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.)


Filed under Civil War, Historiography

3 responses to “Shelby Foote: The Writer as Historian

  1. eljoe1235

    Good post, Michael. I think you’re pretty much hitting the nail right on the head. History is wonderful, but without that certain something to bring it to live, it will stagnate. Dr. Foote, or whatever honorary title he would like, definitely had that.


  2. mlynchhistory

    I think one of Foote’s gifts was his natural feel for language. His Shiloh novel has a kind of plain, unadorned feel to it that’s very appropriate for a story told from the viewpoints of average soldiers. To me, that kind of knack for clarity and directness is more valuable in historical writing than the kind of imaginative language we usually associate with literary fiction. I don’t know how Foote’s other novels compare to Shiloh in that respect, but it’s kind of interesting.


  3. Pingback: Shelby Foote and instant history on The Daily Show | Past in the Present

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