With the release of a newly discovered unpublished novel--The Rebel in Autumn--and the ebook releases of his three classic backlist titles: his first novel, The Broken Place; his science fiction novel, The Herald; and his beloved baseball novel, For Love of the Game; and the upcoming ebook publication of 46 short stories, the works of Michael Shaara stand poised to take their place in America's literary pantheon. While his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels has sold millions of copies, and For Love of the Game was made into a movie that seems to be constantly on TV, his other works remain virtually unknown. Twenty-five years after his death, Michael Shaara is on the verge of being rediscovered as the versatile, talented man of letters that he was.
Michael Shaara was born in 1928 in Jersey City, N.J., the son of Michael Joseph Shaara, Sr., an Italian immigrant and union organizer, and Allene (Maxwell) Shaara. He married Helen Elizabeth Krumwiede in 1950 (marriage which ended in 1980), and had two children: Jeffrey and Lila Elise. Shaara graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in 1951, and continued with graduate studies at Columbia University (1952-53) and University of Vermont (1953-54). He knew in college that he wanted to write for a living, and his short story career began in the 1950s, selling mainly science fiction and fantasy stories to the pulp fiction magazines as well as to Cosmopolitan, Galaxy, Fantastic Universe, Playboy, Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post, winning several awards. Shaara's themes reflected his times and dealt with everyday events, as well as with aliens, and the devastation of complete cities from nuclear disasters. In 1959, Shaara was hired as an instructor of English at Florida State University, and by 1968, he had risen to the position of Associate Professor.
Michael Shaara was teaching creative writing at Florida State University while writing his first novel, The Broken Place. Shaara had worked numerous odd jobs before becoming a teacher, including time spent as a merchant seaman and police officer. Under contract to deliver The Broken Place, the stress of the writing and teaching a full course load caused him to have a serious, nearly fatal heart attack. He was even pronounced dead while the ER doctors attempted to revive him. This near-death experience no doubt colored his writing of The Broken Place, as did his army experience (a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during peace time), his amateur boxing career, and his marriage to his college sweetheart, Helen Elizabeth Krumwiede, the model for Lise Hoffman. The Broken Place was published to great literary acclaim--Shaara was often compared to Ernest Hemingway in the reviews--but few sales.
His second novel, The Rebel In Autumn, was based on an event at Florida State. Rebel was written during the campus protests of the late 1960s and is set in 1969. His agent began shopping the book in 1970, just a few short months before the Ohio National Guard shot into a crowd of student protesters at Kent State University, killing four, in an eerie echo of Rebel's climactic scene. And so the book never saw the light of day, although it is a beautifully written and artfully crafted novel, perhaps the equal of his next novel, The Killer Angels.
In 1972, while teaching an FSU abroad program in Italy, Shaara had a devastating motorcycle accident, leaving him unconscious for weeks. He suffered from a severe brain injury, and Shaara later said that his eyes were not "working together" and that he could not read very much. Shaara also had difficulty with both speech and thought patterns. Emotionally, he suffered from bouts of depression.
Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 for The Killer Angels, his second published novel, a brilliant portrayal of the Battle of Gettysburg. But even that was a struggle. It took Shaara years to research the book, even enlisting his then teenage son Jeff to crawl around under the brush at Gettysburg in order to find long-covered up markers. The Killer Angels was rejected by fifteen publishers before the small, independent, and long defunct David McKay Company purchased the manuscript. The Killer Angels was another critical success and commercial flop, as the public wasn't interested in war stories in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It wasn't until five years after Shaara's death that The Killer Angels hit the bestseller lists, climbing all the way to #1 on The New York Times list.
It would be seven years before Shaara would publish another novel. The Herald came out in 1981 and hearkened back to Shaara's early career writing science fiction for magazines. The Herald is a very dark post-apocalyptic story, perhaps related to Shaara's continuing financial failures as a writer. The glimmer of hope at the end of the novel speaks to the spark that lurked beneath Shaara's misanthropic outlook. While it garnered some positive reviews, it was clear that The Herald was not going to find commercial success either.
A second heart attack killed Shaara in 1988 at the age of 59.
Shaara's first financially successful novel was published posthumously--For Love of the Game. The beloved baseball novel was quickly snapped up by the movies and made into a film with Kevin Costner playing the lead. But before Game came the movie "Gettysburg" directed by Ron Maxwell, financed by Ted Turner. Starring Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee and Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Sam Elliot and Tom Berenger among others. The movie was a hit, and turned the forgotten novel behind it--The Killer Angels--into a huge success. It is now required reading at many schools, including West Point, and is generally considered one of the greatest Civil War novels ever written.
With the publication of The Rebel in Autumn, and the release of The Broken Place, The Herald and For Love of the Game as ebooks, all the Shaara novels will now be available for the first time. The publication of Rebel is a major literary event--how often does a lost manuscript from a Pulitzer Prize winning author turn up...43 years after it was written and 25 years after its author's death?
Michael Shaara's son, Jeff Shaara, has taken up his father's mantle of writing historical fiction, writing bestselling novels of the Civil War, Mexican War, WWI and WWII, enjoying commercial success in his lifetime the way his father was never able to. Michael Shaara's daughter, Lila, also published two novels.
The Michael Shaara papers today reside at the Bienes Museum at the Broward County Public Library in Florida. http://www.broward.org/library/bienes/pages/bienesshaara.aspx