Brainy 'Palooka' describes writer of 'Killer Angels' GETTYSBURG

October 09, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

The novel "The Killer Angels" was turned down by all the major publishers when Michael Shaara, a professor at Florida State University, finished writing it in the early 1970s. It was finally published in 1974 by David McKay Co., a small New York publisher, and was largely unheralded by critics.

But in one of the major surprises in publishing, "The Killer Angels" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. For Shaara, it was vindication after years of writing in obscurity. "Mike had been pretty discouraged about the acceptance of his writing," says Webb Salmon, a retired professor of English at Florida State who was a good friend of the author.

"He told me he wrote 'The Killer Angels' in a few weeks after thinking about it for seven years," says John Dunning, a Denver-based bookstore owner and novelist who became a friend when Shaara moved to Colorado in the late 1970s.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize at age 47 was the apex of Shaara's career. His three later novels received lukewarm reviews.

Shaara suffered a serious motor scooter accident in Italy in the late 1970s that left him for years with secondary memory loss.

Always aloof, Shaara became even more of a wanderer, says Dr. Salmon, and frequently would disappear for months at a time. He died in May 1988 in Tallahassee, Fla., at the age of 59 of a heart attack.

"I thought he was an absolute genius," Mr. Dunning says. "He had little patience for those who had views different from his own and was one of the very few people I know who knew more about everything than I did. He had a kind of pugnacity about him -- he was like a Joe Palooka with brains."

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