A Visit from Historian Shelby Foote

By Carter, Richard | Humanities, January/February 2000 | Go to article overview

A Visit from Historian Shelby Foote


Carter, Richard, Humanities


HISTORY IS A PRETTY WRETCHED SUBJECT TO STUDY IN SCHOOL," says Shelby Foote, a historian of the Civil War and an acclaimed novelist. "As I remember it, it was terrible. They required me to memorize so many things. There was a Treaty of Utrecht, and it has thirteen steps. I don't know one of those steps. But it had thirteen."

Foote came to Washington last fall to reflect on American history, the South, Southern character, the Civil War, education, and human nature before a breakfast on the Hill with senators and congressmen. He also spoke at a second session at the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Old Post Office.

Foote is the author of The Civil War: A Narrative, the monumental work for which he is best known. He has also written six novels, including Shiloh, Testament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, and Jordan County. At a congressional breakfast Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott described Foote as "more than a Mississippi treasure... he is a treasure for our country... a writer who seeks the truth and writes the truth."

Here are some excerpts of Foote's remarks at a congressional breakfast held in his honor and later that same day at a gathering at the NEH.

EDUCATION

"I had absolutely marvelous teachers. They were mostly old maids. They made-I'm not exaggerating-about $120 a month. They had maybe three dresses that hung in the closet of a rooming house where they took their meals, and they were enormously respected. They loved their life and wouldn't have swapped places with anybody for anything.

"One way to attract more and better teachers is to greatly increase teachers' pay.

But then you may have people teaching to get in the money, which is not a very good reason to be a teacher."

DIVERSITY AND THE STRENGTH OF AMERICA

"If Americans were anything as superior as we claim to be, we would be paragons of virtue, and of course, we're not that. But we are superior in another sense. And our superiority comes from this diversity of the way we're made up. We can see a subject in a different way from the way a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German would see things because so many different points of view are combined in the one American mind. It gives us a view of things that's extremely valuable to the world as well as to ourselves."

THE SOUTH'S SENSE OF TRAGEDY

"There is something that is too often overlooked of a far serious nature than the usual business about drawls and accents and overalls. And that is we truly, having lost a war, know a tragedy that other Americans do not know or have not experienced. Certainly not until Vietnam. We know what it means to lose a war. But what we have gained from it is of more value than the people who won the war got from it. We got a true sense of tragedy, and I think that it counts in part for the dominance of Southern writers in the history of American literature, particularly in this century.

"The South gained a great deal from losing the Civil War. These things are strange, but we live with them all the time. And Southerners, it seems to me, perhaps because I'm a Southerner, have these things that I'm talking about to an increased degree that other people have a chance not only to scorn but also to learn from. And I hope that they will be understood as not an evil that lurks in our hearts, but a lack of being in tune with what has happened in the last, in the past generation. We have a hard time understanding it."

SINS OF THE SOUL

"The South has got some sins on its soul that it will never be able to get clear of. But so has the nation. And quite often the attempt to correct these sins leads into still greater sins through the method in which they were corrected. Slavery for instance. I don't suppose that sin will ever be removed from our souls."

SOUTHERNERS

"Southerners are very outgoing and friendly, but they're also very private people in their own way. …

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