If it was not a brilliant piece of casting, it was certainly fortuitous for all concerned that when Shelby Foote started talking Ken Burns kept his camera rolling. The 1990, eleven-hour television documentary on the Civil War invited the curmudgeonly, pipe-smoking Mississippian into the living rooms of America, and as Burns later said, “He made the war real for us.” But of course Shelby had already made the war real for all of us who had read his magisterial three-volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative. It was more a Tolstoyan achievement than a historian’s, for Shelby was first and foremost a novelist whose 1,600,000-word narrative of the Civil War (so much more than a mere account of it or analysis) can only be compared to the great historical novels of the past. I think that’s exactly what he hoped for it, and to anyone who expressed dismay over the length of his narrative, he pointed not to Gibbons or Thucydides, but to the 1,250,000 words of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which he claimed to have read from beginning to end nine times. To those who complained that his history lacked footnotes and that he did not appear to analyze and speculate like a proper historian about the origins of the war or the underlying economics, he replied like a proper novelist:
My hope was that if I wrote well enough about what you have seen with your own eyes, you yourself would see how those things, the politics and economics, entered in. I quite deliberately left those things out. My job was to put it all in perspective, to give it shape. Look at Flaubert. He didn’t criticize Emma Bovary as a terrible woman; he didn’t judge her; he just put down what happened. . .
It took him twenty years of steady work to write his book, and I call it that, “his book,” though it was preceded by four novels, including the masterful Shiloh, and followed by two more, not because it was his most famous work, but because it somehow seems that all those years, with all those novels, he was preparing himself, steeling himself, to undertake perhaps the most difficult task an American novelist can dare, which is to tell the story of America that lies beneath the blood-soaked soil of our Civil War. It is, as Shelby himself noted, our national epic. He said that writing it “was like swallowing a cannonball.” I do not think he felt that way about any of his six novels.
He came to the subject more or less naturally, as if it were both his birthright and his destiny. An only child, he was born in 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, to a family that had fallen from a great height. Of his grandfathers, he said, “Though they were both extremely rich in the course of their lifetimes, they barely had the money at their deaths to pay for the shovel that buried them.” His mother’s father lost his fortune in the 1920-21 Southern depression, his father’s father lost his gambling. His own father died suddenly when Shelby was five years old, and his mother raised him in Greenville among relatives where he came under the tutelage of one William Alexander Percy, a philosopher-poet who was also a lawyer and happened to be the adult cousin of a boy two years older than Shelby, a boy who would grow up to become the novelist Walker Percy and Shelby’s lifelong friend. William Alexander Percy was a character right out of Faulkner. Described as “a magnificent composite of types. . .part solitary penseroso, part Romantic artist, part chivalric knight,” he brought Shelby to literature. Years later, Shelby said of him, “Mister Will raised Walker, and Mister Will was like a daddy to me. He was not an adviser or even a model but an example. If he could write books, we could write books.” He met Sherwood Anderson there and Langston Hughes, and in that household acquired early on the necessary self-confidence and trust in his own intelligence and instincts to let him stand all his life outside literary and academic conversations; to read and study whatever interested him; and to walk away from the University of North Carolina after only two years, determined to invent himself as a writer. To be, in other words, an autodidact. By the time some thirty years later when I was a student myself at the same university, Shelby Foote was already legendary there, along with Walker Percy, mainly for having driven to Oxford, Mississippi and, uninvited, knocked on William Faulkner’s door to request an interview for the Carolina Quarterly. Percy was apparently too shy to leave the car, but Shelby managed to charm his way into a long afternoon’s visit with the great man. In another version of the story, Shelby first telephoned Faulkner from Chapel Hill pretending to be Ernest Hemingway, and when he showed up Faulkner was so amused by the deception that he invited him inside.
By 1990, after the release of Ken Burns’ television version of the Civil War, Shelby Foote was a national celebrity, more famous than William Faulkner, and despite his warm, gregarious nature, he took it about as badly, retreating behind the high hedge outside his house in Memphis. Asked by a reporter if he had any hobbies, he replied “Absolutely not,” adding, “I drink from time to time.” Indeed, he claimed he drank bourbon outdoors and scotch indoors.
For many years, he was rumored to be at work on a novel called Two Gates to the City into which, as he said to Walker Percy, “I plan to put everything I ever saw or heard down in the Delta, 1916-1946.” But it was as if the two-decade-long Herculean effort required by his 2700-page story of the Civil War had left him unable to complete any work of lesser ambition. He knew what he had done, what a grand thing he had achieved. “They call you Gibbon, and you know that’s silly,” he said. “But if they don’t call you Gibbon, you get a feeling they’re holding back.”
Like other great Southerners, Shelby Foote had about him an air of elegant sadness, such that even his greatest triumphs were tinged with sorrow, as if they were merely passing brief reprieves from permanent loss. Since his death, I have thought numerous times of a passage near the end of the third volume of his Civil War: A Narrative where he speaks of Robert E. Lee riding on his horse Traveller past his troops on his way to meet Grant at Appomattox:
Grief brought a sort of mass relaxation that let Traveller proceed, and as he moved through the press of soldiers, bearing the gray commander on his back, they reached out to touch both horse and rider, withers and knees, flanks and thighs, in expression of their affection.