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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Clio v. Prose Fiction: Ralph Peters' "Judgment at Appomattox"

Last night I finished reading Ralph Peters' Judgment at Appomattox.  It was such a good read that I regretted having to set the book down.  Peters has a gift for words that really brings to life the travails of our Civil War.  Those who have read all his books on the Civil War and want more of his writing can go on to read about his fictional Civil War detective, Abel Jones, composed under the pen name of Owen Parry.  Peters may have exceeded his Civil War achievement in the Abel Jones series, credibly creating the world of a Welsh detective in America.

How does the historian (our muse is Clio) compete with the ability of a talented writer of fiction such as Peters to bring events to life?  We can look at the work of Gordon Rhea, who just finished a five volume epic on the Overland Campaign, and the work of Noah Andre Trudeau, who has written about the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg as well, among other matters.  Even if we cannot write brilliantly alliterative prose, like Peters, we can still employ the words of the participants themselves to bring things back to life.  Many turns of phrase by the participants are inimitable and some real life incidents are off limits to the writer of fiction, who must heed Aristotle and obey the principle of probability.  Facts, however, are improbable.  And we historians may celebrate them by serving them up raw, in the unique words of their authors whenever possible.