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spacer Thomas Keneally, Sharpsburg, Maryland, 1981
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Thomas Keneally, Sharpsburg, Maryland, 1981

Keneally was in Washington for the US publication of his novel “Confederates,” a fierce tale of hot death and salty sex and loneliness and confusion and courage in the ranks surrounding Stonewall Jackson. He and I drove out to Antietam Battlefield, where Keneally started walking the geography of his book. Standing in the middle of the Bloody Cornfield, where the most deadly day in American history had transpired, Keneally gave a perfect sortie-by-sortie summary of the movement of troops on the battlefield from memory. The idea for the book coalesced after he had come to the US to write newspaper stories for The Melbourne Age: articles on the NFL, and the suicide of Eli Black, the United Brand's president who jumped from his office in the Pan Am Building, and drug testing by pharmaceutical firms, and the geriatric Disneyland called Leisureworld that exists somewhere beyond space and time a few miles out of L.A. But in all his travels with his wife and two daughters when they would venture out from the house they had rented in New Milford, Connecticut, he was continuously drawn to the Maryland and Virginia sites where the Civil War had been planned and fought. “Initially,” he said, “I was attracted because I found the people so much like Australians – very much unto themselves. And then I became fascinated with this idea of the two cultures in one civilization. What happened here,” he said, fanning an arm across the battlefield, “was of such extraordinary ferocity. I was astounded that Americans could do that, even given their extraordinary regional differences. And as it crystallized, I realized that history rarely perceives wars of differing cultures in the way I wanted to present this one, as a harvest of violently dead young men.” By sunset on September 17th, 1862, more than twelve thousand Union and ten thousand Confederate soldiers had died in a single day, all of them within walking distance of where we were standing. “I feel an immense closeness, a little like going to the place where your grandfather was brought up,” Keneally said. “It seems so intimate and familiar to me.” I had, in the trunk of my car, a Land 195 camera, the only Polaroid that can create wet negatives similar to the ones Mathew Brady used in his Civil War photographs. I went to retrieve the camera, and returned to find Keneally standing ready for the portrait you see here. I fixed the negative in a plastic pail in my trunk, and made this print a few days later, amazed at how anachronistic the image seemed. When we were driving back to DC, Keneally would only tell me that he was working on a book about an even greater atrocity than the war between the states. The next year, “Schindler’s Ark” was published which, ten years later, became the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.”

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