Telling History vs. Making Art: The Civil War’s great storyteller

Part six in a series.

No written work embodies the tension between art and history more fully than Shelby Foote’s mammoth three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. Few people realize Foote was a novelist before he became the “warm and folksy raconteur” of anecdotal Civil War history; his novel Shiloh sits almost forgotten in the shadow of his magnum opus.

“Well, I am a novelist, and what is more I agree with D.H. Lawrence’s estimate of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life….’” Foote said in his author’s note at the end of the first volume, Fort Sumter to Perryville:

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 recreate 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 standards without his paraphernalia, I have employed the novelist’s methods without his license. Instead of inventing characters and incidents, I searched them out—and having found them, I took them as they were.

Although Foote listed his primary and secondary sources at the end of each volume, he made the intentional choice to leave out footnotes along the way, “believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience.”

Foote’s lack of footnotes, in particular, has drawn the scorn of historians, as has his anecdotal style (and, frankly, his success—illustrating again the gap between public and professional perspectives). People even harped on him for taking so long to complete the trilogy. “[I]n response to complaints that it took me five times longer to write the war than the participants took to fight it, I would point out that there were a good many more them than were was of me,” he wrote at the end.

More serious criticism was leveled at him for focusing too much on military matters and for downplaying the role of slavery. “Shelby Foote is an engaging battlefield guide, a master of the anecdote, and a gifted and charming storyteller, but he is not a good historian,” says historian Leon Litwack.

Trends and tensions within the field of history itself actually leave any historian open to that kind of criticism. I’ve heard historians dismiss each other as “too military” or “too Southern” or “too focused on a particular site and not enough on the big-picture,” and as a field, military history continues to take a back seat to social history. Despite that emphasis on social history among professional historians, though, military histories “remain the most popular works Civil War historians produce for a general audience.” What the public wants and what scholars choose to study remain two separate spheres. It’s no wonder the two groups come to a creative work as readers/viewers with vastly different expectations.

In the end, the naysayers who criticized Foote’s lack of proper historiographical technique won out: the Pulitzer committee passed him over, as did the National Book Award committee. The omissions left Foote “bitter and angry,” a biographer later wrote.

Born on November 17, 1916, Foote grew up in Mississippi and later lived in Memphis. He published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, followed by several others, including his first foray into Civil War-related literature, Shiloh, in 1952. He showed promise, Faulkner thought, “if he’ll just stop trying to write like Faulkner, and will write some Shelby Foote.” He was also admired by Eudora Welty and was close friends with Walker Percy.

Foote began work on his first volume of The Civil War: A Narrative—Vol. I Ft. Sumter to Perryville in 1951 and published in in 1958. Vol. II Fredericksburg to Meridian followed in 1863; Vol. III Red River to Appomattox followed in 1974.

Critics who look on the three volumes and focus on, say, Foote’s lack of footnotes miss the point: his power as a storyteller. They forget about the beauty of his language, the smooth skill of his pacing, and the adroit weave of his complex narrative structure. Look at the way these two sentences, 113 words in all, unwrap as they go:

A mile to the right of the point where the cluster of spires and gables showed above the ridge, and facing the road the led northward along it to Hagerstown, a squat, whitewashed building was set at the forward edge of a grove of trees wearing their full late-summer foliage; the autumnal equinox was still a week away. The sunlit brick structure, dazzling white against its leafy backdrop, was a church, but it was a Dunker church and therefore had no steeple; the Dunkers believed that steeples represented vanity, and they were as much opposed to vanity as they were to war, including the one that was about to move into their churchyard.

Foote uses labyrinthine phrasing and careful punctuation—a style strongly influenced by Faulkner—to build his image of the church, revealing detail after vivid detail. He cleverly links “opposition to vanity” to “opposition to war,” allowing him to work in additional information in a creative way. Then, his final phrase, “about to move into their churchyard,” lets him return from his momentary snapshot of description back to the forward movement of the narrative.

Foote structures Volume I of his narrative with a long section introducing Confederate President Jefferson Davis followed by a long section introducing Abraham Lincoln, whom he then uses as a springboard into a discussion of the large strategic picture leading into the war. He draws the volume to a close in reverse fashion, first using Davis’ viewpoint to sum up the Confederate perspective as 1862 draws to a close, then using Lincoln’s perspective to sum up the Union perspective. He starts the book with Davis resigning his seat in the U.S. Senate to open a new chapter in his public life; he ends the book by returning to Capitol Hill for Lincoln’s address to Congress: “Then came the end [literally as Foote ends the book], the turn of a page that opened a new chapter.” The parallels between beginning and end are subtle and masterful. When he finally wraps up his Volume III, Foote does so by returning to Davis again—this time as “the embodied history of the South” in his last days—thus using him to bookend the entire narrative in tidy fashion.

The Civil War: A Narrative—all three volumes and 1.3 million words of it—represents an amazing creative achievement. With its focus on military matters, it also represents a monument to the Reconciliation tradition’s emphasis on battlefield valor. Considering Foote’s identity as a Southern writer, the biggest surprise might be that the book does not stand as a testament to Lost Cause sympathies.

His interview with Tony Horwitz in Confederates in the Attic stands as an additional testament to his nuanced, mercurial attitude toward the South and toward the war. “Like so much else about Foote, there was irony here,” Horwitz wrote. “A private, almost reclusive man who wrote with a dip-pen and distrusted modernity, Foote had gained his greatest fame appearing before millions of television viewers in the guise of a warm and folksy raconteur.”

Horwitz was talking, of course, of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, in which Foote appears in some ninety segments. Viewers fell in love with him–and readers did, too. His three-part narrative had sold around 30,000 copies since the first volume came out in 1958; in the year after Foote appeared in The Civil War, he’d sold 400,000 sets. “Ken,” he told the director, “you’ve made me a millionaire.”

“Shelby Foote” and “The Civil War” became synonymous for nearly every adult in America.

Next: Communicating the “incommunicable experience of war”

2 comments on “Telling History vs. Making Art: The Civil War’s great storyteller

  1. Interesting coincidence. I’m currently rereading “Confederates in the Attic,” which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to better understand the modern South. Your take on the border between history and narrative is eloquent, and I greatly enjoyed it. Have you read much from John Keegan? I think he often walks that line rather well.

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