“It Makes A Great Story”

Last week’s quote was from a 1954 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar that was collected for the University of Mississippi’s Conversations With Shelby Foote.

Around the time of that article, Mr. Foote, a novelist, was working on an American history project: The Civil War: A Narrative.

The Civil War brings everything into a sharper focus with heightened color. Anytime you want to study human behavior, it is well to study the Civil War, because in that you study human behavior under terrific pressure and heat. So that men show what they are for good or bad more readily than in ordinary times.
— Shelby Foote

I myself was about one year old that year, and a Yankee thrice born – a Northerner, a New Englander, and an American.

The civil rights struggle in Mississippi and America would delay Shelby Foote from completing his Civil War literary series until 1974. It was well enough received, but not until 1990, when he appeared in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War, did he achieve fame throughout America.

There was something attractive about his quiet, rather shy manner; his Southern accent was strong but pleasant to listen to; and he shared such important and little details about “the last romantic and first modern war,” as he called it, that many of us really saw a little of the truth of this part of our history for the very first time. It was quite a discovery!

I never met Mr. Foote, but I had the great fortune to get out into greater America and discover Mississippi, a little bit, in 1987. I was on a westward trek, traveling on Highway 82 to Memphis and ultimately headed for Texarkana, Wichita Falls, and Albuquerque on the way out to Phoenix (I got as far Albuquerque, but that’s a story for another time).

A flood in Mississippi, enriching a wheat field.  (Maggie)

A flood in Mississippi, enriching a wheat field. (Maggie)

Just west of Oxford, Mississippi, that warm and sunny October day, the road dipped down and broad flat land opened up all around. It was the Mississippi Delta, though I didn’t know it then. I’d never seen anything like it, and just kept looking around, smelling the rich air, and enjoying the scenery so much that I finally pulled over just to inhale all the land’s aromas and to revel in being alive in such a beautiful place.

It may sound silly, now, but that’s what I did.

There was somehow a sense that the fertile earth (they had just plowed the fields around the road) was rising up to meet the sky and sun in some wonderful celebration of joyous creation, and I remember thinking this is what the famed Southern gospel singers are rooted in.

Indeed it is, and they aren’t the only ones. Writers flourish here.

Well, I got on with my life, as Mr. Foote undoubtedly did with his. In 1990, I saw him for the first time in The Civil War and something clicked. There was a valid resonance there between what I had experienced along the highway in rural Mississippi back in 1987 and this man and what he was saying. Of course, the entire documentary was good, too, but when Mr. Foote shared his knowledge of the Civil War with everybody, that was when my own interest in it really began.

To make a long story short, I lived in the South briefly and heard about The Civil War: A Narrative.

People want to know why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it’s a rough guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights, the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think that’s one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does. – Shelby Foote

When read, it was just too much for this Northerner to comprehend at first. Eventually the 150th anniversary of those terrible and awesome years came around. What got me really digging into it was a desire to learn enough about the basics so that I could go back and read Mr. Foote’s Narrative as it should be read.

Along the way so far, I am learning some of the the same things he did:

We take a justifiable pride in the bravery of those men, North and South.

I can tell you who lost it — the South lost the war. But I’m not sure anybody won that war. It’s a tragedy… On the face of it, the North won the war. But the bill for winning it was huge in human values, not to mention human lives.

I think that when the South was defeated to the extent that it was that the whole nation lost something when they lost that civilization, despite the enormous stain and sin of slavery.

The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.

Before the war it was always the United States *are*, after the war it was the United States *is*… it made us an is.

What an odd thing, really, that I once thought it should be relegated to grade school classrooms and then forgotten about unless you went on to major in history.

The American Civil War — April to April, Sumter to Appomattox, 1861 to 1865 — pervades the national conscience… It makes a great story. I know of none since the Iliad that rivals it either in drama or in pathos.
– From Shelby Foote’s foreword to “The Blue and the Gray”

Somehow, the only way I could write a post about Shelby Foote today was to get into story-telling mode, as he did when tasked to write about something bigger than himself.

Like the South itself, there’s something indefinable about the man, some great human truth – a little good, a little bad – that you can see but that you know you will shatter if you try to force it into words. I hope you don’t mind. He probably would have understood. Getting at the truth was what he was all about.

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 world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved in 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. This has been my aim, as well, only I have combined the two. Accepting the historian’s standard without his paraphernalia, I have employed the novelist’s methods without his license.

— Shelby Foote

Below is an excerpt from an interview C-SPAN did with him for their series on writers back in May 2002.

It’s terribly painful to watch because he was 85 and very sick – I’m guessing he took off the oxygen while the cameras were running. Nonetheless, it’s very interesting, and even with all the difficulties, it is still what I think of as quintessential Shelby Foote.

As sick as he was then, he was still trying so hard to get at the truth of everything that they talked about and to describe it as best he could without losing its real meaning in the process.

What a great example for a budding writer! Thank you, Mr. Foote.


Note: All the quotes used here are from this online treasure trove.

Categories: Thursday Lit

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1 reply

  1. Great post! I am a Southerner from neighboring Alabama, and Shelby Foote is one of my literary heroes! I have also just started re-reading his NARRATIVE, and gave a set of them to my nephew for Christmas. Bruce Catton’s books first sparked my interest in the War, way back some forty years ago when I was in junior high school. Thanks for reminding us of Mister Foote and his contributions to the American Civil War genre.

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