How to Write About Gettysburg

by Richard Brookhiser

Today we begin observing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which still exerts an awful fascination. 

I have written a bit about America’s nineteenth century wars, much more about the Revolution. A problem in writing about all of them is how to describe combat. 

There is a style of what can only be called war-porn. To convey a sense of drama and motion, high-power verbs are scattered through the text like firecrackers. Lines hurl, push, strike, smash; other lines reel, crumple, crumble. At its frequent worst, it is like sports writing with blood. Years ago William Gaddis wrote a parody which I recall from a review: “…And the boy in butternut goes down! Get that man off the field!”

Now the fashion is what might be called death-porn. One can only evoke the cost by piling up the corpses — a technique with obvious antecedents in anti-war literature going back to the trench poets of World War I. (Homer piles up corpses too, of course, though I think he rather enjoys it.)

A third way is grunt P.O.V., with an emphasis on confusion and discontinuity — where the hell am I anyway? — the models here being Stendhal and Stephen Crane.

Giving a coherent account of a battle or a campaign while being true to both the principles that may have animated the combatants and their sufferings is the beneficiary’s assignment.