THE HIGH-TIDE mark of Pickett's grand, doomed charge at Gettysburg -- some say the high tide of the Confederacy itself -- was a jog in the Union's stone wall defenses near Ziegler's Grove that the soldiers called The Angle. Not the Bloody Angle, which was at Spotsylvania Court House. Just The Angle, a quiet term of infinite menace.
"The first time I went there was in August of '64 when I was driving from Jersey down to Florida and I stopped off. I sat right where the trees come up to that stone corner. I sat with my back against a tree for two hours, and every now and then when I closed my eyes, I could see it. I could see it."
Michael Shaara wrote a book about the four days of Gettysburg. It was called "The Killer Angels," and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975. It doesn't sound like fiction and most of it isn't: the names, the events, even some of the famous public words. It was the offhand talk, the living moments, the feel of the thing, that Shaara made up.
And that is the part that sounds the most real of all. Because he puts you there on those rolling hills in the hot July afternoons of 1863, you personally, in spite of yourself, sweating in your dusty uniform as you trot across the endless meadow and up the hill behind Pickett, the wheat chaff itching inside your socks, the thick sharp smell of powder clotting the cloversweet summer air, the stumbling and the throat going dry with fear, the terrible sights seen and instantly forgotten and then remembered for the rest of your life.
. . . kept his head down, looked left, saw Pettigrew's men still moving, but the neat lines were gone, growing confusion, the flags dropping, no Rebel yell now, no more screams of victory, the men falling here and there like trees before an invisible ax you could see them go one by one and in clumps, suddenly, in among the columns of smoke from the shell . . . He moved closer to the wall up there, past mounds of bodies, no line any more, just men moving forward at different speeds, stopping to fire, stopping to die, drifting back like leaves blown from the fire ahead. Armistead thought: we won't make it. He lifted the sword screaming, and moved on, closer, closer, but it was all coming apart; the whole world was dying . . . Closer now. He could see separate heads; he could see men firing over the wall. The charge had come to a halt; the attack had stopped . . . Canister came down in floods, wiping bloody holes. A few flags tilted forward, but there was no motion . . . And then he began to move forward automatically, instinctively, raising the black hat on the sword again, beginning to scream, "Virginians! With me! With me!" and he moved forward the last yards toward the wall, drawn by the pluck of that great force from within, for home, for country, and now the ground went by slowly, inexorably, like a great slow river, and the moment went by black and slow, close to the wall, closer, walking now on the backs of dead men, troops around beginning to move, yelling at last the Rebel yell, and the blue troops began to break from the fence . . .
All over the country, when that book came out, people were asking: Who is Michael Shaara? Where has he been all this time? Why have we never heard of him?
In almost the next breath the world learned that he had had an accident of some sort, that he would never write again, that he was a vegetable. It was one of those peculiar word-of-mouth legends, like the story of TV juvenile Jerry Mather dying in Vietnam, and people heard it and mourned a little and forgot about it.
The truth was this:
"I was teaching in Italy, in Florence, the Florida State program there. They had about 100 students and five professors. I was teaching Shakespeare," Shaara says. "I bought a Vespa because I couldn't afford the gasoline. I'd never had an accident, I've flown planes for 20 years. But I cracked up. Don't remember any of it. Hit the back of my head. I was unconscious five weeks. They didn't figure I was coming out and brought me back to the States as totally and permanently disabled."
At first he couldn't talk or hear. Doctors didn't believe it when he recovered. He still has a form of dyslexia, when sometimes what he is reading suddenly doesn't make sense, or he gets lost and disoriented.
He stands 6 feet 2 without seeming to. His eyes are brown and watchful. His nose is broken. He forgets names and raincoats and touches your arm when he is moved. We were talking in a cafe' at Kennedy Airport in New York, where we met for an interview. He was on his way to Italy for a few months. He talked nonstop for almost two hours. "I guess you noticed I needed to talk because I've been by myself for so bloody long." The talk jumped around in time but kept coming back to the accident.
"It was the first time in my life I ever really needed anything," he said. "I found out who was there. It's why my brother the doctor, Richard, why my brother and I don't talk to each other any more. He's a damn good kid, but when I was in real trouble . . ."
