Tag Archives: Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote and instant history on The Daily Show

Jon Meacham went on Comedy Central last night to talk about two projects he’s edited.  One of them is American Homer, an essay collection on Shelby Foote which is packaged with a new edition of Foote’s Civil War trilogy.  It’s an appropriate title; back when C-SPAN interviewed Foote, he agreed with a caller who cast his work in the Homeric narrative mold, as opposed to the more analytical model of other ancient writers like Thucydides.

Meacham’s other collection is an e-book on Bin Laden’s death and the War on Terror, which examines the shifts in American security efforts over the course of…well, the last week or so, I guess.

Here’s the interview.

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History as literature

Every time I step into a major bookstore I can find copies of Foote’s Civil War trilogy, the early work of David McCullough, an abridgement of Freeman’s biographies of Lee and Washington, and a book or two by Barbara Tuchman.  All these books have been around for decades, and in terms of scholarship they’ve all been superseded (to one degree or another) by more recent studies.  Yet not only do they remain in print, they continue to cast a long shadow.

This is pretty remarkable when you consider that most history books, even those that are models of research and analysis, are mere blips on the radar of the national consciousness.  How many works of historical scholarship continue to garner impressive sales and legions of new readers five decades after they’re first published?  A very, very few.

It seems to me that the reason books by Freeman, Tuchman, and Foote stay on the shelves is the fact they’ve transcended history and become genuine pieces of literature.  People read them not merely to acquire the information in them, but for the experience of reading them.  They want to immerse themselves in the language and follow the same journey that other readers have experienced; they read them for the same motives that might prompt them to pick up Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby

I’m not arguing that these books are historically superior to more rigorous, scholarly studies.  In fact, I’d advise anyone looking for an accurate assessment of Lee to turn to the work of Emory Thomas rather than Freeman, and I could recommend any number of books on the American Revolution above Tuchman’s The First Salute.  But I do think that, in this age of the academic fad and over-specialization, the endurance of classics like these should at least give us us pause, and make us consider what these writers-turned-historians knew how to do that we don’t.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory

Shelby Foote: The Writer as Historian

Last night Book TV re-aired a three-hour interview with the late Shelby Foote, filmed in the study of his Memphis home.  (It’s available online here.)  I’d already seen it and didn’t intend to watch it again, but after a few minutes I was hooked.  Of course, Foote made his living by hooking people with his stories, but I found the viewers who called in as interesting as Foote himself.

To me, “writer” and “author” have different connotations.  The term “writer” connotes an artist whose medium is language, while “author” connotes an expert, an “authority.”  Most of the callers approached Foote as the latter. A great many addressed him as “Dr. Foote,” and there were a lot of the big questions that professional historians tackle: What happened to the soldiers after 1865?  How would you assess Hood’s generalship? 

Many professional historians, of course, have criticized Foote heavily; historians are as jealous of their guild as any other professionals.  I believe their anger is misplaced.  Foote never pretended to be anything but what he was: a writer who happened to write about the Civil War, in which he had an intense interest and about which he knew a great deal.  By titling his three-volume work The Civil War: A Narrative, he deflected the charges of pretension that so many have leveled at him.  One caller, in fact, noted that Foote was more properly a storyteller in the Homeric mold than a scholar, and Foote thanked him for the compliment.

I remarked that Foote fielded a lot of big questions during the program.  What was really remarkable, though, was the fact that no question was too small to be asked.  A surprisingly large number of callers wanted to know where to find information about ancestors who served in the war.  Some asked about connections between the war and their communities.  People considered Foote an authority, but an approachable one.  His success as a historian wasn’t in spite of his status as a writer, but because of it.

Today there are few historians who have both the authority’s expertise and the writer’s talent.  David Hackett Fischer is one of them; James McPherson is another.  Until there are more, the people who have the most impact on the public’s understanding of history will be the storytellers of the page and the screen who can connect with hearts and minds.  Foote did it better than most, and I think his standing as both authority and writer was well-deserved.

(The photo is from the Mississippi Writers Page of the University of Mississippi’s English Department, a great source of information about Foote.)

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography