In July I’m having my Southern Literature Club read Shelby Foote’s central chapter on the Gettysburg Campaign found in the second part of his literary masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative.
When filmmaker Ken Burns began work on his greatest film, The Civil War documentary series, (which remains to this day PBS’s most watched presentation with 40 million viewers. I watched it each week with a North Carolinian friend), he gathered all these well-established liberal Civil War historians to pundit (The Civil War was fought all about slavery don’t you know). The great Southern Agrarian writer Robert Penn Warren rang up Ken Burns and told him he should invite Shelby Foote to represent the Southern side.
As we were overwhelmingly outnumbered in the War (and yet gave the Yankees plenty of hell for invading us), we would be overwhelmingly outnumbered in the most influential Civil War documentary series made ever. At least it seemed that way.
Yes, Shelby Foote was the lone Southern voice in the series. And yet, if you add up all the minutes of airtime that Shelby Foote had in the series, it adds up to an incredible one hour—more than any Yankee pundit in the series combined. Ken Burns did not intend this. Burns with his crew went to meet Shelby Foote at his home in Memphis. The intended interview was much shorter. But as the camera rolled, the artist in Ken Burns overrode his dogmatic side. He told the crew to keep the focus on Foote; keep the camera rolling & the sound recording on. What we have now forever is a master class in storytelling on the pivotal moment in the South’s history when we became for a short four years an independent nation but plagued by a sanguinary war waged by our Northern enemy who wished to destroy our peaceful secession, our economic threat to the North, and for me, the worst thing, the destruction of Southern civilisation.
In the PBS Civil War series, Foote came across as a warm, engaging, sagacious, avuncular, aristocratic Confederate colonel reminiscing about things past in the War for Southern Independence.
Well, millions of viewers made this series the most watched ever on PBS—matching what the big networks might get for special events. Happily married Shelby Foote began getting marital proposals from female fans.
Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy was very well researched. The envious academic Civil War historians criticised him for his lack of footnotes. He said that his Homeric book was indeed a narrative.
Shelby Foote’s Southern historical epic will last centuries after his envious tenured Civil War books fade away. Foote’s Civil War narrative belongs in the ranks of Homer’s The Iliad, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War & Herodotus’ The Persian Wars. In Shelby Foote’s private library there were more than 700 Civil War books he used during his writing. There’s also his usage of the 128 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion. And there are as well, the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. He also read the brittle newspapers of the Civil War period.
Shelby Foote used the Interlibrary resources of the Memphis Public Library to get him books and articles he didn’t have. Moreover, many battles that Shelby Foote describes in his trilogy, he visited in person—and only in the time and season during which the battle was fought. Other battles he writes about, he gives you the impression that he was there.
Shelby Foote sometimes slept in the battlefield on a chilly morning like our soldiers did over 160 years ago. Shelby could feel the early warmth of fire flames growing to prepare the small soldierly skillets cooking biscuits in bacon grease. He could smell the faint developing odour of brewing chickory coffee. Then men shivered in their overcoats until tasting the first golden warmth of chickory coffee. With his novelist’s eye & ear, partnering with his historian’s knowledge, Shelby Foote foresaw a panoramic vision of the War for Southern Independence before he wrote it down on special paper, that illustrated his elegant, calligraphic style using only a nib pen which he dipped in ink as he wrote slowly along.
And so, Shelby Foote became a global star with the Civil War series. We who admired his greatness rejoiced at his newfound fame and the hundreds of thousands of copies his Civil War trilogy would sell. To be honest, until Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War series aired, Shelby Foote was an obscure writer and lived modestly. Otherwise, he would be remembered by Southern literary historians as a novelist who wrote some good novels, a masterful Civil War trilogy that never attracted in large measure the public’s attention, and for being the lifelong closest friend of the Southern physician, philosopher, and novelist, Walker Percy.
When he did become wealthy, Shelby Foote didn’t change much, save being able to afford to take his family on a vacation to my other home city, Paris. He could pay for the college education of his son, Huger. But his home phone number remained along with his home address in the Memphis telephone directory. Fans showed up at the door of his Tudor-style house. He wrote back as many letters as he could to fans. Finally his wife Gwyn, put her foot down and gave Foote much peace and rest.
Like his Best Friend Forever, Walker Percy MD, the French love them both and their books have been translated into the language of Racine, Molière, Corneille, Madame de Sèvigny, and Pascal. When I lived for the last time in my beloved Paris, there was a bookshop near my flat. There, on the book racks, I saw paperback translations of the novels of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy.
Why do y’all think Shelby Foote’s authenticity moved millions of viewers as opposed to the self-righteous Yankee academics? Shelby Foote was a first rate literary talent—but who did not find his true niche until he wrote his Civil Trilogy.
Moreover, he was authentic because his great-grandfather was a Confederate colonel & fought with his Mississippians at Shiloh. This ancestor was the lord of three plantations. Shelby Foote was a natural, and Foote was always himself, and never thought he would become a celebrity from this PBS Civil War series. Foote also challenged the simplistic orthodoxy that the American Civil War was fought because the South wanted to preserve the institution of slavery. In one segment, Shelby Foote told this story. Union soldiers asked what their Confederate prisoner was fighting for. He responded, “because y’all here.”
Later in his life, Shelby Foote was asked about whether he would have fought in the War if he had been living in 1861. Foote replied, “I’d gone with Mississippi.”
Me too, Mr. Foote.
And given the direction of Lincoln’s empire, now more than ever, he was right to ‘go with Mississippi’. What a treasure Shelby Foote was to the world.
I saw and heard Foote tell Brian Lamb that, that he’d have gone with Mississippi. Yes, I loved listening to Shelby Foote. I thought I’d never read his 3 volume narrative, but I did. I didn’t plan it. I said to myself, “Let me at least read volume one.” Then, when I finished that, I said, “How can I not now read the next two?” So, I did. What a work. I learned so much. My one great sadness with Shelby Foote, is that he didn’t believe in the God of the Bible and His Son. I heard him tell Brian Lamb that. I hope Shelby Foote had a change of mind.
After I finished the third volume, I felt I didn’t have to read anything more on the subject. I know I shouldn’t feel that way — and it wasn’t the last thing I have read about the war — but there is nothing that deserves the word classic more than Foote’s trilogy.
I quote from memory…”Twin thunderbolts of the Confederacy, Morgan and Forrest”…what a great name for a great kid. Mr. Foote was the man…or as Faulkner might have said, “du homme”.
Excellent article. Thank you.
Excellent, Mr. Vinh. Thank you!