Appreciating Shelby Foote

The headline said, "Novelist and Miss. native Shelby Foote dies in Memphis" and the headline was right.

To people my age, Foote was a 1950s novelist endlessly (almost cruelly) labeled "a friend of Walker Percy." Later we knew him as someone who had given up fiction to write some sort of Civil War nonfiction. The latest pass of obit headline writing has made him an historian.

When fate dropped me on the banks of the Chattahoochie in the early 1970s with no better guide to the local culture than contemporary Southern novels, I learned of Percy and Foote through such work.

Walker Percy had then the odd reputation, promoted in National Review (and elsewhere), of being a "Catholic novelist." I read The Moviegoer and found no Catholic content; at most, the awful void consuming his characters issued whiffs of 1950s Christian existentialism.

Shelby Foote apparently agreed with me. Percy answered one of Foote's letters about a new novel this way:
What is it about? Screwing and God (which all Catholic novels since Augustine have been about) - to use 'Catholic' somewhat loosely since you were right the other day about me not being a Catholic writer as Flannery [O'Connnor] was...
Foote's novels I thought even bleaker than Percy's. In my bleak place and in that bleak time, my bleakness beakers already overflowing, I had no room for Love in a Dry Season.

Perhaps I'll return to it. It is vintage, it is classic, it is literature. Unlike any Civil War writer, Foote came to the work an accomplished belle lettrist. Critically acclaimed, his novels sold well. The South's literary men of that time would have graced an exceedingly handsome table: Fred Chappell, Alan Tate, Clyde Wilson, Marion Montgomery, Richard Weaver, and at their head, the novelist Shelby Foote.

But Foote was not social; he cleaved to his friend Percy and that was that.

At least he was on speaking terms with publishing powerhouse Bennet Cerf who asked him for a book about the Civil War in 1954. By the time the last volume was issued, in 1974, Cerf had been dead nearly three years and the phenomenon we know as Civil War publishing had passed through a complete life cycle. At its beginning, in 1954 when Cerf offered his suggestion, Bruce Catton won an award for A Stillness at Appomattox after being told that there is no future for ACW books; at the end in 1974, the entire parade of Centennial authors - Nevins, Williams, Williams, Catton, et al - has come to a soft landing in a saturated ACW market.

While he wrote, Foote must have witnessed the emerging ACW publishing phenomenon. What did he see?

He saw the absolute triumph of the narrative form over the analytic. (That is what we are recovering from today.) He saw a consensus effort to derive historic truth not from research and dialectic but from literary arts. And who was to attempt a marriage of literary excellence with historic sensibility? A shrill mathemetician named Kenneth P. Williams? Second-tier journalists like Freeman, Catton, and Nevins? An acerbic history teacher, T. Harry Williams?

What, in terms of art, were they producing? Kenneth Williams: a knock-off of the Carl Sandburg oeuvre; T. Harry Williams: Mencken-like screeds and lively polemic; Bruce Catton: reflective Sunday paper feature stories that read like fireside chats. All dressed up in the insecurity of footnotes and bibliographies and oddments from the rag bin of pop scholarship. Was this going to be the literature that arrives at truth?

Foote, an actual novelist, acclaimed, successfull, mature, who had at this point already bent story forms into the amazing shapes by which fiction can approach truth ... Foote must have laughed. He had built complexity into his writing while his contemporary nonfiction writers worked at reducing it. Foote agonized in novels over meaning and the human condition while his nonfiction contemporaries tinkered with "realistic" story elements and "character" motivations. Foote lived the legacy of the Civil War until it bled through his fiction; his competitors tried to imagine "what it would have been like."

There surely came a moment when Foote understood that they were unsuccessfully experimenting with nonfiction forms while he was producing historical literature.

How to make that distinction clear? Refer to the war as America's Iliad. Clearer still? Imitate Agammemnon and burn your ships on the beach, so that there can be no turning back and none can mistake your intentions. Announce that there will be no notes, no bibliography. Leave those to competing narrative historians who do not understand their own journey.

And so, Foote transcended the Centennial writers with his historical literature, thereby playing ace of trump on their best hands. The project of narrative history was dead; as a literary approach to truth in history, plodding narrative nonfiction with its pretend scholarship and straining technique must necessarily give way - in every case - to the practice of the highest possible artistry in historical literature.

He attempted to revive the genre of Gibbon while reaching for the laurels of Homer. And no one, except readers, followed him into the space he made.

To this day the oblivious can be counted on to point out the lack of bibliography and notes in The Civil War: A Narrative. "Intentional," Foote said, to no avail. McPherson later - in near self-parody - pointed to Foote's "regional bias."

The Iliad had a Greek bias and it lacked footnotes and bibliography. And for hundreds of years, people learned it by heart.

The obituaries are comparing the novelist Foote less with the novelist Percy and more with the narrative writer James McPherson. And that is a regression.

Some years after the publication of the third volume of The Civil War, it was the good luck of a race relations historian named James McPherson to land a work-for-hire commission through his mentor, the famous C. Vann Woodward. The job was to plug a gap in the Oxford University Press's American history series. McPherson, innocent of the Civil War, had to write a book about it; he would need to learn his subject quickly and write about it safely.

McPherson did a careful thing. He aggregated the most commercially successful nonfiction narratives produced in the great Civil War book boom, assimilated their conclusions, cobbled together a storyline for them writing in his dry, cumbersome style, and then he festooned this composite with notes and bibliography. It was perfect for what it was, an overview of the "current thinking." It reinforced what everyone had already learned through the bestseller lists. But Battle Cry of Freedom wasn't scholarship - it was a revival of failed literary experiments. Its success had the effect of prolonging this period of historical narrative, the very form that Foote had superseded with his revival of historical literature.

And there is where we are today. The distinction between talespinning and literature is lost. New waves of under-endowed storytellers struggle to make their narratives "true" and compelling and they fail for want of art and confusion of purpose. Their popular nonfiction is not literature but somehow passes for "scholarship."

Percy credited Foote with achieving his aim. Foote's Civil War is our Iliad, he said. The Modern Library ranked The Civil War 15th among the 100 greatest works of English.

Now Foote is dead with no imitators, his work read by those who have hardly an inkling of what he was about. His attempt at culminating is terminated.

There is no one like him in Civil War publishing now, nor will there be until the next accomplished man of literature tries his hand at rendering this particular epic event "true" through the telling.

There is no guarantee of that happening again.