THERE WAS SOMETHING BEYOND OLD-fashioned--maybe the right word is archaic--about Shelby Foote. It emerged full-blown that evening a decade ago when he appeared in Ken Burns's Civil War series as the best voice of our national Iliad. He recited his anecdotes with a twinkling eye and in that mellow, ruminative baritone that was designed to enthrall and persuade.
I use the Homeric allusions advisedly, for epic tales, more often than not of heroic warfare, were chanted around open fires a long time before anyone ever wrote them down on animal skins. Recent Homeric scholarship has teased the joints and seams from these earliest tales, showing how stock phrases and choral touches helped the singers remember and add their own variations to the familiar.
With the unaffected country-store manner, the floppy hair, the beard and pipe, Shelby Foote seemed born to be an epic bard. But it took a long time, and the imagination of Ken Burns, to move him from the printed page into the limelight. He was already becoming an old man and his small but select company of fans, readers of his Civil War trilogy, felt that it was high time.
This was the Shelby Foote, already a sort of Mount Rushmore figure, whom I met for the first time one night in Lexington, Virginia, a place suffused with Civil War memory, where I was teaching and he had come to lecture. I had long admired his writing and felt that I knew him in a way from the reports of friends. I had been told that he made no idle concessions to the modern world. He wrote with an antique pen of the sort you had to dip in an inkwell, the next best thing to cutting his own quills, perhaps. Willie Morris, his fellow Mississippian and kinsman through the Foote connection, had told me a revealing story. For whatever reason, Shelby Foote never autographed his books, but Willie had asked him to make an exception for the sake of consanguinity and old friendship and autograph his novel Shiloh for his young son David. Foote refused. But he raised the ante: "Willie," he wrote, "bring David to Memphis and we'll go together to the Shiloh battlefield and I'll show him around." As if, to continue the theme, Homer had offered to show a boy around the plains of windy Troy. And he did.
Foote, that evening in the mid-1990s, had come to Washington and Lee to read and lecture. He relished, albeit quietly, his sudden fame as a raconteur and, no less, the sudden flow of big money from the sale of his trilogy. That very morning, he told us, he had signed a check to the IRS for $250,000, taxes on the cool million in royalties that was the first fruit of the Ken Burns series.
He laughed. "I'm the first person in the family to have any money since my granddaddy," he said.
Our companion at that memorable Lexington dinner with my colleagues Severn Duvall and Jim Warren was a pleasant, compact man of middling height and build who was as much the genuine article as he seemed on the television screen, a rare instance in which such appearances aren't deceiving. I felt that I knew him, not only from his work and from Willie Morris's story but because, some 22 years and a generation apart, he and I had sat in the same English department classrooms in Chapel Hill, under some of the same mentors. I had wondered how he and his friends, the Percy boys of Greenville, Mississippi, had ventured almost a thousand miles north to college. The Percy guardian (and Shelby Foote's surrogate father as well) was the distinguished poet and writer, William Alexander Percy, whose marvelous memoir Lanterns on the Levee is an underread Southern classic.
Was it, I asked, because Uncle Will Percy had wanted to entrust them to the liberalizing influence of Dr. Frank Porter Graham, then UNC's legendary president?
"They were certainly friends," Foote said, "and Uncle Will loved Frank Graham and what he stood for, especially in racial matters. But that isn't the real story. We wanted to write, Walker and I, and so Uncle Will set out to discover who had the best writing programs in the South. He came up with Rollins and UNC. Rollins [a liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida] didn't suit Uncle Will's notion of Southernness. So he sent Leroy and Walker to Chapel Hill and I tagged along."
"Tagged along," I learned not long ago when I read a recent Foote biography, was a disarming phrase. The fact was that he had been refused admission to the freshman class of 1938--how many idiotic errors of judgment do admissions offices make?--but showed up in Chapel Hill anyway and talked his way into school.
I'm not sure just where Ken Burns got the idea of bringing the Civil War to life on the television screen with still pictures, music, and voices. The technique, once a novelty, has now become a visual cliché. Still less, is Foote's special magic easy to explain. It was the manner, the face, the timbre, and serenity of the voice, to be sure. But undoubtedly one clue to the magic lies in that word "narrative." He subtitled his trilogy "a narrative," no doubt deliberately. That set him apart. Too many professional historians and teachers of history these days have lost their nerve and strayed from historical storytelling. In some cases they lack the capacity to make a smooth and persuasive narrative of the recalcitrant fragments of the past and, thus handicapped, content themselves with retrospective sociology. For good measure they often sneer at narrative history as technically naive--and, though they don't say it outright, politically incorrect, inasmuch as it features heroic figures and real people rather than abstract collectivities and categories like "the people."
The truth is that narrative of the sort Shelby Foote wrote, with its vivid personalities and its wry sense of the human comedy, demands not only command but artistry. Foote had wanted to be celebrated as a novelist, like his friend Walker Percy. It was his destiny to be remembered, at least for now, as a narrative historian fit to be mentioned in the same breath with Francis Parkman, William Hickling Prescott, and Henry Adams--not bad at all. Fortunately, we have his voice, too, not only in the Civil War video but in the readings he recorded of his set pieces on Gettysburg and Vicksburg. For some of us it is the sound of our own Homer. Listen!
Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, taught journalism and the humanities at Washington and Lee University.