Walking Easy with Shelby Foote: A Civil War Historian’s Thoughts on History, Walker Percy, and the Life of Writing

Recently, a mimeographed report made its flurried ways to faculty mailboxes of a respected American university. Quoted is one history professor’s marching order for all his students’ written work: “It goes without saying that all assignments will be written in clear and elegant English.” Another history professor says she asks students to write about historical events “in the style of Dickens or another well-known writer” to get them “out of academese”; their writing about history, she avers, becomes more interesting when they “use models from fiction.” Just when we had become sadly convinced of pervasive academic depravity, sanity breaks out.

But Shelby Foote, the consummate novelist, knew all this years ago. In the mid-1950s the author of five critically-acclaimed novels replete with the clarion influences of Faulkner and Proust stepped aside for what he thought would be a few years’ hiatus from fiction to write an account of a tumultuous, tragic time in American history. The Civil War: A Narrative came to three mighty volumes, each about a thousand pages long. It was to be 20 years in the writing. What emerged is storytelling of the highest order: a broad, blanketing chronicle, a story of simple magnificence. Perhaps only an accomplished novelist could have written it with such facility and dash; it’s not an explication of historical “problems,” it’s an epic tale about the sacrifices of a fated generation caught up in the exigencies of time and place. Yet only one with a historian’s remove could have told it with such painstaking accuracy. The Civil War stands as a marvel of exceeding rarity today: it’s fine literature and formidable history at the same time. The storytelling is all the more magnificent for being true. Foote is one of the last writers left in this age of the hard sell whom we could feel comfortable in calling, without a sense of self-conscious archaism, a man of letters.

Now in his mid-70s, Shelby Foote was born and reared in the rich Delta region around Greenville, Mississippi. After graduation from the public high school there, Foote wrote occasional articles for Hodding Carter’s Delta Star during and after two years spent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the same time, he regularly contributed short stories to Carolina Magazine, along with writing a spate of other journalism. He left Chapel Hill without a degree to return to Greenville, where he joined the Mississippi National Guard in preparation for the war that appeared increasingly likely. After the war began, Foote was commissioned in the U.S. Army and eventually served as an artillery captain with the Fifth Division in the European theater. With an assignment as a staff writer for the Associated Press in New York City and, back home, a brief stint as a copy writer for a Greenville radio station, Foote worked his last for other men. Thenceforth he took up the solitary vocation of novelist.

The novels came in rapid succession. First came Tournament in 1949, then Follow Me Down in 1950, Love in a Dry Season in 1951, Shiloh in 1952, and Jordan County in 1954. Four of the five novels are carefully wrought attempts to delve into the life of a fictional county in the vast and socially precarious Mississippi Delta. Psychological depths are tapped and lives explored through tangled and emotional meanderings as tortuous as the river that snakes its way through their land.

It was then, after this period of initial success, that Random House offered Foote a contract to write a short history of the Civil War. It didn’t take him long after he began his meticulous and exhaustive research to realize that the short volume would never be written, at least by him: his book, like the war itself, would have to be a story on the grand scale, unabridged, told the way good and great histories have always been told, as an effort to reach the truth lying beneath the bracken of sociological data. Random House agreed. After two decades, novel-writing would return with the 1977 release of September September. But in the meantime, that had to wait. There was history to make. Publication of The Civil War: A Narrative began in 1958 with Volume I: Fort Sumter to Perryville; Volume II, Fredericksburg to Meridian, followed in 1963; Volume Red River to Appomattox completed the set in 1974.

Shelby Foote’s life of quiet seclusion ended in 1990 with Ken Burns’s enormously popular 11-hour documentary for the Public Broadcasting System, “The Civil War.” Without having intended it, Foote overnight became what he calls “some kind of star.” His breezy, anecdotal, and wise on-camera words leavened the mass of facts and images and music; they did much to deflate the sometimes embarrassingly pretentious pronouncements of other commentators.

