Preface to “Soldier Boys” Short Story Ebook Collection (now published)

(Below is the preface for the Soldier Boys ebook.  The book page contains purchase links and discount coupon codes. Further Readings on Civil War Fiction — an annotated bibliography which appears in the ebook’s appendix — is also online.)

During his lifetime Jack Matthews (1925-2013) wrote hundreds of short stories and published seven short story collections. Some of the stories won awards, and all the story collections were positively reviewed by major publications. Why then has it taken 23 years for his next story collection to be released?

The answer is interesting and perhaps a little sad. After Jack Matthews retired from his university teaching job in the 1990s, he continued to write full time (and teach an occasional class). But aside from publishing a smattering of pieces in smaller literary magazines (and getting a few plays produced), Matthews had absolutely no luck getting any of his books published. It must have been frustrating, but Matthews rarely dwelled on the vagaries of the New York publishing market. He knew that short stories rarely sold well and lacked the cultural impact of a novel or screenplay. But he spent a significant portion of his retirement years writing them.

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In 2008 I discovered the Matthews story collections which Johns Hopkins University Press published in the 1980s. JHU Press published 5 volumes: Dubious Persuasions (1981), Crazy Women (1985), Ghostly Populations (1987), Dirty Tricks (1990) and Storyhood as We Know It and Other Tales (1993). All five volumes blew me away. (Ironically, I had been a grad student in JHU’s creative writing program at about the same time – and never heard of these volumes until two decades later). As a rabid fan who wanted to help Matthews transition his titles to the digital world, I interviewed him for Teleread.com in 2009 and visited him in Ohio in 2010. I always believed his literary gifts crossed many genres, but I thought his short stories stood out in particular; they were taut, unadorned and dialogue-driven; they always had unconventional plots and twists and funny surprises. They depicted quirky intellectuals and normal people in Middle America.

While Matthews appreciated my interest in his short stories, I think he viewed the Gambler’s Nephew novel and Schopenhauer’s Will (his mixed-genre biography) as more important literary works. Perhaps I can claim modest credit for persuading Matthews to pay more attention to his short stories and convincing him that the commercial stigma against short story collections no longer applied in the ebook world. In 2012 Matthews gave me a carefully selected pile of stories (both unpublished and published in literary magazines over the decades) for eventual publication. By my estimate, we had enough for 4 story collections which Personville Press will publish over the next few years. (Incidentally, aside from short stories, there’s a huge backlog of completed – or nearly completed – works to publish; expect it to take at least a decade before everything is properly published). With regard to Matthews’ 20 out-of-print titles, it’s hard to say when they will be available as ebooks, but most of these titles are available for cheap on the used book market.

In 2011 Matthews finished writing Abruptions: 5 Minute Stories to Awaken the Mind (a collection of microfiction which will be published later in 2016), and Matthews had already published a few of these in literary magazines. But he also had another collection Soldier Boys which I estimate he had written in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Except for one story “Killing of Old Mortality” – which was published in an earlier volume – none of these stories have ever been published before.

Over the decades, Matthews collected memoirs and personal correspondence by actual U.S. Civil War soldiers (which he described in some of his essay collections). But although Soldier Boys is historically accurate and evocative, I don’t believe its primary aim is to convey a sense of what it would be like to be present at famous historical battles (as the Schaara novels aim to do). Nor do I think that this book comes with any single agenda or overarching anti-war message – though it certainly is implied.

Instead this book has three main aims.

First, it seeks to convey the 19th century spirit and outlook on life. Matthews had already written two excellent novels about 19th century America which did precisely that: Sassafras (the satirical adventures of a junior phrenologist who chases his unscrupulous mentor across the Western frontier) and Gambler’s Nephew (a darkly ironic tale of a dogmatic abolitionist who accidentally shoots an escaped slave he was trying to rescue). His earlier story collection, Tales of an Ohio Land, (1978) reads like a series of 19th century Wild West tales with cowboys and Indians and spiritually-minded settlers. Like these previous books, Soldier Boys tries to remind the contemporary reader of that old-fashioned way of seeing the people and surrounding natural world. – a world without nuclear weapons, pornography, instant email, Facebook and TV commercials.

Second, Soldier Boys depicts how teenage boys – and sometimes middle-aged men – deal with the stresses of combat by joking around and staying connected to the world they left behind. It’s true that they were committed (or resigned) to risking themselves for a cause, but many were preoccupied with mundane things; they complained about the food, quarrelled with one another, found black humor in everything, wrote letters home and resisted the temptation to escape. These soldier boys still exhibited heroic qualities both on and off the battlefield. They continued to respect the humanity of the opposing soldiers who were shooting at them. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, they try their best to remain who they were before the war. It’s tempting to say that today’s volunteer forces are more worldly and less naive about their job than their 19th century counterparts, but the challenge remains the same: obeying a set of commands which might hasten their deaths, laughing off danger and appreciating the normal life which civilians take for granted.

Thirdly, Soldier Boys operates on a more metaphysical level – beyond the Civil War or even war itself. These stories come from the head of a retired author in his 70s who had been writing stories most of his life. A person of that age must be more aware of his mortality and the importance of valuing the life one has lived. As it happens, many soldiers in this book (and in the actual Civil War) were too busy to do this. The book is about facing your mortality – and not just on the battlefield. Many Civil War soldiers died of disease (and this was the central subject of “Johnny Kincaid” story). Many had to face debilitating injuries. Many were haunted by memories of those who died before (as suggested by the appearance of ghosts in “Conroy’s Ghost” and “Johnny Kincaid”). Many of the characters had come to appreciate the value of life itself (and the random tragic way it can be snatched away).

Matthews has always struck me as a philosophical writer, and this book offers lots of questions. How does awareness of one’s own mortality change the way you treat your fellow man? Why does the world offer terrible tragedies to some individuals while leaving others unscathed? Does too much attention to duty (military or otherwise) drain a person’s humanity out of him? Does compassion have to be earned or are all humans entitled to it? What is it like for an immature person to be dragged into the trenches and exposed to inhumanity and destruction? Is it possible for such a person to ever reclaim his humanity? In a situation marked by brutal violence, how can people learn to connect with strangers? These are unsettling questions and part of the reason I consider this Soldier Boys collection to be his most enduring.

Soldier Boys uses techniques and narrative forms popular in the 19th century. Perhaps the psychological quest of the first story “Requiem of the Rappahannock” feels properly at home in 20th century literature. But other stories (like the amazing “Killing of Old Mortality”) read like simple adventure stories. This volume has an epistolary story (where everything is revealed through a series of letters), ghost stories and stories dealing with otherworldly coincidences and identities exposed. Matthews was a huge fan of Ambrose Bierce and has expressed admiration for Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (which you can download for free from Project Gutenberg . Bierce’s story collection serves as an exemplar for Soldier Boys (though ironically, Bierce’s shifting point of view and interior monologue have more in common with 20th century literary modernism than Soldier Boys does). Both collections focus on an individual soldier (or civilian) throughout the entire story. While Bierce’s stories focuses more on the actual violence during battles and the impact on the soldier’s psychological state, Soldier Boys devotes more attention to what is going in their lives between battles. There are many ways to begin a story collection about the Civil War, but Soldier Boys opens disconcertingly at a lavish hotel banquet where Union soldiers are sloshed. Many Civil War soldiers (both in this book and real life) became casualties, but Matthews’ stories depict them as still connected to normal living up to the moment they perish.

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