06 April 2011

When the Voice of the Civil War was Stilled

I actually heard Shelby Foote before I ever saw him. It was nearly 2 decades ago and I was watching the Ken Burns documentary about the “Civil War” on PBS. A mellifluous voice was spinning out a description of one of the many battles, the soft hypnotic tones pulling me into a collage of tintype photographs that faded in and out of one another as a bittersweet fiddle tune played in the background. When they finally showed his face, Mr. Foote was seated in a darkened book-lined study, the cambray shirt open at the collar, the gentle eyes and whitened beard a perfect match for the soft drawl I'd heard in his voice. He seemed to speak of these battles and these people with an uncanny familiarity, as if he'd been there. It was only after I'd watched the series that I learned that he was the world's pre-eminent Civil War historian.

Recently, PBS has repeated the series and I fell in love all over again with this soft-spoken and learned man and wanted to learn more about him. 

They say it was his “Southern storyteller’s touch” that inspired so many to read his three-volume, 3,000 page history of the Civil War, a history he worked on for 20 years.  When asked about the secret of his “flowing narrative style” he replied, "I can't conceive of writing it any other way. Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that's your goal."

Facts, Mr. Foote said, are the bare bones from which truth is made. Truth, in his view, embraced sympathy, paradox and irony, and was attained only through true art. "A fact is not a truth," he said, "until you love it."

His friend and fellow Mississippi native, novelist Richard Ford, said of Foote that "he was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy."
I had to smile when I read about his daily writing regimen:  “He would always write by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. He kept bound volumes of his manuscripts, all written in a flowing hand, on a bookshelf in a homey bedroom-study overlooking a small garden at his Memphis residence. He said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal that using a typewriter."

My smile only grew when I read this coda to his obituary:  "Known around Memphis as having little interest in parties and public gatherings, he was uncomfortable with the role of celebrity that the "Civil War" series brought his way. Though facing a busy city street, the two-story house was almost hidden from view by trees and shrubs. 'If I were a wealthy man, I'd have someone on that gate,' he said."

A man after my own heart.

  Shelby Foote -1916-2005

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