The front page of the copy of this Pulitzer prize-winning novel that I got from the library says that MacKinlay Kantor “planned the writing of Andersonville, his masterwork, for twenty-five years.” I can believe it. The novel is 750 pages long and almost unbelievably detailed in its treatment of the Confederate prison of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The style of writing is a little odd. The book is mostly made up of short story or novelette length vignettes of the experiences of different people, mostly men, in and around the prison. A few characters persist throughout the entire book–the Claffey family who own a plantation just outside the prison, another family of poor whites who live nearby. The Yankee prisoners themselves and the prison guards and Confederate officers who run the prison move through the book, making appearances, telling their own stories, but mostly they don’t survive. Sometimes we read from the perspective of one of these prisoners, and then the writing becomes almost esoteric, as the reader partakes of the stream of consciousness, muddled thoughts and actions of disease-ridden and psychologically confused, sometimes delirious, men.
What I took away from the book was a reminder that there really is evil in the world, that Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia, are sadly not the only examples of men treating men like animals, and worse. Interestingly, although Kantor seems to have some sympathy for the Confederates caught on the losing end of a war that they saw as a battle for the survival of their way of life, nowhere does the book make the excuse for Andersonville that I have read before: that the Confederates themselves were malnourished and drained of resources and could not adequately feed or house thousands of Yankee prisoners. In the book, at least, there is plenty of food, just outside the prison walls, and the Claffeys and their neighbors even offer to help provide for the prisoners. But the cruelty of a few officers overrides any attempt to alleviate conditions at Andersonville. In this novel the infamous Captain Henry Wirz, commander of the prison, is a stupid, cruel German (reminding me again of Auschwitz) dictator whose wish is for all of the Yankees to die. And Wirz’s supervisor, General Winder, who is in charge of all of the Confederate prisoner of war camps, is even worse, if that is possible. The two of them make no excuses for their behavior; they are fighting their own war, against the Yankees, even those in prison. (No Geneva convention here.)
Andersonville won its Pulitzer Prize in 1956, several years after the horrors of the Holocaust of Hiter’s Germany had been revealed and somewhat assimilated, so I imagine that the echoes of those WW II atrocities are not unintended. The stories of how some of the Yankee prisoners at Andersonville kept some kind of human dignity even under the most degrading circumstances, and of how some became evil predators themselves, parallel stories of Hitler’s concentration camps and the conditions and choices made there. Andersonville is a disturbing book, but worth slogging through for the lessons and reminders it gives: evil can happen here, and good people can become enmeshed in that evil.