Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thank You, Bruce Catton. . .



Back in younger days--let's say in elementary and middle school--teachers and other adults would often ask of us: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
While most of my friends and classmates would respond with something extraordinary and typical, like an athlete or a movie star, I would always say, "I want to be the next Bruce Catton." Of course, I usually had to explain who Catton was, which only provided my classmates with further ammunition in labeling me as something of a nerd, or "Civil War dork." Yet I adamantly held my ground. When I was a kid, Bruce Catton was to me what Mike Schmidt or Harrison Ford were to my buddies.
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Next Thursday will mark the thirtieth anniversary of Catton's death, who died at the age of seventy-eight on August 28, 1978 (just two and half weeks, by the way, before I first entered the world).
So what better time to offer some of my reflections on one of the greatest.
My interest in the Civil War began at a very early age, and has only grown stronger since. One of my very first books--and one I still count as among the best--was The Golden Book of the Civil War, Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, published in 1961. This was the first time I read Bruce Catton, who penned the book's introduction. As a kid, I paged through the book thousands of times and always took it along during my family's many trips to Gettysburg and other Civil War sites. I remember also trying my hand as an artist, attempting to draw the colorful pictures and the super-cool maps that dominated the book. To me, it was the coolest thing in the world and I am sure many of my fellow Civil War enthusiasts, remembering their younger days, would agree.

As I grew older, I gathered more and more of Catton's other works: A Stillness at Appomattox, Glory Road, Mr. Lincoln's Army, and so on--usually given to me as birthday or Christmas gifts--and I loved every single one. Still do. Back then, Bruce Catton was to me the Civil War expert. No one else even came close. His writings inspired me and fostered in me a passion not only for the Civil War in particular, but for all of history in general.
Since then I have heard Catton derided as a hack, especially by those in the academic world. I remember cringing in my seat at college and at graduate school as a number of my professors criticized Catton. How dare they, I thought. I had loved the man and his writings so much that I think I came to see any attack on him as an attack on me!
I have to admit, however, that they sometimes made good points about his research and methodologies. As I became more of a historian, I am almost pained to say that I, too, found myself disagreeing with some of Catton's interpretations and many of his conclusions. (He was far too tough on Burnside, for example). But with that being said, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for Catton and his work. The man was a brilliant writer; his style incredible and thoroughly evocative. Even to this day, I get so wrapped up in Catton's narrative that I feel I am present on the campaigns and in the battles he so eloquently describes. I can only dream of emulating his writing techniques, and I have come to grips with the fact that I will never be "the next Bruce Catton." And that is just fine with me because, in the end, no one will ever fill his shoes. . .at least as far as I am concerned.
Bruce Catton has been dead for three decades, but still I have to thank him. I probably wouldn't be who I am today had it not been for him and his books.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

John
I got my start with Bruce Catton and the same book you described. As a young lad, I remember laying on the floor and using red and blue poker chips to draw out the battle lines using the maps in his book as a guide. In college when I had to prepare a report for military science on a civil war battle, I chose Shiloh and that book was the first one I reached for! The Army of the Potomac trilogy was amazing to me back in the day as well. See you soon!
Jim Rosebrock

Anonymous said...

I had the same book that you did when I was a kid back in the 60s. Bruce Catton was always a magical name. Haven't read his stuff in years (in fact haven't read a lot of Civil War in the past few year -- but that's being corrected!) but I loved that book.

Brad Lewin