As I was perusing my library last night, I came across my copy of the 40th anniversary edition (1998) of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative ~ Secession to Fort Henry. Foote originally published his first of three installments of his history of the War Between the States the same year I was born - 1958. (The 40th anniversary edition was published in 14 volumes and was illustrated.)
I had just read a review of Foote's massive history that Professor Clyde Wilson had penned in 1980. Wilson wrote, in part:
In the long view, the most important aspect of any civilization, nation, or epoch is its literature. Great Britain will be known through Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Spencer, Scott, and Kipling long after the Bank of England and Buckingham Palace have crumbled into dust and the last jaunty Union Jack has sunk beneath the waves. . . . It is my contention that Shelby Foote's Civil War will be one of those enduring works that will be turned to in centuries hence, that it is a major event in world literature and in the Southern contribution to world literature.Wilson's glowing review continued:
Like most great works, The Civil War: A Narrative, is simple and straight-forward in its business. It is a narrative of events. The success of this narrative is an achievement of both literary skill and historical scholarship. Foot's history is literature and not "social science." . . . His vision is far too wide to be contained within or to be satisfied by such narrow axe-grinding. He is an artist, not an ideologue. (It is a curious phenomenon that, while historians know and acknowledge that interpretations of past epochs change every generation or so, many of them remain slavishly devoted to the interpretation that is currently most fashionable.) But, in fact, "modern scholarship," in points of interpretation, is no truer than old scholarship; sometimes it is less so. It is just a different perspective. [Emphasis mine.]And . . .
Finally, it is one of the characteristics of a great piece of literature - the King James Bible or Shakespeare, for instance - that it may be picked up and read with profit at random moments. . . . We have now reached the summit of that [Civil War] literature. The Civil War: A Narrative is the best work that has ever been or ever will be written about the great War. It is the place to begin and the place to end any study of America's crucial experience.And so with Wilson's words still fresh in my mind, I pulled the dusty book off the shelf and cracked it open. I had not read any of it (except excerpts and snippets online) since 2000. As I began reading Foote's introduction to the new edition, Wilson's words began to ring truer and my memory was refreshed as to how truly unique and penetrating Foote's writing
Two compliments I found welcome all the same. One was when a reader declared that he couldn't tell which side I favored in the conflict, and the other was when someone asked, in regard to some exchange or event in the text, "Did you make that up?" . . . Though I do confess in part to the charge, leveled by a fellow historian I respect, that my heart seemed to beat somewhat faster in the course of a Confederate victory. That might be, but I hasten to add that Americans in general tend to pull for the underdog in a fight.Foote's narrative is such a breath of fresh air when compared to much of the politically motivated and agenda driven Civil War history of recent years. That alone would make it bad enough but, in addition, much of what is being written is not only poor history, it is poor literature.
Not Foote. If you've never read Foote's work - or not done so lately - and you want to be reminded that there is still scholarly, solid, fresh and well-written history to be read about the War Between the States, pick up Foote's book. You will not only learn, you will enjoy doing so.