28 July 2015

Revisiting Shelby Foote's Enduring Work

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 was is. His description of Jefferson Davis's farewell speech on the floor of the Senate is as good as it gets. Simple, yet captivating. And Foote's own words as to how he felt about his work are worth noting:
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.


Brian Lee said...

Foote's trilogy is one of the best Civil War works ever written. I found it a bit dry at first, and it took me 3 tries to finish the whole thing, but it was fully worth it!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Jubilo said...

Dear Old Dom.,
Foote is a superb writer with a magnificent command of the language. His classical references set him light-years apart from other authors. The closest to him may be the simpler style of Bruce Catton or Victor Davis Hansen but I can think of no one else.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Jub - I would agree, though I'd include Freeman in your list. "His classical references set him light-years apart from other authors." Definitely. He demonstrates a command of world history and great literature better than most current historians with advanced degrees, and Foote was a college dropout.

Foote remains of the few adults in a room of Civil War historians populated by juveniles.

E.J. DAgrosa said...

I have read the first volume of Foote's trilogy. I need to finish the entire series one day.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'm going to reread the 14 volume illustrated edition. Pictures help me. ;-)

Jeffrey Mathews said...

Might we include Douglas Southall Freeman in the pantheon along with Foote?

I have spent many decades thinking about Plato's proposition in "The Republic" to the effect that the only proper subjects of the arts in an ideal republic ought to be hymns to the Gods and the praises of virtuous men.

We have been blessed, truly blessed with Freeman's biographies of both Lee and Washington himself. As circumstances have permitted, I have read extensively in both sets. And at the end of my life, never having married or being blessed with children, I wonder in this day and age, whether as examples, these heroes have any meaning to children and young adults of this low sordid pc era? Indeed, their virtues of integrity, rectitude and shunning personal glory seem to be entirely in opposition to the era of the selfie.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

JM - Yes, I agree and did mention Freeman in one of my comments.

"the era of the selfie"

Sadly, yes.

Jine said...

I could hardly agree more with Jeff's comments; Freeman was a literary virtuoso for whom I've never been able to find an equal.

As to Foote, I don't know of a better overview of the war than his trilogy. Written in the pre-Orwellian era, Foote's writings were unhindered by the need to cover his tracks with PC niceties. One of my favorite quotes from his narrative is that of the black body servant traveling with his master in Lee's army in Pennsylvania. When asked by a local matron if he was treated well, Foote says she got a "careful answer": "I live as I wish, and if I didn't I don't think I could better myself by stopping here. This is a beautiful country, but it doesn't come up to home in my eyes."

If you can find his audiobook Stars In Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863 which is excerpted from the trilogy and read by the author, grab it. While a horribly tragic story, it usually plays as a continuous loop in my vehicle, music to my ears. While it may have been unintentional on Foote's part, when listening to it I feel like I'm standing on the field of battle with him, in July of 1863.

Unfortunately I'll be able to see Foote on my local PBS channel next month, and I'm hoping it's locally only and not a national re-air of Ken Burns' The Civil War. I think Burns did America and history itself a great disservice with his production, if it was masterfully done. Even Foote spoke of regret for being a participant in it. Wide scale re-airing I believe would only reinforce the intolerance and hatred for the South and its symbols, and could help seal the deal for Burns and his fellow progressives, as if they needed any help. The timing for a re-air is perfect, and sinister.

By the way, did you know that the Latin word for "left" is sinister? No fooling.

E.J. DAgrosa said...


I just read this article this morning at "Imaginative Conservative"...


...and thought it apropos to this post and to your frustration with some "historians" and Bloggers out there. As a Yankee myself who lives in the South, I have often wondered why my fellow Yanks seem to be so obsessed with the South. It's become almost like an unhealthy addiction really.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for sharing E.J. McDonald is a great historian. Love this:

"Southerners rarely while away their leisure hours by contemplating Yankees, for there is no point in thinking of unpleasant things if one is not obliged to do so."

And this is SO true:

"The late great Richard M. Weaver, in The Southern Tradition at Bay, addressed himself to analyzing the qualities that distinguish the South from North, and for the nineteenth century he was perfectly on target. “The North had Tom Paine and his postulates assuming the virtuous inclinations of man,” Weaver wrote; “the South had Burke and his doctrine of human fallibility and of the organic nature of society.” The North embraced rationalism and egalitarianism; the South had a “deep suspicion of all theory, perhaps of intellect,”

This further demonstratest that, while slavery was central to the WBTS. As historian Douglas Harper has written:

"During the 1840s, slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question."

There was much more going on beneath the surface. A good, but imperfect analogy, would be the "official" reason we went to war w/IRAQ: "WMD's" - there were a lot of other things at play as well.

Thanks again for the link.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Jine - you need to read David Johnson's biography of Freeman. It opens one's eyes to Freeman's motivations and strict disciplines, along with his keen intellect. He was an amazing man.

Jine said...

Thanks, padnah! I knew you had Johnson's biography but have yet to acquire it myself.

I forgot to choose "Name" when leaving a comment and my nom de plume (or would that be nom de guerre?) appeared in its place.

Great quotes you've supplied there. Let's go fishin'!