Apr 282015
 

originally published April 27, 2015  Opinionator, New York Times

As John Wilkes Booth stepped into President Lincoln’s booth at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865, Union prisoners of war were heading home on foot and by rail, free from Andersonville, Cahaba and other prisons. Several thousand men had been brought to a transit camp at Vicksburg, Miss., where they awaited transport along the Mississippi River.

Eleven days later, 2,100 of those soldiers, many sick, many barefoot, boarded the wooden side-wheeler steamboat Sultana. The ship was built to carry 375 passengers; that day it steamed north with 2,427, including civilian men, women and children along with the soldiers.

At 2 a.m., when the ship was just seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of its four boilers exploded. Nearly 1,800 people, mostly Union soldiers, died in what remains the worst maritime disaster in American history – worse, even, than the Titanic – and one of the largest military losses of life in a single day.

Those who were not killed outright by the explosion died in the crush to abandon the ship, or drowned in the river below. The water was still chilly with winter runoff, and many of those who made it into the water died of hypothermia. One survivor, Daniel Allen, testified in 1892:

I pressed toward the bow, passing many wounded sufferers, who piteously begged to be thrown overboard. I saw men, while attempting to escape, pitch down through the hatchway that was full of blue curling flames, or rush wildly from the vessel to death and destruction in the turbid waters below. I clambered upon the hurricane deck and with calmness and self-possession assisted others to escape.”

Many of those who did survive were horribly burned. About 700 made it to a hospital in Memphis, where 200 died of their injuries.

The country was caught up in the celebration over the war’s end and the mourning over Lincoln, and while the disaster made the front pages, it quickly fell from the public’s mind. Hearings were conducted, but few were punished. Only one officer, a captain who had ordered the men onto the overcrowded boat, was found guilty, but his verdict was overturned.

The Sultana docked at Helena, Ark., just before it sank on April 27, 1865.Credit Library of Congress

The Sultana itself was lost, and discovered only in 1982, when archaeologists uncovered fragments 30 feet below a soybean field along the banks of the Mississippi – the river having shifted course over the ensuing century. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 6:37 am
Dec 112014
 

originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel (Nov 30, 2014)

Last week we celebrated Thanksgiving, proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, and on Nov. 19 we marked the 151st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, I am mindful of the many ways Americans have always missed the war.
In the several decades after the war, men, women and children saw more and more of the artists’ and finally the photographers’ scenes, and read the memoirs of the generals and officers, and heard the memorial speeches, and perhaps read the 128 volumes of “The Official Records of Union and Confederates Armies.”
Americans stored them up, mulled them over, and then began the long forgetting, made more painful in the South by the punitive Reconstruction that Lincoln had planned to avoid. And still, each and all missed the war, because it all sifts down finally to little more than fragments found on the field.
Then over the years, into the next century, into the hands of Americans came more and more of the common man’s accounts, views from the battlefields, the hospitals, the prisons. And more and more came the perspectives from the home front, the refugee’s, the widow’s, the spy’s, the mother’s, the nurse’s perspectives.
And still, pervading all those testimonials is that nagging apprehensiveness that drove Lincoln to the telegraph office, feeling that he was missing the war.
But what of the historians and the biographers, trailing along behind, collecting, arranging, filling in background? The fragments have insisted on remaining fragments. With so much missing, the whole, the vision of the whole, has remained unachieved.
Americans missed the war that most shaped America’s destiny by remaining mesmerized by the fragments they picked up, isolated handfuls of facts about battles and leaders mostly. The public, from generation to generation, remained obsessed with the role of ancestors or with the look of artifacts, those literal fragments — swords, guns, bullets, uniforms, flags — found on the field.
In the two hours he wandered the battlefield that morning in Gettysburg, Lincoln witnessed scavengers thrilled to pick up, possess and count the value of fragments.
Americans have been immersed in seemingly endless talk, an endless stream of books, endless novels and poems that repeat and repeat and repeat the same things, as if damned to seek knowledge, understanding and perhaps even the vision in the self-same icons, tokens, runes and ruins.
The painful paradox is that both the men who fought and all people who have read about the battles missed the war. For the war is not only the details of battles such as Gettysburg and the simultaneous battle of Vicksburg, but a deeper exploration of the meaning of the whole war that would reveal itself in each individual American from the day of Lincoln’s address to this very day.
Americans have failed to make the nature of this war and its lessons part of their everyday lives as they deal with America’s problems. Let our vision henceforth be not to celebrate the war as an interesting time in history but to meditate on the war as a motive and prelude to action.
Let us look at the war through every conceivable perspective. Implore nurses, lawyers, physicians, journalists, dentists, teachers, merchants, laborers of every type, scientists of every type, engineers, geographers, secretaries, politicians, architects, women, ethnic groups to look at the war from their points of view and meditate on, talk about and publish their visions.
“The great task remaining before us” — to use Lincoln’s words — is to achieve at long last an understanding of the war commensurate with its lasting effects: the dark problems and bright prospects for America that came out of the war. Let us examine all aspects of the war in such a way as to pursue solutions to the problems that remain with us today — violence, racism and mistrust of government.
David Madden, a novelist and Civil War historian, is a native of Knoxville who lives in Black Mountain, N.C.

