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National Book Award Classics


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The following essay appeared in the May, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Bruce Catton (1899-1978)
A Stillness at Appomattox
Winner of the 1954 National Book Award for Nonfiction

"The soldier lived at the bottom of the pool, in the dim greenish light in which no outlines were very clear. He had seen army commanders come and he had seen them go, and he was going to take very little for granted. The only certainty was that the campaign ahead was going to be very rough, and the men frankly dreaded it…

"There had never been a fight like this before. Things were clear enough on the map, and [the General] had an uncanny way of studying a map once and then carrying it in his memory, but neither he nor anyone else had ever tried to fight a battle in a place where nobody could see anything at all…There were no adequate roads, and the most careful directives could come down to a matter of saying - The enemy is over there somewhere; go and find him and fight him."


Those of you who have been following my column as it has been developing over the past several months - and even readers coming to this page for the first time -- will concur that a literary classic possesses a timeless quality in many respects. It is timeless in the sense that it can stand up to constant revisiting; each and every occasion that we return to the classic work, we perceive something new, and take away a fresh insight.

It is timeless in the sense of style; even if the syntax is archaic or unusual, the message comes through.

And - as in the case of the two passages cited above, excerpted from A Stillness at Appomattox - we read Bruce Catton's words with an especially haunting feeling of timelessness: could this be, of all things, a metaphorical war? Are we actually being transported into the middle of the Civil War, or are we reading last month's newspaper reports from Iraq?

We surrender to the narrative power of the author time and time again as we read Bruce Catton's hypnotic account of the last year of the Civil War, final volume of his 'Army of the Potomac' Trilogy, winner of the 1954 National Book Award for Nonfiction, as well as the Pulitzer Prize.

Born in the northwestern Michigan town of Petoskey, Bruce Catton grew up in Benzonia, southwest of Traverse City along Highway 31 on the banks of the Benzie River near Crystal Lake. His father was Principal of Benzonia Academy. As a boy, Bruce first heard the reminiscences of the old men who had fought in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. The veterans' stories made a lasting impression upon him, giving "a color and a tone," Catton wrote in his eloquent memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train, (1972) "not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up...I think I was always subconsciously driven by an attempt to restate that faith and to show where it was properly grounded, how it grew out of what a great many young men on both sides felt and believed and were brave enough to do."

After graduating from Oberlin College and serving in the Navy, Catton got a job with the Cleveland News, spent a brief stint at the Boston Herald-American, then returned to Cleveland to work at the Plain Dealer. From 1925-1929, he worked in the Cleveland office of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Enterprise Association, producing articles, essays and reviews for the syndication service, then moving to its Washington, DC bureau.

Bruce Catton was fifty when he began work on the first two of what would become thirteen books on the Civil War - Mr. Lincoln's Army, (1951) followed one year later by Glory Road. His debut was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "military history at its best." He "combines the scholar's appreciation of the Grand Design with a newsman's keenness for meaningful vignette," said Newsweek. Catton immersed himself in a vast range of primary materials, especially the diaries, letters and anecdotal reports of soldiers on the ground, which gave his books from the outset their unique, "you are there" ambience.

In 1954, Catton became the first editor of American Heritage Magazine in Washington, where he remained as Senior Editor until his death in 1978.

"There is a near-magic power of imagination in Catton's work," wrote Oliver Jensen, who succeeded him as editor of the magazine, "that seemed to project him physically into the battlefields, along the dusty roads and to the campfires of another age."

Indeed, there is an inexorable atmosphere from the first pages of A Stillness at Appomattox, as the Union Army begins to consolidate the diverse tributaries of its forces for the last series of offensives. The intensive orderliness of the Northerners stands in dramatic contrast to the skirmishing, impromptu manner of the Confederates when Grant's aggressive and arrogant campaign seems to take on a life of its own.

As we march along with the Army of the Potomac, Catton swoops and peaks, from the lofty perspective of the White House down to the cries of the wounded in the mud; from General George Gordon Meade pacing back and forth with agitation under a tree, watching the battle unfold on a field below, to the ever-shrinking gap between the forces in blue and the outskirts of Richmond.

But there is one color permeating the entire narrative, and that is neither blue nor grey, but rather the relentless flow of blood -- "one long funeral procession," laments a despairing General Gouverneur Warren. Through the grandeur of its elegiac tone, A Stillness at Appomattox speaks magisterially of all wars.

-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director


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