open a cover, save for Andersonville” (which, in the most recent paperback edition, has 754 pages). When younger, he’d made two or three stabs at reading it, but—despite his fascination “since childhood” with the Civil War—he failed to get beyond the first thirty-five pages. With the arrogance of youth, he had considered the writing “old-fashioned.... I simply didn’t have the patience or the interest to give it much of a chance.”
Nor had he given his grandfather much of a chance on one of his last encounters with him. Six months before the novelist died—his reputation having steeply declined, as, due to his spendthrift ways, had his fortune—Kantor had told a long and unfunny story at a wedding reception for Shroder’s first marriage. A friend of Shroder’s made a deflating wisecrack about Kantor’s interminable tale, and along with everyone else, Shroder laughed. (“What would I give to take that back?” he writes. “Name a price, please.”) Humiliated, Kantor stormed out of the party.
At Shroder’s final encounter with his grandfather on the latter’s deathbed, he heard Kantor’s last words: “Horrible! Horrible!”—which were very like Kurtz’s last words (“The horror! The horror!”) in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kantor’s had Shroder pondering them “a thousand times, ten thousand times, in the four decades since,” but he ends by thinking that, perhaps, “last words are less important than all the words that came before.”