It was the same with his beautiful wife Helen, whom he had married in 1950 and who soon after had gone to work in the Division of Family Services in Tallahassee, supplementing his university income and then, after the accident, supporting herself and him and the two children.
"She's a sweet, decent human being, with brains, reliable, paid the bills, took care of me, but after I got smashed in the head she wasn't there any more. I was in a royal mess for two years: broken knee, collarbone, deaf in one ear. I'd go out for a walk and get lost. Try to drive the car, go to the movies, and realize I wasn't seeing what I was seeing. We were divorced after 29 years."
In a marriage you help the one who needs. But sometimes both of you need at the same time and there's no way out of it, and who is to blame then?
His daughter Lila he used to call Gorgeous George when she was small, because of her golden curls.
"One of the best days I ever had was on Aug. 21, her 12th birthday," he said. "We were celebrating, and the mail came with the advance copy of the 'Killer Angels,' and I said, 'Hey, by the way,' and I handed it to her, and she looked at the dedication and she broke up."
It reads: "To Lila (old George) . . . in whom I am well pleased."
Shaara is working on a book about Shakespeare, but there is a problem.
"The first book I wrote I dedicated to my wife, the second to my daughter, the third to my father. I don't have anybody to dedicate this one to. I never belonged in Jersey, where I was born, I never belonged in Texas, where my mother came from, I never belonged in Florida where I live now. I don't belong with the English professors or with the editors. I've been everywhere except Moscow because my father didn't want me to go there. I'm adrift. That's what I'm feeling now, the thing about where the hell is home."
Ambiguities surround Michael Shaara, and sometimes he is content with them, and sometimes uneasy. He was born 53 years ago, his mother a DAR descendant of Lighthorse Harry Lee and Thomas Jefferson, his father an Italian POW from World War I who wound up in Jersey as Frank Hague's right-hand man and one-time campaign manager for Rep. Peter Rodino. His four uncles were all professional boxers, good ones, including a Golden Gloves champion and a No. 2 rated lightweight ("when I was 12 my father had me jab the laundry bag and taught me the short right hand") and the writer himself won 17 of his 18 pro bouts. Tough guys.
So he was somewhat surprised to learn that the family name used to be Sciarra, as in the duke of Florence, Palazzo Sciarra on the Via Corso, mile-square Villa Sciarra, Marcellus Sciarra, who turns up in Stendhal, and Ferdinand Sciarra, who was one of Garibaldi's generals.
Then there is the strange story of his son Jeff. Shaara's publishers had warned that the son had died young and that the father wouldn't want to talk about it. He said, "It was rough . . . William Shakespeare lost his son; so did I . . . The worst thing that can happen to a man is if your kid dies before you die."
Jeff is alive and well, is married and lives in Tampa.
Commented Helen Shaara: "He just walked out around the time of the accident. He was in a different phase of his life. His father never got over it."
She keeps in touch with her ex-husband, whose talent she forgives. At the airport he was wearing the corduroy jacket she had given him (he had left it behind at her place and she had sent it on by air to catch up with him in Miami): his favorite jacket, he said.
Ambiguities. A natural athlete, spectacular high school baseball pitcher ("my father would hold the glove on his left knee and I'd throw the curve at it till I could hit it every time. Then he'd go to the right knee . . ."), championship basketball player . . . yet in 1966 he nearly died from a heart attack. A former merchant seaman, paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, a St. Petersburg policeman . . . yet he was an English professor for 12 years with a degree from Rutgers and graduate work at Columbia and the University of Vermont. Proud of his writing awards ("did you know I'm on the short list for the Nobel Prize?") . . . yet proudest of all about winning the outstanding teacher award at Florida State in 1967.
More than anything else, Shaara's writing history is ambiguously split between past and future. Before "Angels" he was known as a science-fiction writer. The novel he published last year, "The Herald," sees an apocalyptic future, and his short-story collection, "Soldier Boy," contains spare, low-key, prize-winning science fiction from the pulp mags of the '50s. He has also written about his heart attack (won a prize for that too) and the police career.
