A small vignette about Bruce Catton passed through my inbox that I thought I would pass along. It is adapted from a Michigan State University book called Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors. It is not clear from the excerpt how long the piece was in the original. I find it interesting that Catton would be included in a collection about writers from a particular state; being from the Midwest certainly influenced his worldview, despite the number of decades he lived in Washington DC and New York City. It is revealing that he went back when it was his time to die. His boyhood house in Benzonia is now the home of the local public library.
As I have noted in the comments sections of other blogs, there has been a lot of piling on to Catton in recent years. Some of the criticism is fair. For one thing, he downplayed slavery as a cause of the war in an effort not to offend a portion of his readership. Reconciliation was what 1950s readers wanted and that is what they found in Catton’s offerings. He was also unfair to certain players, most especially George McClellan. Your humble writer remembers visiting Antietam for the first time a few years ago and pronouncing to our licensed battlefield guide that the Federals should have taken Burnside’s Bridge with no problem. It was not until our guide took us there that I realized that, well, it was not as simple as I had read in the Army of the Potomac trilogy. I consider it a teachable moment, with the lesson in humility duly learned.
I no longer read Catton but I still believe there is much there for readers to enjoy and profit from. One would have to balance out Catton’s lyrical prose with the more recent scholarship of Ethan Rafuse, Tom Clemens, the interpretive ranger staff at Antietam, and elsewhere to get a fuller picture of the war. In American Oracle David Blight has an especially lucid chapter on Catton‘s strengths and weaknesses. Whatever his failures, there is no denying the man’s writing talents and his influence, for better and worse, on our understanding of our civil war.
(image/Bruce Catton in the 1960s, LOC)