Early Years and Education
"I wrote only what came to mind, with no goal and little income, always for the joy of it, and it has been a great joy." To Michael Shaara, the joy of carefully crafting a great story meant more than a mass-market audience or a lot of money. What hooked him was the fun of the story "waiting to be told."
Michael Shaara was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 23, 1929. His father, Michael Joseph Sr., was an Italian immigrant active in local unions and politics. Shaara described his father as being similar to Shakespeare: "political, but no good with money." His mother, Alleene Maxwell Shaara, provided the opposite perspective in life. She was from the South, with family roots going back to Thomas Jefferson and "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. The diversity in his parents brought him in touch with both worlds, North and South, a factor that probably allowed him to understand both sides in the Civil War.
Shaara did extremely well in school, winning more awards in high school than any other student in the history of the school. He received letters for basketball and track and excelled as a baseball pitcher. His father also taught him to box, something that remained a passion in his life and figured in his writing. Of the 18 matches Shaara fought as a young man, he won 17. The one loss would serve as the basis for a later short story, "Come To My Party."
After high school, Shaara's work experiences resembled those of one of his favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. Shaara served as a paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division, a merchant seaman, and police officer walking a beat. He married in 1950, graduated in 1951 from Rutgers University with a bachelor's degree and then did some graduate work at Columbia University and the University of Vermont. He spent the remainder of the 1950s working as a short story writer, predominantly in the science-fiction genre.
In 1961, Shaara accepted a position at Florida State University in Tallahassee, teaching creative writing and literature. It was probably a natural choice given his writing career, and he observed that he enjoyed teaching because "it taught him a lot." He worked hard at the challenge of reaching all of his students, describing the mix as "students with talent and no desire; desire and no talent; and a little of each." They responded by voting him Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 1967, earning him the Coyle Moore Award. He served there until 1973.
Michael Shaara wrote more than 75 short stories in his life. They were published in a variety of magazines, including Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and others. They covered a wide range of subjects, though the predominant one was science fiction.
Another popular theme with Shaara was boxing. "Come To My Party" is one of his better known stories in this vein. It is about a boxer who loses a prizefight because the opponent manages to avoid him in the ring, yet wins by the rules. It is based on Shaara's one loss to a fighter who "boxed, but couldn't hit." The boxer spent most of the fight avoiding Shaara and winning the match "on the rules." Shaara later observed that the man "would never have won in natural life, in a fight in a bar."
While teaching in Florida, Shaara used the boxing theme again in his first novel, The Broken Place. Published by New American Library in 1968, it is the story of a Korean War veteran, Tom McClain, seeking to be free of his demons and finding that freedom through his boxing. Shaara came back to his science-fiction roots in his third novel, The Herald, published by McGraw-Hill in 1981. The story has been described as more of a long short story than a novel. In 1982, Pocket Books published Soldier Boy, a collection of Shaara's short stories from the 1950s.
It was Michael Shaara's second novel, though, that brought him critical recognition, and its subject was a departure from both science fiction and boxing. The Killer Angels was a historical fiction about Gettysburg. Shaara's change in genre had a double catalyst: old letters and a vacation trip. The letters were from Shaara's great-grandfather, a member of the 4th Georgia Infantry, who had been injured at Gettysburg.
Seeking to learn more about his great-grandfather's experiences there, Shaara took a family trip to Gettysburg in 1966. His son, Jeff, who was 14 at the time, explained that his father "had a bad heart and could not climb the hills, so he would send me up there to describe them to him . . . It was probably the best time in my life with my father." The two returned in 1970 to finish the research, and it was published in 1974 by David McKay, after 15 rejections by other publishers.
The book's genius is in Shaara's ability to narrow down a huge subject to a few people and events that could make it personal for the reader. Shaara's background provided the insight to see both sides of the conflict. The results are crisp characters, vivid images, and an objectivity that avoided making heroes out of one side or the other.
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but there was not much public acclaim because it came out during the Vietnam War, a bad time for a war novel. Fame would not come until much later, five years after Shaara's death, when the film based on his book was released.
A quote in Hemingway's book A Farewell to Arms inspired the title for Shaara's first book, The Broken Place. "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills." Perhaps that quote best sums up the last years of Shaara's life.
Shaara was in a motorcycle accident in Italy in 1972, remaining in a coma for several weeks. The pain and stroke-like symptoms that resulted left him unable to concentrate and impaired his ability to write. Things seemed to go poorly after that.
In a 1982 interview he spoke of being similar to Shakespeare in that each had been married to the same woman for 30 years but became involved with a "Dark Lady," and each had lost a son. It was an odd comment, especially the last part, because his son Jeff, born in 1952, was still alive. However, it reflected reality. Shaara had divorced his wife in 1980 and had also severed all connections with his son.
For the remaining years of his life, the active and talented man who had done so much and written so well, was restricted by health problems. He was able to write his third novel, The Herald, as well as a screenplay for The Killer Angels. He also traveled to Ireland to do some site research for the filming of that screenplay, but his health continued to hamper his activities. Unable to enjoy so many things that had given him joy — including his writing — he was bitter and withdrawn. Michael Shaara died on May 5, 1988, at the age of 59.
At the time of his death Shaara left behind a number of projects. These included an autobiography, the screenplay for The Killer Angels, a book on Shakespeare, and an unpublished novel about baseball, written several years earlier. His son, Jeff, took over his literary estate and brought about the posthumous publication of the baseball novel, For Love of the Game, which was later made into a movie starring Kevin Costner. Even more importantly, working with an old friend of his father's, Ronald F. Maxwell, Jeff Shaara saw to it that the screenplay for The Killer Angels made it to film. In 1993, with Maxwell as director, the film, Gettysburg, was completed. Following a suggestion from Maxwell, the younger Shaara, took on the challenge of completing a trilogy that had his father's book, The Killer Angels, as the centerpiece. Jeff Shaara wrote Gods and Generals, set before The Killer Angels, and The Last Full Measure, set right after it.