Foote was a close friend to novelist Walker Percy since their high school days together in Greenville. (It is in fact Percy’s guardian, William Alexander Percy, himself an author, whom Foote names as the most powerful, determining influence in his own early decision to become a writer.) Shelby Foote and Walker Percy learned from each other; together they discussed poetry and novels, shaping each other’s aesthetic tastes and capacities while remaining remarkably different. Indeed they became vastly different men and writers, but there en¬dured a deep respect that lasted until Percy’s death in May 1990. “One secret of the longevity of our friendship,” Foote has written, “was that each of us knew what would make the other angry, and we were careful not to venture into such areas — except on purpose, which would open the matter to drumfire argument and laughter, time and time again, all down the years.” Foote also came to know the quintessential Southern writer, William Faulkner. It gives one pause to imagine the first meeting of the three of them over fifty years ago —  Foote, the bold one knocking on Faulkner’s door; Percy, the shy one refusing to leave the car; Faulkner, reticent but still genial enough to greet the two young men; Faulkner and Percy nodding their salutations from a distance. Surely one of the august gatherings of literary history.

In this informal conversation, Shelby Foote talks about the Civil War, literature, education, society, and manners. Foote lives with his wife, Gwyn, in a large house designed in “stockbroker Tudor” and lost in the trees of a quiet Memphis neighborhood. For two days we talked in his spacious study, surrounded by bookshelves and the mementos of a lifetime — a World War II helmet, framed maps he drew of Civil War campaign theaters, along with photographs of Civil War generals, a model Stuka plane hanging from the high ceiling, a poster of Proust his son once sent to him from Paris. He talked easily in his now-familiar baritoned Delta accent. Here is part of what came through the laughter, bourbon, and swirling tobacco smoke.

History has declined greatly as an academic discipline. Fewer and fewer choose to take it up as a major field of study. What is it about history today, as it is practiced by many professional historians, that puts off the educated general reader?

There are various minor reasons. I think that the new brand of historian, particularly that group called “cliometricians,” who believe in statistics and using computers to arrive at answers — God knows that puts people off. But I think that the main thing is the lack of good teachers, which is probably the whole problem with education, anyhow. I didn’t really have highly competent teachers myself. I remember in high school a history course in Modern Europe, I think. The only thing I remember about the whole course was being required to memorize the 13 steps of the Treaty of Utrecht — that puts you off good and thoroughly. But the teacher herself was good. The best classroom teacher I ever had was a man named Philip Russell, at Chapel Hill. And it was a course in medieval history, which on the face of it sounds like it might be the dullest program on the earth. But it was a superb program. I understood the founding of the modern world. And he taught it as a lecture — he came walking into the room, said “Good morning, gentlemen,” he never asked anybody a question, there was never any discussion, he did a straight lecture — and it was totally fascinating. But that was because he was such a good teacher. Now, how you solve the problem of finding good teachers, I’m not too sure.

Do you consider history as part of the humanities or part of the sciences?

I really consider my favorite historians as artists. Of the Americans, for instance, I like Parkman infinitely better than I do the Beards. I like Henry Adams very much, and Frederick Jackson Turner. I just finished reading that Library of America edition of Adams on Madison and Jefferson. It’s a wonderful history. And I had not read Parkman until after I had finished the Civil War; I could have learned a lot from Parkman.

What particular advantage did you have as a novelist in writing your histories?

Aristotle said way back that a writer progresses in this fashion. First, he learns how to write — how to write a sentence, how to write a paragraph — and a bright high school sophomore can write a really good description of a sunset, if he works hard at it. Then the next thing he learns how to do is draw characters, analyze a man, show you what he looked like, how he acted. And the last thing you learn how to do in your career as a writer is how to plot; that comes last and is the most difficult to acquire, and I think most applies in doing good history. So a novelist learns those things and historians, I’m afraid, often don’t bother to learn any of those things. They consider it a waste of time; it takes away from the time they should spend on research. So their actual writing simply consists in putting the facts down, and they think that the facts are what is history. But no list of facts will ever give you the truth; it’s what you do with those facts that makes them true. And God knows I’m not talking about distortion. I’m talking about discovering what underlies those facts, which is what makes them true. Keats once said that a fact is not a truth until you love it. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

My favorite historians were, generally speaking, not professional historians. Parkman was not a professional historian, crazy as that sounds. Neither was Gibbon. And I don’t know what you’d call Tacitus, probably my favorite historian. I guess there just weren’t any “professionals” then.

What is there about the Civil War that lends itself so well to the narrative approach? Was there a conscious effort on your part to make your treatment differ from others?

I really wasn’t interested in exploding anybody else’s theories. I never in the whole course of the history argued with another historian whether something did or didn’t happen. I wasn’t interested in being different — I was interested in finding the plot.

