S.C. Gwynne, the Austin author of the international best-seller “Empire of the Summer Moon” and the upcoming “Rebel Yell,” probably wouldn’t be one of Texas’ best-known and respected historians if it weren’t for the 1980s CBS television game show “Tic-Tac-Dough.”
Long a frustrated writer, Gwynne, a Princeton and Johns Hopkins graduate, was living in Los Angeles and working as an international banker in the early ’80s with his wife, the noted artist Katie Maratta. Then Maratta went on the game show and won $60,000 — a windfall that allowed Gwynne to quit banking and start writing.
“That money lasted for years,” Gwynne says with a laugh. “Our rent was $425 in Hollywood, and we owned our Toyota Tercel outright. So I quit banking in 1981.” At first, he says, he naively thought he’d write a successful novel and, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, live off the royalties.
Instead, he got his writing break when he used his banking knowledge to help explain the 1980s international debt crisis in a Harper’s magazine article. “When I got the Harper’s clip, everything changed. I got a book deal out of it. I was all over NPR. It was kind of unbelievable,” says Gwynne. The book deal led to the publication of “Selling Money” in 1986. That book led to a job at Time magazine in 1988, where he co-wrote a book with Time magazine reporter Jonathan Beaty titled “The Outlaw Bank.” It described the 1991 collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
A long and winding road eventually led the self-described Connecticut Yankee to come to Texas, first in the Texas bureau of Time magazine, then at Texas Monthly, where he eventually started writing a compelling book about one of the Southwest’s most interesting characters, the Comanche chief Quanah Parker, the subject of “Empire of the Summer Moon.”
“With him, you have the transformation of this wild warrior and murderer of white people into being the leader of the Comanche after going to the reservation,” Gwynne says. As Gwynne points out in the book, Parker became a key negotiator for his people in Washington, D.C.
For Gwynne’s latest book, he has turned yet again to a character far removed from Connecticut Yankees — Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate Civil War general who’s the subject of “Rebel Yell.”
“What fascinates me about Jackson is the idea of transformation,” Gwynne says. “My original interest in the war was with (Union Gen. Ulysses S.) Grant, because of the famous picture of Grant sitting in the doorway to his father’s shop in Galena, Ill., holding a mop, before the war started. He was a failure at every single thing he had done. He was forced out of the Army for drinking. All of his businesses had gone under. His friends had cheated him. He was a failure. And the photo was famously taken a few months before the war started. So you had this great transformation, and something in the war transformed the man. And if you look at Jackson, his transformation was much faster than that of Grant. He became the most famous man of the war.” And Gwynne says he would argue “that Stonewall’s transformation was the most dramatic of the Civil War. That’s why I wanted to do Stonewall.”
There was another reason for focusing on Stonewall Jackson, Gwynne says. “The main previous biography by James Robertson was published 17 years ago,” Gwynne says, referring to “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Legend, the Soldier.” And the Stonewall biographies “aren’t even in the same league, in numbers, with the Grant biographies,” Gwynne says.
“Plus, there’s a lot that’s new,” he says, referring to groundbreaking research of various scholars and the 2008 book by Peter Cozzens, “Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign.” Cozzens, in fact, says Gwynne’s new book is the “best biography of Stonewall Jackson I have ever read. … With a rare combination of unflinching objectivity and genuine compassion, ‘Rebel Yell’ represents a milestone in Civil War literature.”
Rather than take a linear approach to Jackson’s life, Gwynne starts in the spring of 1862, the second year of the Civil War, with 120,000 Union soldiers just east of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. As Gwynne writes, Northerners thought they were on the verge of victory. But Southerners held out hope that Stonewall Jackson, the shabbily dressed, unimpressive-looking general, would continue to plague the Union Army with his brilliant tactical maneuvering in the neighboring Shenandoah Valley.
“It is a matter of record that, a mere fourteen months earlier, (Jackson) … had been an obscure, eccentric, and unsuccessful college professor in a small town in rural Virginia,” Gwynne writes. “He had odd habits, a host of health problems, and was thought by almost everyone who knew him to be lacking in even the most basic skills of leadership. To call him a failure is probably too harsh. He just wasn’t very good at anything; he was part of that great undifferentiated mass of second-rate humanity who weren’t going anywhere in life.”
Yet by the spring of 1862, Jackson “had just completed a military campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that made him the most famous military figure in the Western world. In months he had undergone a transformation of such speed and magnitude that it stood out in a war that made a specialty of such changes.”
Jackson’s meteoric rise was rooted in his 78-day campaign from March to June of 1862. “Using a combination of speed, deception, and sheer audacity,” Gwynne writes, “Jackson with 17,000 men (and often far less) had taken on and beaten Union forces that, though never united, totaled more than 52,000.” That, of course, was preceded in July of 1861 with his remarkable victory at First Manassas (or, as Northerners called it, Bull Run).
Amid the battle of First Manassas, as massive Union forces were trying to advance, Gwynne writes, Gen. Barnard Bee told his beleaguered Confederate regiment, “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall. Let’s go to his assistance.” And that’s how Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson got his famous nickname. It’s also the battle where the “peculiarly, piercingly loud noise” made by Confederates was soon to be known as the Rebel Yell.
Jackson’s victories gave hope to the South, which had suffered a number of defeats in the western and southern theaters, and “Jackson’s intelligence, speed, aggression, and pure arrogance were the wonders of North and South alike.”
