Shelby Foote once famously described the American Civil War as “our Iliad.” Conflating the historical with the literary was a characteristic strategy of Foote’s, a writer who regularly alternated between the two genres with seemingly facile agility—his bibliography runs to six novels and includes his masterpiece, the mammoth historical trilogy The Civil War: A History. In mingling these realms, he was prompting readers to see that Achilles and Hector had affinities with Grant and Lee and that there are traces of Troy and Greece in the battlegrounds fought over in Antietem and Shiloh.
He’s also identifying himself as a traditionalist, a believer that history is a flux of continuous events that invites retroactive interpretation, an arrangement of roots and branches tended to and consecrated by individuals. The traditionalist historian is a caretaker of that process, the alchemy through which reality and myth become outgrowths of each other, where the historian’s duty is to see history’s sweep as both a function of the particular and the epic. In a 1983 interview, Foote quoted the poet John Keats on the historian’s relationship to art: “A fact is not a truth until you love it.”
It was the same with Foote when it came to novels. He looked to the past for his literary models and inspiration, especially Proust and Dostoyevsky, writers whose conception of their calling involved ambition and struggle, a commitment to the large canvas, and to the search for narrative techniques whose complexity was equal to what he saw as that of human experience. His admiration for Dostoyevsky was mixed. He especially deplored his propensity for the religious, believing it the enemy of the artist, whom Foote believed required the latitude of doubt to be true to the risk he saw as at the heart of an artist’s search. Proust was another matter. To Foote, he was the complete artist, and he often cited as one of his great pleasures his annual rereading of Remembrance of Things Past, which to him was a tonic and an affirmation of the calling of novelist. He applied to himself Proust’s boast that “one should never be afraid to go too far, for the truth is beyond.”
Foote’s future as a novelist, inspired by deep reading and the influence of the work of Southern writers he immersed himself in while young, had perhaps its happiest coincidence in his being born and raised in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville. Another future novelist, Walker Percy, came to live there with his brothers after the deaths of their parents. Their Uncle Will, a literary man in his own right, took the boys in, and they grew up there, along with Foote, in what was an unusually cultured milieu for the time and place. Foote and Percy maintained their camaraderie into adulthood in what became one of American literature’s greatest friendships. They went to the same universities, attended each other’s weddings (in Foote’s case, there would be three), read and critiqued each other’s writing, and shared each other’s triumphs and failures. They quarreled and drank, and Foote was at Percy’s bedside when he died, a pallbearer at his funeral.
Percy reached literary imminence before Foote, and his fame as a novelist arguably will be more lasting. It wasn’t until after Foote’s Civil War trilogy was published, and his subsequent appearance as a commentator on a PBS series, that he had his turn in the spotlight, for a time at least outshining his Greenville friend. Foote had put in twenty years of arduous work on his magnum opus, visiting scores of war sites, poring over documents, studying the orders of battle for every major clash that had occurred during America’s Iliad. He’d often been on the verge of surrender, but he soldiered on in quite literal ways. Looking back on it, he said, “It’s a miracle to me how I did it.” The finished trilogy was a triumph of the novelist’s and the historian’s art. It was a ringing critical success; its sales were highly respectable for such a serious, lengthy work.
But another kind of success was eventually to come when in 1990 fame fell on him like a ton of bricks. His appearances on Ken Burns’s award-winning documentary on the Civil War showed him in conversation between sequences of period photography, an aging but handsome Southern patrician whose honeyed cadences were a balm to the nation’s ears. (A voice hadn’t transfixed the country that way since Alistair Cooke’s plummy British accent was imported to American television in the 1950’s.) In his cameos, which were numerous, Foote spoke with color and eloquence, with softness and the polish of an orator, always in complete paragraphs. He seemed to always have a fitting anecdote to drive home whatever historical point he was making, and his novelist’s gift for metaphor was unfailingly able to paint a vivid picture. At one point he described the devastation left on a battlefield in Tennessee. “A crow flying overhead,” he allowed, “would have to carry its own provender.” There didn’t seem to be a corner of the Civil War that he wasn’t acquainted with. His amiable charm had won over the viewers of Public Television and made him a celebrity, a role he bore with stoicism, alternately graceful and ornery about it. He was most at home in his Memphis study where in solitude he pursued a daily writing regimen, though the public platform often called, his accent at its most mellifluous when he had an audience. Perhaps the least notable effect on Foote of his stardom was that he became a millionaire, a tardy and inadequate payment for the selfless devotion of twenty years at a task that had exhausted others. Somehow, and probably without knowing it, Foote had become the twentieth-century writer who most felt beckoned, like Virgil, to sing “of arms and the man” and who had finally lived to become the object of song himself.