Mackinlay Kantor and Andersonville

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  • Topic: MacKinlay Kantor, Andersonville National Historic Site, World War II
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  • Published : November 10, 2005
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Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was a self-described storyteller. He used the stories that his relatives told about the Civil War and pioneer families and became one of the most prolific historical fiction writers of our time.

Kantor was born in his grandparents' home in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. Out of not only a love for writing but also out of necessity, his mother, Effie McKinlay Kantor, was the editor of the Webster City Daily News. Before Benjamin was born, his father deserted the family, leaving Effie no other option than to work to support a family.

Early in his life, MacKinlay changed the spelling of his name. He added the "a" because of his Scottish background – he thought that the additional letter made his name more appropriate to his ethnic background. Soon he became simply "Mack" to his friends and schoolmates. Shortly thereafter, he, Effie, and his sister, Virginia, moved in with his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Adam MacKinlay.

MacKinlay attended Lincoln High School in Webster City, Iowa, graduating in 1923. In tenth grade, Kantor entered a writing contest under a pseudonym and won with the short story "Purple." Kantor did not attend college, but said that Kendall Young Library was his own personal university from the time he was a small boy. The librarian, Charlotte Crosley, was an extremely important figure in his life – she, as his "college professor" supported him and encouraged him in the pursuit of knowledge.

Kantor became a newspaper reporter in Cedar Falls in 1923, after graduating high school. He also wrote columns for the Des Moines Tribune (1930-31). In 1928, Kantor's first novel hit the shelves, Diversey, which dealt with Chicago gangsters. It was an entirely uncharacteristic book for him, he may have been looking for a story that would sell. However, he made his mark as an author, and his first published civil war novel, Long Remember, was widely accepted in most literary circles.

His early interest in the Civil War was perhaps the springboard for his entire career. He spent much of his time in the library in the history section, and outside of the library he would spend hours listening to stories that people told.

He served in the US Army Air Corps in World War II, as a gunner. In 1946, after the war, he produced yet another Civil War story, Glory for Me, this time writing with the flavor that only a man who's been in war can produce. Interestingly, it was the basis for the 1946 movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives," a story of soldiers readjusting to life at home after the war. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture.

His next popular book, in 1955, was Andersonville. This is by far his most well-known work, and rightly so – he won a Pulitzer Prize for this novel. He often called it "the big A," not only because of its length, but because it brought Kantor about $1 million. He wrote many other historical fiction works, and in 1975, his final book, Valley Forge, was published.

Kantor died in Sarasota, Florida, in 1977 due to heart problems. According to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were buried at Webster City's Graceland Cemetery.
Although Kantor has long since passed on, his works still live. Andersonville, his most famous work, is the fictional story of a very real prison camp for Northern soldiers during the Civil War. The tales of the people in the story truly draw the reader in, and make a person, on a fundamental level, attached to the prisoners.

Aside from the obvious heart-wrenching and powerful stories of the inmates at Andersonville, Kantor masterfully weaves in several other tales as well. The novel opens up with Ira Claffey, a local plantation owner, and his own great losses of the war. His two sons were lost in battle, and Claffey and his wife, Veronica, are trying to deal with the pain of having only one child left out of seven. The remaining daughter, Lucy, is coming of...
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