Besides offering a swiftly moving narrative after Jackson’s life and his military achievements, Gwynne has also broken ground on several levels. While he’s quick to avoid criticizing earlier biographical efforts, he notes that his book is significantly different.
“My treatment of First Manassas and the way that Jackson got his nickname, the entire sequence was important, and my description is entirely different from what you’ll find in Robertson’s book,” Gwynne says.
Then there’s the issue of point of view. “One of the biggest things that was missing in the earlier biographies was that you had the Southern point of view the whole time. … Peter Cozzens’ book, which was brilliant about the Valley campaign, included the Northern point of view,” Gwynne says. “I tried to take a 360-degree view, and that’s significant.”
Gwynne also deviates from previous biographies by highlighting Jackson’s private life, especially his relationships with women. And his contextualizing of the death of Jackson at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville (ultimately the result of a friendly fire injury) reveals the unprecedented grief that roiled through the South.
But more importantly, Gwynne reassesses the stature of Jackson’s military savvy. Some might even say that he makes Jackson seem more strategically brilliant than Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Gwynne says he isn’t trying to question Lee’s achievements. “Instead, I see the Jackson and Lee relationship as high command teamwork. … Up until that point in the war, you hadn’t seen it before,” Gwynne says.
Then Gwynne, speaking rapid-fire, shows his enthusiasm for the subject — something that’s thankfully present in his thrilling narrative. “I see them as one, starting with the Valley campaign,” he says of Jackson and Lee. “(Confederate leader Jefferson) Davis is preoccupied with (Gen. George B.) McClellan’s massive force that’s moving toward Richmond. There’s this little guy in the Valley. And they said to Lee, ‘Look, you handle him there.’ The guy standing on Jackson’s shoulder is Lee, and they find each other, and you have the suggestion that if you can strike (at the Union Army), you should strike. … Someone else could have obstructed Jackson, could have told him not to do it. Lee didn’t do that.”
Gwynne says such teamwork was especially evident at Second Manassas in August of 1862. “And unlike the Seven Days Campaign (in late June of 1862), where Lee and Jackson communicated poorly, they changed. …. Second Manassas was the greatest single example of high command teamwork in the early war. I would never break Jackson and Lee apart. … Lee without Jackson was not the same as Lee with Jackson. That’s not a criticism of Lee, that’s just the way it was.”
Gwynne’s flair for drama in “Rebel Yell” raises the inevitable question of whether he has hopes that it might be turned into a movie screenplay. Gwynne starts laughing. He quickly says he thinks only one actor could play Jackson: Austin’s Matthew McConaughey.
But his laughter is actually related to his previous experience with “Empire of the Summer Moon.”
Back to ‘Empire’
To say that “Empire of the Summer Moon” was a merely best-seller would be an understatement. It attracted tons of attention and acclaim, and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2010 alone, more than 125,000 copies of the hardback were sold, according to Publishers Weekly.
The book’s success came, in part, because many people outside of Texas and Oklahoma had never heard the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the child of white Texas settlers who was kidnapped by the Comanches and went on to give birth to a son, Quanah Parker, who was destined to become the leader of the fierce horse-riding tribe of the High Plains.
“Never in a million years would ‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ have happened if I hadn’t been living here,” Gwynne says. “It was very much a product of my having traveled around Texas (while working for Texas Monthly) and hearing stories about the Comanches and reading Walter Prescott Webb. … I didn’t understand what the Plains were, what Comanches were. For me, a Connecticut Yankee, they were a complete revelation.”
It was a revelation to Hollywood, too. And Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who won an Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” were brought on board to adapt “Empire” into a major motion picture for Warner Bros.
“Larry and Diana wrote the screenplay, and Warner Brothers didn’t like it,” Gwynne says. “I guess that’s typical Hollywood, but they won the Academy Award for ‘Brokeback Mountain’ a couple of years earlier. Whatever. (Warner Bros. production executive) John Berg didn’t like it. And if he doesn’t like it, nobody gets anything done. That whole thing cycled through over a period of years. My option expired, and everyone turned back into a pumpkin.”
But recently, Berg decided to “go back to the well,” Gwynne says, and hired new writers to adapt “Empire” into a screenplay.
The writers are Derek Cianfrance and Darius Marder, who worked together on the 2012 Ryan Gosling movie, “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
“I’d love it if they made my movie, but I don’t understand the business,” Gwynne says. “I do what they tell me.”
In May of this year, Cianfrance and Marder came to Austin, and Gwynne rented a Suburban and showed them Comanche country for five days. “We drove everywhere from Fort Parker to Adobe Walls to Palo Duro Canyon. We ate barbecue. It was great,” Gwynne says. “I got to sort of have whatever influence I could wield, and I think there’s a good chance that the movie will get made. But who am I?”
As many readers have already discovered, Gwynne is one of the most exciting historians writing today. That’s who.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to say the victory at Bull Run was in July 1861.
Empire of the Summer Moon
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
S.C. Gwynne will speak and sign copies of “Rebel Yell” at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. He’ll also be at the Texas Book Festival at the Capitol and on the surrounding grounds Oct. 25-26.
About this story
Austin is home to a multitude of acclaimed writers. American-Statesman books editor Charles Ealy writes about them in a series called Literary Austin.