Shelby Foote - Authors that Changed My Life
This is a tribute written about ten years too late. Shelby Foote died on June 27th, 2005, at the age of 88, after achieving somewhat of a rock star status among historians. It is not too often in the modern era that practitioners of a profession best known for putting 7th graders to sleep gain such notoriety, albeit fleeting, as cultural icons. The last time this happened was when Herodotus, known as the 'Father of History,' was awarded a massive cash stipend by the grateful citizens of Athens, sometime in the fifth century, B.C., for his history of the Greco-Persian wars, at that time a runaway bestseller.
It look two and a half millennia, in the person of Shelby Dade Foote Jr., for another historian to achieve such renown. Perhaps Mr. Foote's lasting legacy will not be so much as a historian, however, but as a storyteller who made history accessible to everyone, and in so doing changed a science into a craft; transformed a stodgy academic discipline into inspired, breathtaking art. He was a modern day Homer, a wandering poet whose words traveled far and wide through the power of the printing press and the electronic magic of television; through which media he thrilled audiences with his genteel insights into the proceedings of this continent's greatest conflict.
Shelby Foote changed my life because his massive, three volume The Civil War: A Narrative, the books that comprise the prized centerpiece of my threadbare literary collection, taught me that history can be poetry. He showed me that there is magic in the flow of human events and that the chronicles of bygone times can be both educational and inspirational. Most of the time I do not covet the physical form of a book so much as I do the intangible magic of the words that are captured there. Because of my lack of covetousness for the printed word, I have given away uncounted piles of books to the local Friends of the Library, enough to set up a pretty respectable prison library of my own, I think, if I was inclined to crime. But I cherish Foote's work so much that I actually purchased the three volume The Civil War: A Narrative in hardback, a luxury I never indulge in, and it is a literary shrine that I meditate in front of when I am in need of a revelation.
Authors that Changed My Life is a new Hub Pages series I intend to cultivate in this venue. The title is fairly self explanatory, and because there are so many authors who have influenced me in so many ways, it should eventually be very well populated. I hope you enjoy it.
Brief History of a Historian
Shelby Foote is reputed to have done all of his writing with an old fashioned nib pen, eschewing any contact with those modern day technological short cuts of lazier modern writers, the typewriter and the word processor. He was born in Mississippi to a former patrician planter family of faded glory. His paternal grandfather was a Confederate army veteran. He attended the University of North Carolina, worked as a reporter for a newspaper in his college town of Chapel Hill, then served as a Captain of Artillery in Northern Island in World War II. He was discharged from the Army after being court marshaled for commandeering a motorcade vehicle, which he used to take his Irish girlfriend out on a date. For a time Mr. Foote then served as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York, but quit his job to pursue a career as a novelist full time.
The essential side to consider when discussing Shelby Foote, the historian, is to remember that he started his literary life as a novelist. He wrote six works of fiction before embarking upon his massive Civil War, which was intended by its publisher, Random House, to be a centennial commemorative edition of that conflict. The final volume, Red River to Appomattox was not published until 1974, meaning that the last installment missed the centennial celebration by about ten years. Nonetheless, the trilogy eventually catapulted Foote into legendary status among Civil War buffs and casual readers alike.
Bring Home the Great Shelby Foote for Your Own Literary Shrine
Enter Ken Burns, and Fame
In 1990 the documentary TV series The Civil War, by producer Ken Burns, appeared on American Public Television. Yawn - you are thinking, another educational snooze fest designed for eggheads and others with no life. Indeed, PBS shows are typically not huge ratings grabbers, but there was something about this particular Ken Burns documentary that captured the attention of the American public. It turned out to be PBS's most popular program ever; being watched by 40 million viewers, not all of whom could have been history nerds desperate for a date, such as myself.
A significant part of the success of Ken Burn's Civil War can certainly be attributed to Shelby Foote. The author was a late, afterthought addition to the slate of historians that were lined up to be interviewed for the series, but he proved to be the most popular of these. The reason for his popularity, most likely, is because he didn't come across as a stodgy historian in the least during the accumulated one hour, out of 11 hours total running time, that he appeared on the program.