When a man dies, at that moment you can separate his life into a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you can’t do it until it ends. But Oscar Wilde talked about nature imitating art, and indeed it does. You can find a plot to a man’s life. Now that sounds like a simple thing to say. But I mean truly a beginning, truly a middle, truly an end. There is a crisis, and so on. As for our interest in the Civil War, that comes from many things. The most obvious one is what a highly dramatic event it was, from start to finish, and all the years leading up to it, and also the years that followed. It is what I called it on that TV show, the “crossroads of our being”: if you’re really going to understand this country, I do believe that an understanding of the Civil War has to underlie that understanding. It is, as I said before, our Iliad. Douglas Southall Freeman said a very illuminating thing. He came up with a simile that I think has a lot of truth to it. He said it’s as if the Civil War was like a bloody lake into which the clear stream of history flowed and came out clear on the other side. That was his explanation for the highly dramatic quality of the Civil War, and for the bloodiness of it.

Your novel Shiloh came several years before the first volume of the history. You create characters out of your imagination there — men who did not live. Yet when one of the historical personages — Generals Johnston, Grant, Beauregard, Sherman — come on the stage, you are meticulous about never having one of them say something that you don’t know that he said—

And also he wouldn’t be where he was at that time unless I knew he was there.

Yes, but that’s not always typical practice for many writing so-called historical fiction. Why was it so with you?

I believe that the closer you get to the truth, the better the thing will be. That’s true of a novel as much as it is of history. It also came out of respect for those people. I don’t believe that you have the right to put words in the mouth of a historical person. You shouldn’t take those liberties. Anyhow not since Shakespeare. [Laughter] And you don’t need to — the material is there. I claim that whether the reader is aware of that or not, if I stick to strict history with regard to historical characters, the truth of that will contribute to the novel. And the extent to which I depart from that will detract from the truth of the novel. With Shiloh, incidentally, the hero of that book is a battle, not a character or even a group of characters. I was trying to tell the story of that battle. And that, too, is part of the reason why I wanted the historical characters to be accurate.


Life with Walker

You knew Walker Percy very well; you grew up with him, in fact. How often did the two of you discuss books and writing?

A great deal. Walker was practically the only person I did discuss such things with, and he with me. We had a long-running argument. He was a Tolstoy man and I was a Dostoevsky man. I said that Tolstoy was the greatest slick writer that ever lived, and that infuriated him. I said that Dostoevsky was getting at things — really getting at things, and not pretending to describe the surface. So about 1970 Walker and I were driving across the Causeway into New Orleans, and he said, “You were right.” [Laughter]

We used to wonder why a thing would sound so good and not be good. I remember we talked—and here we are about 17 or 18—about this. Like with Longfellow—”shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,/ And as silently steal away.” Why does that sound so good and why is it so bad? So we tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. We did a good deal of that. And we read voraciously. We were each other’s college, even back in high school.

Did you talk about things the two of you were working on?

Yeah, some. In fact, our letters to each other are at Chapel Hill now. We talked about what we were doing, not so much as problems, but what we had accomplished. So it was a sort of journal. You see, back in those days people wrote letters instead of picking up the telephone.

Was there much discussion of spiritual or philosophical concerns in those days?

We are very different people. Walker could read with fascination Maritain, Marcel, Kierkegaard. I found Maritain impenetrable; I did not know what was on the page. Walker couldn’t read Keats’ “To Autumn.” He always said, “I just can’t read it.” That wasn’t true — he could read it. But he didn’t really enjoy what I liked best, and I didn’t like what he liked best. In both cases it was an inability. But where we met was on the novel. He went through a period shortly after his conversion when he was almost a prude about sexual things. He criticized Follow Me Down heavily for too much stress on sex. He always said that sexual things take the reader out of the book. There’s some truth in that, but not much.

Walker was also absolutely convinced that his contributions to language were by far the most important work he did. I told him he’d lost his mind.


Pipes and P.C.

Any thoughts on the movement called “political correctness”?

Well, that seems to be something that no serious writer would pay too much attention to. Nobody wants to be ill-mannered, but it would just not be anything that would cross my mind, while I was writing, whether anything I said would offend anybody. I would be careful about what I said in a drawing room, but wouldn’t be careful about what I said at that writing table.

