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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Shelby Foote and the American "Is"

It was better than hundred and five years ago that Shelby Foote came into the world. A moderately successful novelist, it wouldn’t be until 1990 that most Americans would first hear that voice that one critic called “molasses over hominy.” Before Ken Burns made him famous as the star historian of his documentary The Civil War who spoke as if he'd been a witness.

Always a bookish child in Greenville – the cultural center of the Mississippi Delta – Foote was guided by local writer, poet and war-hero William Alexander Percy. Percy also happened to be the cousin (but played the role of Uncle) to Foote's best friend, Walker Percy. The Delta of their childhood was more post-colonial than small town Americana, though: A tiny elite minority of whites surrounded by a massive, disenfranchised black lower class. Foote took in all of that strange world.

Wanting to follow Percy to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Foote was denied entrance when his high school principal said the boy was something of a rascal in a wicked rec letter. The rascal showed up anyway, talked his way into a battery of entrance exams and got himself admitted. More interested in learning than degrees, he missed classes mooning around in the library (one time spending the night in the stacks). He left without graduating.

In 1940, he joined the National Guard as a captain and served as an artillery officer in Europe. Evidently determined to prove his high school principle correct, Foote was court-martialed for commandeering a jeep to visit a girlfriend in Belfast. He was discharged and then joined the marines as a private, but the war ended before he saw any action.

Working for a radio station after the war, he sold his first story for $750. He quit his job, bought a leather jacket and a shotgun, and spent the rest of his life as a writer.

Tournament came out in 1949 as a solid first novel. His Follow Me Down is a brutal, stark, even funny, novel about a farmer who murders a teenager. His boss at the Delta Democrat Times, Hodding Carter, thought he spent too much time writing fiction in the office.

For Foote, the end game was always fiction, which only goes to show you that even the grandest plans ought to be written in pencil. In 1954, Foote started work on what he saw as his opus, to be called Two Gates to the City into which he would pour everything that he knew about the Delta. Random House’s President Bennet Cerf asked him to write a smallish history of the Civil War to be published on its approaching centennial. Instead of writing the Delta’s great story he wrote - laboriously with a dipped pen for 20 years - the nearly 3,000 page, 3 volume, 1.5 million word story of how America, as we know it, came to be.

Part of his genius was to treat the North and the South even handedly. Something out of fashion these days when the average American’s grasp of history has been largely weaponized. Which makes Civil War: A Narrative all the more important when one side is being rewritten as something fit for a child’s nightmare rather than gaining understanding our collective experience. An understanding, as Foote put it, of making us an “is.”  

“Before the war,” he said in the Ken Burns documentary that made him famous, “it was said 'the United States are'—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always 'the United States is,' as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'”

In a fractured and polarized America, we’d do well to remember that.

Foote saw the facts of a historian through the irony and paradox of a novelist. Academics like to sneer at the lack of footnotes in his Narrative, but it always smacks of sour grapes in the face of a sweeping, infinitely readable history in the mold of Edward Gibbon’s sweep of the Roman Empire.

After finishing his Narrative in 1974, he penned September, September before setting back to Two Gates to the City. But the Mississippi Delta of the 50's was too different from that of the 70’s, too much had changed. Foote openly saw this as a good thing, but also realized that, after spending 20 years in the Civil War, he was a man out of time.

Great eccentrics often are. He drank bourbon outdoors and scotch indoors – that rascal. It is a pity that his childhood friend Walker Percy never saw his friend's fame. Foote was at Percy’s bedside when he died in 1990. When he was finally introduced to the American public with Ken Burns The Civil War that out-of-time quality charmed the public and put his book back into print.

Which, for a novelist, is a fine ending.

Originally Appeared in Whiskey/Barrel


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