Magazine article The American Conservative

Foote's Flag

Magazine article The American Conservative

Foote's Flag

Article excerpt

Back in the summer of 2000, when men still said what was on their minds (sometimes) and before the hoary ideal of freedom of speech had collapsed under the accumulated weight of 9/11, the Patriot Act, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and the enshrinement of the hall monitor as the exemplary American undergraduate, I spent an afternoon chatting with Shelby Foote, whose magisterial three-volume history of the Civil War is one of the great achievements in modern American letters.

The subsequent article from that interview ran in the now-defunct American Enterprise, where a caption writer described our interview as a "spunky ramble," thus stirring one friend to refer to me thereafter as a Spunky Rambler.

Foote, then 83, was so cool he made Lou Reed look like Anne Murray. When I showed up on the porch of his stockbroker-Tudor home in Memphis about noon, the long-haired Foote, clad in ratty old pajamas, drawled, "Ah wuz jes' fixin' ta go ta thuh whiskey stoah." Images of Marcel Proust and bluesman Robert Johnson adorned the erstwhile novelist's study, where he still wrote with a pen dipped in ink.

Foote was absolutely sui generis: a Southern literary man who defied categorization. While he was a son of the Mississippi Delta, his maternal grandfather was a Viennese Jew. He edited the high school newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi, where his staff included a gossip columnist named Walker Percy. He was friends with Stanley Kubrick and was a certified celebrity due to his folksy-raconteur presence in Ken Burns's PBS series on the Civil War, but Foote was "a Southerner first--there's no need in denying that," he said. "When I see a list of people killed in an airplane crash, I look for the Southerners on board."

Foote had written of the Klansmen marching under Dixie's banner: "I tell them to their faces that they are the scum who have degraded the Confederate flag, converted it from a symbol of honor into a banner of shame, covered it with obscenities like a roadhouse wall."

Yet this self-described yellow-dog Democrat ("I no longer vote for the man, I vote the party") and fan of Bill Clinton's told me, "I'm for the Confederate flag flying anywhere anybody wants to fly it at any time. If they have a referendum in a state that says 'Take the flag down off the state capitol,' I think they ought to take the lag down. But the flag to me represents many noble things. …

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