One can’t imagine Hemingway or Faulkner worrying about who they would offend.

No. Walker had a spell of that. It’s when he was working on The Thanatos Syndrome—that section about the Nazis. He was very worried about that, very worried. He thought that a lot of people were going to think he was pro-Nazi. It didn’t seem so to me. I said, “You are worried about something that there is absolutely no need to worry about. Have you ever known a Kluxer who has ever read a book?” [Laughter] No. And as for liberals, I said, “They will never recognize each other in this thing. They will have utter contempt for the liberal as you draw him, because they don’t consider that they are like that.” And as for your Catholic readers, I said, “Well, I guess you’re just going to have to settle for being considered immoral along with the rest of us modern writers.” [Laughter]

I’ll ask this as you’re smoking your pipe. What do you think of the anti-smoking movement?

I think that it’s the most outrageous thing in the world. Restaurants have become unpleasant places to be. I have heard reports from people just back from Europe that Americans are despised over there — they go around holding their nose and protesting against smokers. And the Europeans are just exasperated by these damn Americans coming over and acting that way; this “New Puritanism” or whatever it’s called. They don’t like it, and I don’t like it either. I think it’s un-American — what’s this country supposed to be about? And talk about segregation. They put the smokers into some corner, away from everybody else. It’s like the back of the bus. [Laughter] And besides you can’t smoke your pipe at all, or cigars. And I don’t smoke cigarettes. At a good French restaurant, after the meal, they pass cigars — and everybody knows that a good cigar is the best thing on earth to finish a great meal with.

I was delighted to find, when I studied the Red River campaign, General Stone sitting on a fence, smoking a cigarette. That was extremely unusual then, as cigarettes weren’t around much at all. But the movement has subtracted a very enjoyable part of people’s lives, so far as I’m concerned. These people are like a lot of Carrie Nations — they don’t have hatchets, but some of them are carrying mace to spray smokers. They’re fervent, true believers, however fanatical.


Confederate Remains

This calls for some speculation. Today, things such as the Confederate battle flag and “Dixie” are being driven out of existence as obvious symbols of racist tension. What do you think is behind all of that?

I think it’s really quite simple what’s behind it, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I regret it. The tragedy of the whole civil rights struggle is that the decent people of the South who wanted to solve the problem, but differed somewhat on how to solve it — when that struggle came along, the so-called decent people, to their great shame ever after, sat back, and said, “They are sending their riff-raff down here, let our riff-raff take care of them.” And that is the tragedy of the thing. They did not stand up, they did not say, “This is right, that is wrong.” They simply said, “Let the trash take care of the trash.” And you had all these dreadful things, including the murder of three civil rights workers down in Mississippi. You had everything happen as a result of decent people sitting back and letting the indecent people deal with the problem instead of dealing with it themselves. Now, I want to be fair about that. These decent people were not all that decent. They shared a lot of the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan, although they would never be Klansmen and disapproved of the Klan; they also wanted to stop integration. And they wouldn’t want to stand up themselves and stop it, but they’d let these roughnecks handle the thing.

Now, as for the Confederate battle flag and the song “Dixie” — the decent people did the same damn thing. They let these people take those symbols. And I can perfectly understand any black being greatly offended by the Confederate battle flag or even “Dixie,” both of which I love. But they have been claimed by these yahoos, they became their symbols, and we lost them. So I have great sympathy for blacks on this question.

There’s a movement down here in Memphis to remove Bedford Forrest’s statue from Forrest Park, and not only the statue. Forrest and his wife are buried under that horse; some people want to dig their bones up and throw them out. I’ve got a good friend here, black lawyer, a Yale graduate — like Clarence Thomas — and he’s one of the leaders of this. I think Forrest is one of the finest men who ever lived, and I know he’s one of the great military leaders of all time. And I talked to my friend and said, “You don’t know a damn thing about Bedford Forrest. He was a fine man in many ways. You ought to know something about Forrest before you tear his statue down and dig up his bones.” He said, “I do know about Forrest. I know that he was a slave trader before the war, and was Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. And that’s all I need to know about him. I spent my youth walking past that park, seeing that man up on that horse, and knowing what he stood for. And now that I’m in a position to do something about it, I want to get him out of there, because I don’t want other black boys walking by looking at this as a symbol.”