The American Public was held mesmerized by Shelby Foote's slow rolling, musical Mississippi drawl and the leisurely, relaxed fashion in which he told his Civil War stories. His style was more like an aging Uncle talking about events he had actually witnessed than a stern, pedantic professor lecturing an assemblage of yawning, eye rolling, clock watching students. There was lyrical poetry in his words and in the way he delivered them. I remember sitting in front of the television in anxious anticipation for Foote's next appearance, even though I had absolutely no idea who he was at the time.
For a while Shelby Foote was the toast of Public television and became a late night talk circuit celebrity as well. This fleeting burst of fame culminated in an October 10th, 1990 appearance on The Johnny Carson show - a venue more typical for vapid models and narcissist movie stars than for dignified intellectuals such as Mr. Foote. Sales of his The Civil War: A Narrative, skyrocketed - by mid 1991 the title's Random House publisher had sold 400,000 additional copies of his work. Shelby Foote is reported to have told the Civil War documentary's producer, "Ken, you have made me a millionaire."
My Impressions of the Man
I received the first volume of Shelby Foote's great work, Fort Sumter to Perryville, as a Christmas gift sometime around the mid 90s, although I can't recall the exact year. One of my most vivid memories of the book is reading it while dining at a pancake house on a rainy El Nino day, just after going in to the hospital to be x-rayed for a kidney stone. The words of the book flowed as freely and as deliciously as the butter dripping down the side of my pancakes. As a displaced Albuquerquean, I was thrilled that Mr. Foote included no less than 12 pages on the Glorieta campaign in New Mexico, a series of battles often overlooked by Civil War historians more focused on the colossal battles of Northern Virginia than what they consider the backwater skirmishes of the dry and dusty west. But Shelby Foote did the forgotten citizens of New Mexico justice in his detailed and poetic narrative of the invasion of the Rio Grande Valley by marauding Texans under Henry H. Sibley.
Only a skilled novelist such as Shelby Foote could capture the feeling of the three day carnage of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with a literary skill that bean counting historians using their dry statistics and sterile descriptions of mass movements of men, roads, and strategic positions have never measured up to. Shelby Foote certainly includes all of these details as well, but they are merely the background of a grander narrative in which the emotions and impressions of individual soldiers, great and small, play the central role. I read Shelby's approximate 80 page chapter on the Gettysburg campaign, Stars in their Courses, included in Volume II, Fredericksburg to Meridian, while bedridden with bronchitis. Perhaps the reason I am so fond of Shelby Foote is because he was always there to keep me company when I was ill.
I finally finished off Volume III, Red River to Appomattox, while trying to muddle through a Business Mathematics course I was taking at the local community college. I would hide the massive tome behind my pile of textbooks and surreptitiously survey its tantalizing pages while the teacher fielded mostly dumb questions from the confused classroom. In those days I was pretty good at math and didn't really need the lecture, but was still required to have my butt in the seat for the class. Shelby Foote helped me escape those dull, dark days of academic drudgery.
I once heard a Yankee sympathizing history buff complain to a clerk at a battlefield bookstore that Monsieur Foote was biased toward the southern cause, an assertion that baffled me, because I've never detected any residue of rebel sympathies in his work. Quite to the contrary, Mr. Foote's writing is as unbiased as any similar human endeavor could be, and for the most part steers clear from the war's ideological roots. He took great pains to avoid any "lost cause" mythologizing, and was a great admirer of Northern President, Abraham Lincoln, considering him one of the great geniuses of the war. Shelby's southern neighbors often took passionate exception with him over this point.
Shelby Foote passed away on June 27th, 2005. I was saddened to find an obituary of the author included in the mostly ignored mid section of the newspaper, his own glory having faded considerably since his 15 minutes of fame 15 years before his death. I think I shed a tear or two in honor of my fallen literary hero, having fantasized that I might one day meet him in his legendary Memphis study and talk Civil War, one writer to another. I was working a postal office job at the time of his passing, and although my coworkers may have been mystified by my actions, I clipped the article and posted it by my computer. I was probably the only person in the room who remembered the magnificent man, and what he had done to change history into poetry.
For miles the brush and undergrowth were so dense that they had to cut and hack their way through with bowie knives and axes. Skirting the western slopes of the Madelenas, they crossed the Sierra de San Mateo, then staggered down the dry bed of the Palomas River until they reached the Rio Grande again, within sight of which the Texans sent up a shout like the "Thalassa!" of Xenophon's ten thousand.— Shelby Foote