John Matteson did not win the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father, simply because he wrote a good biography. At the time, Eden’s Outcasts was an ambitious effort of a dual biography, exploring the lives of daughter and father while also analyzing their relationship, which had much to do with Louisa’s success as a writer. This book stands out for its eloquent writing, in-depth insight, and affecting storytelling. Inspired by the relationship between Matteson and his young daughter, Eden’s Outcasts extended a personal invitation to its readers.
The same applies to his latest offering, A Worse Place than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, He weaves the biographies of five individuals— assistant Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John Pelham, chaplain Arthur Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, and poet Walt Whitman—into the story of the Battle of Fredericksburg. The book becomes, in fact, a profile of a nation. As in Eden’s Outcasts, the reader cannot help but become involved in these protagonists’ lives.
“As a biographer, I’m very much in the business of creating connections between my books’ subjects and their readers,” said Matteson. “Whereas some people think about a biographer as a kind of verbal portrait artist, my goal is to be more of a liaison—someone who brings readers and historical figures together in a lively, kinetic fashion. I don’t want readers just to look at my subjects. I want readers to know them, to the greatest extent that time and distance will allow.”
Matteson used a strategic approach in telling the stories of his subjects. “I think the most important connections are not personal, but rather thematic: How did these five all seek redemption? What are they trying to prove to themselves and the world? What were their greatest disappointments and greatest triumphs? How do they understand and express faith, kindness, and courage? When I was planning the book, I wrote out pages and pages of interpretive questions that I wanted an astute reader to be able to answer once she or he had read the book.”
He admits there was no “a-ha” moment to how these five people connected to Fredericksburg. It merely began with previous knowledge of the characters. “I have been interested in John Pelham and the Civil War generally since late childhood, and I got a good, stiff dose of Holmesian thought when I went to law school.” Because Matteson, a distinguished professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, specializes in 19th century American literature, he already was knowledgeable about Whitman. As noted, he had written a biography of Alcott; he also authored a book on Margaret Fuller, which introduced him to her younger brother Arthur. What happened next stunned Matteson.
“What I find remarkable though—and there was no way I could have planned this—each of the stories I am telling took me to a different place on the Fredericksburg battlefield, such that I could narrate more or less the entire battle through the experiences of important characters,” he said. “It’s incredibly serendipitous.”
A common theme uniting most of these characters is the search for a lost loved one. “Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. travels to Antietam in search of his wounded son,” Matteson explains. “Bronson Alcott comes to Georgetown to rescue Louisa. Whitman searches for [his brother] George twice, both after Fredericksburg and later, when George becomes a prisoner of war. In this war that is so often described as ‘brother against brother,’ there is a constant, desperate desire to preserve and defend and reunite family.”
The task of weaving five lives into a climactic Civil War battle is enormous, beginning with the research. “I do a lot of preliminary work on a book,” he said. “I read stacks of secondary sources first, both to discover what other people have already said about my subject so that I know I won’t just be redundant, and also to scour the bibliographies to find out where the primary materials are. For this book, I spent a good deal of time at Houghton Library at Harvard with the Alcott and Fuller papers. Where Holmes and Whitman are concerned, almost everything of value is published, so writing about them didn’t demand a lot of traveling. I also spent several days in Alabama, tracking down archives and sites relating to Pelham.”
Matteson visited Fredericksburg three times, “once on the anniversary of the battle so I could check the angle of the sun at that time of year. I’m serious!” He walked as much of the field as he could, “following the routes of Union regiments, walking the length of the stone wall where so many soldiers perished, sometimes using a stopwatch to estimate how long a particular troop movement might have taken.” Staff members of the park, including chief historian John Hennessey and Frank O’Reilly, enhanced Matteson’s visit with their knowledge. “Frank O’Reilly, a superb historian in his own right, gave me a special, customized tour of the field, showing me just the features I needed to see,” he said.
Matteson lamented the current state of the field at Fredericksburg, much of it overtaken by the town’s growth. ”Many of the key sites are now bland suburban neighborhoods,” he said. “Only a relatively few small patches look roughly the same as they did in 1862. It’s a little heartbreaking to see the scene of Pelham’s magnificent stand reduced to a small marker next to a pharmacy, or was it an auto parts store? I understand that societies survive by selling soap and spark plugs, but we really don’t honor or protect our history in this country nearly as much as we should.”
Other sites visited included Antietam and Kelly’s Ford (twice), Ball’s Bluff, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. He walked most of the Virginia sites on crutches as he was recovering from surgery. “You just have to clench your teeth and do what must be done. As lovers of Concord know, there’s no substitute for walking the ground,” he said.
Taking seven years to complete, Matteson describes his writing process for A Worse Place than Hell. “I usually have an outline in my head for each chapter. One of the pleasures of having five subjects was that I could shuttle back and forth among them, creating suspense and even inserting a few cliffhangers. As to the writing of it, I enjoy trying to write the subject as I am discovering it. I think that makes for a kind of spontaneity and freshness of vision that I find important. And I write whatever part of the manuscript I find easiest at the moment. Writing sequentially is a recipe for writer’s block. I like to keep mobile and fluid.”
His interest in the Civil War is not strictly historical but personal. “The Civil War defines who we are as a nation, more than any event other than the Revolution. If you love something, one of the best ways to show it is by learning everything you can about it. I have a kind of fitful, frustrating love of America, and wanting to know about the people and occurrences that have shaped it is the way I express that love.”
You can purchase A Worse Place than Hell from Orchard House (where it is on sale).
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