The Magazine

Epic Historian

Shelby Foote and the American Civil War.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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Shelby Foote

A Writer's Life

by C. Stuart Chapman

University Press of Mississippi, 317 pp., $30

SHELBY FOOTE, now eighty-six, is a great American writer. Many people know him as the charming southerner featured so prominently on Ken Burns's fine PBS television series on the Civil War. Foote came to dominate that series because he knew more about the war than any of the other experts, although he is no professional historian. The professors could pontificate about their areas of specialization, but Foote had a fabulously detailed grasp of the conflict as a whole. He not only "knew everything cold," as his biographer C. Stuart Chapman reports; he could bring the war alive with a narrative that was not the clever invention of a storyteller but was present in the events themselves.

Foote knew so much because he spent twenty years writing "The Civil War: A Narrative," a three-volume history of the war. He did so as a novelist taking a very extended break from his primary vocation. But his was the kind of history that only a novelist could write. "Accepting the historian's standard without his paraphernalia," Foote explained, "I have employed the novelist's methods without his license." How could a novel be historically accurate? "God," Foote told Burns, "is the greatest dramatist." There is enough poetry in the great and terrible deeds of human beings themselves for a novel to be discovered in--not created from--the record of what we have done.

FOOTE UNDERSTANDS himself to have attempted the American "Iliad," confident that "Homer himself had no better subject." His history is a tale of American warriors charging "wave after wave facing certain death" because their commanders were often "prisoners of tactics fifty years behind their weapons." Civil War battlefield casualties sometimes reached 30 percent, whereas 4 or 5 percent would be significant today. And this bravery was dignified, because most men--Northern and Southern--thought they were fighting for "law and order," for the perpetuation of a decent and constitutional way of life. Foote doesn't allow their possible misjudgments about the causes and purposes of the war to undermine the greatness and misery of heroic action on both sides.

Chapman contends that "Foote's focus on battlefield theatrics . . . revealed his own ideology," and that Foote averts our eyes from the true cause of the war--the monstrous injustice of slavery--to save the honor of the South's heroes. But Foote's writing makes us quite aware of the injustice of slavery and racism. His Southern partisanship is most clear, instead, in his disdain for Northern commercialism's destructive effects on human excellence and community. So Foote sees little good--surely too little good--in the outcome of the war.

Foote's point of view is always that of a novelist, and it is from this view that he prefers the aristocratic South, with all its injustice, to today's North. He is fond of quoting William Faulkner's assertion that a novelist's subject is always "the human heart in conflict with itself," and so his subject includes the ability of human beings to live nobly or well with love and death. The critic Robert Philips says that Foote's deepest concern is "the failure of love in the modern world," and that failure, in Foote's eyes, was greater in the North than in the South at its best.

Chapman obtusely reports that Foote's novel "Love in a Dry Season" "succeeded because it dared to question whether Southern aristocracy was rooted in fictions about race, class, and gender that became naturalized by the ruling class." That kind of questioning, of course, is hardly daring in our time; it pretty much exhausts the inquiry of most books written by professors of literature. But the novel is good because Foote sees that the Southern aristocracy was more than a fiction that legitimized oppression. Foote's more radical thought is that the decline of the aristocracy might finally be good for justice, but at the expense of love and honor.

CHAPMAN SHOWS us that Foote would not have become a novelist or developed an ambivalent appreciation for aristocratic virtue had he not been lucky enough to grow up in Greenville, Mississippi. Greenville was "an oasis" of "cosmopolitan sophistication" in the South of the 1920s and 1930s. The white school system there was Mississippi's best, and the town of sixteen thousand even supported an opera house that hosted many national opera companies. More than thirty well-known writers came from the Greenville of that time.

The main cause of Greenville's singular literary excellence was the public-spirited efforts of the lawyer-poet William Alexander Percy. The son of a senator and the leading man of his region, Percy eschewed political life but encouraged the cultivation of the artistic soul. He introduced Foote to his young cousins who had come to live with him, LeRoy and Walker Percy, and Foote spent much of his high school years in Will Percy's house and under his influence. There Foote learned to love Mozart, Shakespeare, and fine novels, and was inspired to educate himself to be a writer, because he learned, as Chapman lamely puts it, "that it was acceptable and heroic to be a writer in a culture where culture and masculinity often bumped heads."

CHAPMAN DISMISSES Will Percy's autobiography, "Lanterns on the Levee," as an "infamous defense of Southern plantocracy." But the book is much more than that. Despite its obviously racist and paternalistic moments, it still deserves to be famous. "Lanterns" contains some of the most beautiful and profound writing by any American on nobility, truth, love, friendship, solitude, and death. As the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy wrote, it is an amazingly coherent presentation of Stoicism as a way of life. When Foote thinks of the greatness of Southern aristocracy, he is moved by the example of Will Percy, which, at its best, transcends anything particularly southern.

Foote was remarkably devoted to his vocation as a writer, which provided the only discipline in his otherwise rather chaotic and irresponsible life. Because he cared about one thing so much, he thought he had a duty to let everything else slide. His love and family lives were a mess; he was an underachiever in school, couldn't hold a job, and was a shameless parasite for years, living off the generosity of his best friend Walker Percy, not to mention various foundation grants. On these matters Chapman is nonjudgmental; his fashionable opinions sometimes serve him well.

Foote's friendship with Walker Percy, who died in 1990, is preserved in a collection of letters. Percy wrote as a Catholic, and Foote thought that Percy's religious dogma prevented him from affirming the doubt that inspires the best novelists. For Foote, doubt is the beginning of artistic truth; for Percy, it is the mystery of being human articulated so well by Christianity. On this point, Foote is closer to the Stoicism of Will Percy, who was a lapsed Catholic. But that means he is too influenced by the Stoic's despair about the modern world--which includes his despair about the outcome of the Civil War. His friend Walker Percy found a way to avoid standing undecided between the greatness of aristocracy and the justice of democracy. Chapman seems unaware of Foote's admission in recent years that his dismissal of Percy's faith was based on a crude misunderstanding of his religion. But it's still the case that Foote's only real answer to the question of how to live well with doubt, even about love, is: Write novels! Chapman's biography isn't bad, but it would be better if he had any clue about what that answer really means.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls."