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The Killer Angels | Study Guide

Michael Shaara

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Michael Shaara | Biography


Early Life

Michael Shaara was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 23, 1928, to immigrant parents whose Italian name, Sciarra, was changed as they entered the country at Ellis Island. Shaara served in the army from 1946–49 as a paratrooper and merchant seaman. He later became an amateur boxer before earning a master's degree from Rutgers in 1951; afterward he did postgraduate work at the University of Vermont as well as at Columbia University. Shaara moved to Florida in 1954 with his wife, son Jeff, and daughter Lila Elise. There he worked as a police officer in St. Petersburg for two years. He later became a professor of creative writing and literature at Florida State University (1961–73) in Tallahassee.

Author and Professor

Although known for his historical fiction, Shaara actually began his writing career in the 1950s as the author of more than 70 short stories published in both science fiction and mainstream magazines, including Astounding Science Fiction Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. While teaching classes by day at Florida State, he wrote fiction by night. Some suspect the strain of pursuing dual careers led to his heart attack in 1965. Shaara's first novel, The Broken Place (1968), follows the story of a Korean War (1950–53) veteran turned boxer.

Writing and Reception of the Novel

A visit to the Civil War (1861–65) battlefield at Gettysburg with his family inspired Shaara's second novel, The Killer Angels. He spent seven years writing the novel about the famous Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was refused by 15 publishers before an independent publisher, David McKay Company, put it into print in 1974. Shaara's third novel The Herald (1981), later renamed The Noah Conspiracy, returned to his science fiction roots, but it was his best-known novel The Killer Angels that brought him the most acclaim. The novel was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. It served as a source for Ken Burns's 1990 documentary on the Civil War and was adapted into the movie Gettysburg (1993), which propelled the novel to the bestseller list for the first time.

Later Life, Death, and Legacy

Shaara did not live to see the extended success of his novel, dying of a second heart attack in his home in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 5, 1988, at age 59. His final novel For the Love of the Game was published posthumously in 1991. Shaara's interest in historical fiction is shared by his son and fellow author, Jeff Shaara, who wrote, among many other novels, a prequel to The Killer Angels called Gods and Generals (1996).

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