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Works and Days

Remembering the Dead, from Selma

August 5th, 2012 - 10:56 pm

None ever wrote back — except one John Keegan, at the pinnacle of his post-Face of Battle success. A postcard in elegant ink arrived to the farm, with something like “Dear Dr. Hanson. Accept my gratitude for the publisher’s copy of your engaging thesis. Are there plans for more of the same?”

In those dark days (raisins had just crashed from $1400 to $400 a ton, and we were trying to figure out how to repay a $150,000 crop loan shortfall accruing at 15% interest), that brief note seemed to make all the difference in the world. At night after tractor driving, I suddenly started to write what would become The Western Way of War, coming in about 6 p.m.  from hours on the tractor and littering the floor with Greek texts. In my newfound confidence (remember, authors, what a single act of kindness can do for others), I began applying for jobs at local JCs and California State University, Fresno.

The next year I was hired at nearby Fresno State as a part-time Latin teacher (one class, $375 a month), which was a godsend, after peaches and plums hit $4 a lug and our income dipped to about 30% of what it had been in the early inflation-roaring late seventies and early 1980s.

Those were busy years. I would get up in the morning to do farm chores and help with the kids. Then I would drive 30 miles to CSUF, teach, rush home, spray, irrigate, or fix things, and run inside to work on the book until 1 a.m., drinking a six-pack of Pepsi to stay awake. By 1985, I was a full-time lecturer (with a soon-to-be family of five now comfortably living on $22,000 a year) and the book then-titled The Experience of Battle in Classical Greece was finished.

Then what? I wrote to a few publishers, but a farmer who taught as a temporary lecturer at Fresno State and who had one Italian monograph published was not in high demand by academic presses. So I wrote the following note to John Keegan: “Dear Mr. Keegan, You kindly once wrote me a note and asked what was next. I did write a second book. Would you ever be interested in reading it?”

Three weeks later, the following postcard in the same fountain-pen script arrived: “Send it to….. Regards, JK.”

I did. Six months later, another postcard came: “I like it. Would you like me to write the forward? If so resend the ms. to E. Sifton at Alfred Knopf, my editor. Regards, JK.”

I did. Three months later, Ms. Sifton wrote and agreed to publish it for an advance of $5,000, with a forward from John Keegan. The book did very well and everything after it was not so difficult. I had a falling out with Ms. Sifton over the next book, The Other Greeks, and then went to the Free Press and Adam Bellow for The Other Greeks, Fields Without Dreams, The Land Was Everything, Who Killed Homer? The Soul of Battle, Carnage and Culture, and Ripples of Battle. But looking back, a quarter-century later, I realize now that John Keegan was right: she was a wonderful editor, to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for what became The Western Way of War. And I have been remiss for not thanking her in print for all she did on that book.

As small thanks, I dedicated an academic, edited book of essays (Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience) to Keegan, and we kept in touch over the years. When I later met him in Washington, he was not in good health, but he was alert with a photographic memory of our correspondence over the last twenty years.

The sum of Keegan’s work was a writ against war, although he never editorialized so. The empathy for the wretched suffering of combat soldiers was made all the more poignant by his majestic style. Although I never read so, I always wondered whether he was a student of Greek and Latin, given that he had a certain Asiatic style, predicated on variation in sentence structure, length, and grammar, with a vocabulary that could juxtapose the Latinate polysyllabic term next to a two-syllable Anglo-Saxon slang.

Gore Vidal may not have been as poor a writer as I allege, or John Keegan as gifted an historian as I have argued. I met the former at ten, the latter as an adult. One did nothing for me, the other everything. So be it: I will miss not reading another new sentence from Keegan as much as I am unconcerned about the absence of another 500-page book from Vidal.

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