"I've written all kinds of things in 30 years," he said. "I write whatever comes to mind, I've never written for a buck. Never stayed in one field. I write for the fun of it, and I don't think of the reader. The reason I went to Gettysburg was that I had the letters of my great-grandfather Richard Wilder Maxwell. He was wounded there with the 4th Georgia. But the more I read, the deeper in I got. I thought, why not do it all, do it straight, do Lee as he really was? I read every letter Lee wrote, and one day he showed up, and I knew him."
From Lee's letters he learned (and checked with cardiologists) that the great general had apparently had a heart attack early in 1863. At Gettysburg he could hardly walk 100 yards, and that, Shaara reasoned, would be why Lee didn't climb the college cupola in front of the lines as the other generals did, to survey the field. Longstreet had complained of getting gun-deaf, and that would be why, when he was standing with Lee, it was Lee who heard the distant cannons first.
"It took me two years to find out things like that. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking before I write anything."
That book took eight years, if you count all the thinking time. The first one, "The Broken Place," took six. He writes fast when he finally starts.
He laughed to think of the TV guy who offered him $30,000 for a 60-minute script about Pompeii, to be delivered in three weeks.
If the publishing world doesn't know quite what to make of Michael Shaara, the feeling is mutual. He's had a different publisher for all four books and has gone through at least nine agents. He will tell you the horror stories in detail, his low voice fading as the bitterness comes over him again. "They don't read the stuff. It's all the subject matter, the formula, the track record." He feels editors don't like him ("I've never been invited to dinner by an editor") and totally fail to understand his ways, as when one house bought "The Herald" but then told him it was holding that up until he finished the Shakespeare novel--"which would mean sitting on this completed book four years."
The Shakespeare novel came to him after years of teaching and studying the plays and sonnets. Originally it was scheduled for this year, but it's on hold now and may be years away.
"It's difficult. It covers 52 years instead of four days. It's what happened in October of 1615 when he was dying and had six months to live. He's sitting on this hillside in Stratford and he starts to write notes . . . I was in Denver one day when this began to work. I saw him."
Shaara feels a kinship to Shakespeare. "He was a first son, so was I; his father was political but no good with money, so was mine; his father lived to be 76, mine lived to be 78; his mother was an Arden, mine was a Jefferson; he had a younger brother named Richard, so do I; he stayed married to the same woman 30 years but got involved with a Dark Lady, so did I; he lost his son, so did I; he wrote all kinds of different things, and so do I."
Constantly, he talks about his father, about fathers and sons. It was his father who raised him outside the church, having left it himself. In college, he sought out writer John O'Hara for fatherly advice (and was told to become a cop for a couple of years, which he did), and years later, when Hemingway passed through Tallahassee one 4 a.m., Shaara heard about it from the kid who ran the motel and brought the famous author, one of his heroes, the beer he had asked for and stayed to talk about writing.
He likes "the big boys": Conrad, Faulkner, Wilder, Graham Greene. Joseph Wambaugh is the best he's read in 10 years. He finds Updike and Roth and some other pop writers lightweight.
Now he has a whole new set of frustrations and bafflements as he tries to get a film of "The Killer Angels" off the ground. He has written the screenplay, and the would-be producer wants him to be in it, and Robert Redford wants to play Joshua Chamberlain, the unsung hero from Maine, and there was even a trip to Ireland to scout sites. And meanwhile, Jack Nicholson wants to make a movie of "The Herald." And there is the script for Shaara's baseball film, "Billy Boy." But nothing seems to be happening.
He can't get the hang of the film world's off-again-on-again attitude. "Everything I've turned to has been bad luck," he says.
He travels everywhere. England, South Africa, New Zealand. He has just been to Alaska for a seminar. He is roaming through Italy now, comfortably, for he speaks Italian, wandering around his father's birthplace, Florence, and soon will head for a film festival in France. After that, maybe back to the house his father left him in Melbourne, Fla.
"I love teaching but I don't know how to get back into it," he says.
Been lucky, had everything he wanted, he says.
Adrift, he says.