Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Conflict Is Behind Me Now": Shelby Foote Writes the Civil War

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Conflict Is Behind Me Now": Shelby Foote Writes the Civil War

Article excerpt

Shelby Foote began his address to the Southern Historical Association on "The Novelist's View of History" in 1955 by quoting D.H. Lawrence: "Being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet. The novel is the one bright book of life." With this opening salvo, Foote, already well into the work on the first volume of his narrative of the Civil War at the time, proceeds to establish that the ground of his authority is that of the artist, not the amateur historian. In the years since, however, he has in fact gained a historical authority, both with the general public and professional historians. His show-stopping performance in the Ken Burns' Civil War documentary on PBS created a permanent identification of the slow-talking, weathered Mississippian with the war and history. More important, The Civil War: A Narrative is one of the great non-fiction works of the twentieth century and certainly the work for which Foote will be remembered. But Foote to this day insists that he is a novelist, not a historian, and that his novels and short fiction occupy a place in his canon equal to that of his mammoth three-volume narrative of the Civil War. His view has been borne out by increasing interest in his novels among scholars and the public, although it took the immense popularity of the The Civil War to bring those novels back into print.

Leaving the question of the relative merits of fiction and history aside, my purpose is to seek the deeper truth of Foote's claim by exploring the impact of his art and his view of the artist on the history. He does not merely create a more vivid historical account by adding a few novelistic techniques to what remains essentially an amateur historian's account; rather, through his own art he reinvisions the war as itself a matter of art (of widely varying qualities), of triumphs and failures of human imagination. This reinvisioning creates a common currency between the past events and the words on the page--what was becomes what is in the present of Foote's text, and the past experience of the war becomes the present experience of artist and reader. In its total effect, the narrative elevates the artist above the historical specialist among the arbiters of history. In place of argument, it provides the "quality of vision" necessary to give the work the force of lived experience.

Foote gained a sense of himself as set apart for a life's work as an artist early on. The groundwork was laid in the literary household of William Alexander Percy in Foote's hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, the leading town of the Delta. Percy opened a new possibility for Foote, as he did for Foote's boyhood companion and lifelong friend Walker Percy: the life of a writer. Here was a practicing, well-received lawyer-poet and man of letters, whose house was one of the necessary stopping points on any literary pilgrimage of the South. In addition to other prominent Greenville intellectuals and artist, any number of writers, northern and southern alike, came by the house to pay their respects, among them William Faulkner, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, and Stark Young. Perhaps William Alexander Percy's greatest contribution to the two young men--both by his own example and the literary household he maintained--was the sense that one could be a writer, wholly and unapologetically. Walker Percy identifies his debt to his elder cousin: "I know what I gained: a vocation and in a real sense a second self; that is, the work and the self which, for better or worse, would not otherwise have been open to me" (Signposts 55). In Foote's case, this sense of vocation would run much deeper than for either of the Percys, never being diluted by an aborted medical career or philosophical interests, as with Walker, or local politics, landholding, and the law, as with the elder Percy. Writing for Foote would be a religion, followed according to the rule of the great modern masters of the order. …

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