 Posted by at 6:20 am
May 072013
 

Opinion Piece- The Asheville Citizen-Times

Published: May 6, 2013

Community and technical colleges are becoming more and more numerous, and the quality of their facilities, teachers and students is increasing. They provide the kind of education and skill training that enables younger and older women and men to apply for a great variety of practical and much needed jobs.

A liberal arts education, on undergraduate and graduate levels, enables students to secure jobs in all fields, from engineering, computer science and medicine to creative writing, drama and the various other arts. Leaders in all fields favor employing people who have had a liberal arts education at some level.

Recent funding cuts, proposed cuts and negative comments from legislative and other elected leaders affecting the liberal arts move me to make a few observations. Continue reading »

 Posted by at 6:46 pm
May 052013
 

Why We Read Novels, Letter to the Editor, New York Times

Published: May 2, 2013

To the Editor:

The headline on Nathaniel Rich’s essay “Writing the End” (April 21) asks, “Should novelists try harder to confront long-term environmental crises?” As the author of 12 novels since 1961 and another in progress, I answer no.

Rich’s final paragraph offers a litany of reasons we read novels. They hold “a mirror to our secret desires and fears,” they allow us “to confront our long-term crises,” and they help us “to understand how the vast, complex problems of our time connect with our private inner lives.”

Then Rich burdens fellow novelists with the obligation “to pose the intimate questions” concerning the many ways the bad news about man’s future affects us. As a writer and teacher of writing for 60 years, I cannot recall ever hearing a writer or reader testify to the value of a novel as deriving from such utilitarian purposes as Rich claims. Great novels create pure experiences that affect our emotions, imaginations and intellect in ways that are mostly mysterious.

DAVID MADDEN
Black Mountain, N.C.

 Posted by at 8:09 pm
Nov 222012
 

Istanbul Passage is moody, psychological espionage tale

By David Madden

Special to Magazine (The Advocate)

November 19, 2012

ISTANBUL PASSAGE

By Joseph Kanon

Atria Books, $26; 401 pp.

Obviously, Joseph Kanon so loves Istanbul that he could not resist moving his protagonist back and forth all over the city. Everyone who goes there loves that city. For anyone who has not yet gone there, Kanon’s love will set you down walking on Galata Bridge, breathing the air sweeping over the Golden Horn from the Bosphorus strait. Inside, front and back, a very effective two-page map shows where we are. Never mind that the time frame is wartime early 1940s.

But Istanbul Passage is less a travel narrative or a love story than it is a moody psychological espionage tale. Leon Bauer is an expatriate American businessman who allows himself to get caught up in the Allied war effort doing odd jobs and courier runs for a business associate who is involved in delivering a war criminal to either the Russians or the Americans. Leon himself ends up with the task of trying to save the life of that loathsome creature.

Leon visits his psychotic wife who languishes in a clinic, simultaneously falling in love with the estranged wife of a businessman who is mysteriously murdered. The body count is rather low, but the tension is consistently very high, as Leon moves the war criminal from place to place, dealing with a vicious Russian official and an official of the Turkish police.

Kanon has forged a somewhat unique style. More effectively than John Le Carre, Graham Greene, or even Georges Simenon, Kanon simulates murky perception and thought processes. The reader’s experience is one of prolonged immersion in the sustained point of view of Leon whose dangerous predicaments render him acutely aware. “Had they heard about the shooting yet? Pages being made up, lines of type. Murder in Bebek. Mysterious shooting on the Bosphorus. No witnesses. Never suspecting the witness was outside their windows right now. Not just a witness, the killer. The sound of the shot was still in his head, an echo. Life gone in a minute, that easy.”

Author of five previous novels, including The Good German, Kanon is also a master of fast paced dialogue. Few visitors to Istanbul see as much as Kanon shows by a fitful light.

David Madden’s 13th work of fiction is London Bridge in Plague and Fire, just out.

 Posted by at 7:20 am