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Shelby Foote and His Short History

The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth: the same truth — only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.

Shelby Foote

In 1954 Bennett Cerf, the President of Random House, decided that with the coming Civil War Centennial his company needed to publish a short history of the War, not longer than 200,000 words. Wanting the history to be entertaining he hit upon the idea of having Shelby Foote, author of a novel on the battle of Shiloh in 1952, undertake the task.  Foote, 37, accepted a $400.00 advance and assumed that he could pound out the history quickly and get back to writing fiction.  Nineteen years, and a million and half words later, Foote completed the final volume of his immortal three volume history of the War.

Foote wrote his books during the years of the fight over segregation in the South.  Although far from being a political liberal, in his bibliographical note to the second volume published in 1963 Foote made clear where he stood:  In a quite different sense , I am obligated also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume,  much that was least admirable in the postition my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I suppose, or in any case hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen that it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction–deriving, as it does, its scale from the performers–is in miniature.

Foote in his 19 years of studying, thinking and writing about the Civil War, became convinced that it was impossible to understand America without understanding the Civil War:

Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.

Back in 1991 Crisis Magazine had a fascinating interview with Shelby Foote.  Go here to read it.  Historians can be a fairly colorless lot, but Shelby Foote, who passed away in 2005, was never among their number, and his examination of the American Iliad was as colorful and passionate as his own personality.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

2 Comments

  1. If Ken Burns were to go through the raw footage of his The Civil War interviews and release direct to DVD The Shelby Foote Interviews or something of that nature, I’d be all over it.

  2. I recall Burn’s interviews with Foote and two things really stuck in my mind: Foote’s characterization of Stonewall Jackson as a “psychopath” and his apt description of how the war changed us from “the United State are” to “the United States is”.
    I’ve read only the first volume of his magnus opus (just need the time for the other two), and found it interesting that the ‘Stonewall’ description may not have been intended as a compliment.

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