Well, he’s wrong about that. He’s wrong. I think that to remove Forrest from Forrest Park would be as if the women of France were indignant over the way Napoleon treated the ladies and wanted to remove his body from Les Invalides. I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I think this is just as serious, and I hope they’ll never be able to do it.

But I do understand their taking offense at that flag, at that song, at that man on that bronze horse. We let them be captured by the wrong people. I hope we can reclaim them.

Many of us would like to reclaim them, to use them, and when they do offend, to meet the offended compassionately and talk about what these symbols originally stood for.

Well, you see, you’re getting on the way to correct it. The way to correct it is to get the truth across to people; tell them what Bedford Forrest was like, tell them what the Confederacy really stood for. For example, during the early days of the fulminations against the Supreme Court, all this riff-raff I’m talking about hated the Supreme Court — they wanted to impeach Earl Warren, they wanted to ignore the courts, all kinds of things. If they had any understanding of the Confederacy, they would realize how totally it was built on law, how law was admired enormously. It was the North that called the Constitution a pact with the devil and would burn it in public. The South worshipped the Constitution and the Supreme Court. And Jefferson Davis stayed in Washington after the secession of Mississippi not only to say farewell to the Senate. He stayed hoping that he’d be arrested so he could get his case on secession before the Supreme Court, and he was convinced he’d win the case. I think a lot of people who opposed him were convinced he’d win the case, particularly that Court, Chief Justice Taney’s Court. But the Confederacy believed above all things in law; they wanted to settle it by law.

Now, these other people swapped sides on that. The blacks who were appealing to law for justice were doing exactly what the Confederates thought themselves to be doing, but they don’t know that — they think of the whole Confederacy as being anti-legal. After all, they’re seceding, they’re in rebellion, and so on. My whole point in this is that if we could get the truth across to people, then the Confederacy would be restored considerably to the dignity it had.

Would this also be related to the point that the original Union, the one created after the Constitutional Convention, was a voluntary one? One with the right to secede?

Absolutely. Not only was it a voluntary Union, it was a reluctant Union. They had a hell of a time getting those 13 groups together. And, believe me, I don’t think there was a one of the 13 that would have gotten in if it didn’t think it could get out if it didn’t like it.

Now I also believe in the Great Compromise that followed the war, and one that many Southerners came to subscribe to — that it was probably best for all concerned that the Union didn’t divide. And the compromise on the other side was that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. And I go with that. I think all Ameri cans go with it, really. But there’s this terrible misunderstanding of what the Confederacy’s purpose was.

The South saw the Union going in directions they didn’t want to go. Slavery was not the only factor by a long shot. The Southern Agrarians later on talked a lot of foolishness, but they also had a basic conception that I agree with, that the country was changing in ways that the South didn’t want to see it change. And we can all regret a lot of things that have happened, not the least of them the rule of the robber barons as a direct result of the Civil War, which Southerners seemed to conceive was going to happen anyhow. That was one of the things they feared, and why they wanted to get out of the Union. They feared the Union was becoming big business-oriented. Not only did these fears come true, but they were accelerated by the war itself, which gave a terrific impetus to the very thing they thought they were fighting.

Yet there’s also something powerful in the idea of the Union.

Well, it too is a mystical thing. I think it’s very real, the notion that this was supposed to be a country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Back to education and how it’s changed. Would you elaborate more on what you believe most important as our public officials continue to discuss education reform?

I had in the public schools of Mississippi some wonderful teachers. They were nearly all old maids, and they made about $120 a month, top. It was about the only occupation available to them in those days. These old gals didn’t know their subjects very well. But they had the thing that a good teacher always gives you — they had an enthusiasm for their subject. I had an English teacher named Miss Hawkins, and she didn’t know much about English literature, which she taught. But she loved it. And she communicated to you her love of that. A lot of these teachers today are infinitely better prepared than Miss Hawkins was, but they don’t have that singleness to their life. In those days those gals were locked into that thing. And they were damn good teachers. Mine were. They had this overriding ability to communicate to you their enthusiasm for their subject — the most important thing a teacher can do.

All this while emphasizing those dreaded names and dates?

I think of the enthusiasm being propped up by the facts and dates — the enthusiasm is always the thing, and then you find out why you have it. It’s like falling in love. You fall in love first and then you learn the facts.

  • Tracy Lee Simmons

    At the time this article was published, Tracy Lee Simmons was a writer living in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Crisis.

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