Friday, September 25, 2015

Discovering Jackson

 jackson colorized

A braver man God never made.
– Richmond Dispatch, 3-28-1862 (page 226)

Gwynne’s biography of Stonewall Jackson is simply one of the best biographies I have ever read. Many biographies plod along a “cradle-to-grave” timeline that starts out something like “our hero’s father started out as a child…” and relates those supposedly telling events of childhood that shaped the man, indulging in armchair psychoanalysis along the way. Some, in the absence of words recorded by principals, just whip up dialog out of thin air – and here I’m thinking of Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, half of which consists of invented chatter.

Instead, Gwynne takes known dialog from the letters of principals, and he adapts the timeline to what the biography needs to emphasize. For example, the opening scene is a portrayal of what he later (page 336) calls “one of the most thrilling moments of the war” – when Jackson had catapulted to fame after routing three Union armies in the Shenandoah valley and had been summoned east to save Richmond, on June 19, 1862.