Shelby Foote – Historian?

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.16.27 AMWell, not really.

Now friends, before you let me have it for saying such a thing about America’s favorite storyteller, let me just make my case.

I have read nearly everything that Mr. Foote ever wrote. His novels are delightful and well written, particularly Shiloh. And his so-called history, The Civil War: A Narrative is equally well executed. But that’s just itas the title suggests, The Civil War is a narrative – fine. But in terms of rigorous primary research and pointed analysis his magnum opus falls a little short.

If anything, The Civil War represents a synthesis of the secondary materials that Foote undoubtedly collected in his study over the years. What is really troubling about this work is his somewhat casual use of the contemporary (of the Civil War era) speaking voice. It seems that some of the primary evidence used to narrate the war existed only in the mind of Foote himself.

So, when he described the carnage of Cold Harbor, to use a very famous example, by quoting a young diarist who wrote his last words on the battlefield: “I am killed,” he simply duped his readers. I sure wish that that diary really existed – I could not imagine a more evocative entry in the diary of a mortally wounded soldier on the battlefield than this. But the diary has never surfaced.

Shelby Foote was a wonderful novelist. And his folksy wisdom added charm to Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War. You know, I would have loved to have met him on a battlefield to hear him speak in all his anecdotal glory. I am not sure I would have believed anything he said as he stood, telling tales, smoking his pipe and drawing a circle in the dirt with his foot. I would have had a good time though. I can’t think of a better storyteller.

Rest in peace, Shelby.


8 thoughts on “Shelby Foote – Historian?”

  1. I read the Foote trilogy over the next two years after seeing the Burns Doc. I found my mind reading it in Foote’s voice which only added to it.. It wasn’t till some time later that I realized, with the help of others, that it was, as you say, ” a narrative”. There were no footnotes (pun ?) to show where anything came from. It was, however, a great story.

    1. I agree completely. People often think that I am bashing a great author – I am not. I enjoyed his trilogy very much – I simply read it with skepticism. Thanks, as always, for you comment 🙂

  2. Yes — as he admits Foote was a novelist. He just applied fiction techniques to history that was, at best, perfunctorily researched. Nonetheless – it is a great read which I pick again every Christmas afternoon and read different parts for a few days.

    1. I really wish I could have met the guy. Honestly, I might need to revisit some of his work. I love his narrative style.

      1. Keith: I have to agree with your comments on Foote. I did have the privilege of meeting him, and found him a wonderful and impressive personality. That sent me to his fiction, which I enjoyed immensely. In a published interview, he described his work method for his history as using a board on which were thumb-tacked hand-written cards with excerpts from various original sources. One of those sources, I suspect, was George Dallas Mosgrove’s delightful “Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie: Reminiscences of a Confederate Cavalryman” (originally published in 1895 and reprinted in Jackson, Tn., in 1957). On page 189 of Mosgrove is this: “Keeping A Diary. J. Harvey Dorman, of Captain Alexander’s company, came upon the dead body of one of Averill’s men at Wytheville [sic], and upon examination of the ‘effects’ of the dead Federal he found a journal in which the soldier had kept a daily record, but he had been killed before he had an opportunity of making an entry for that day. Dorman wishing to keep the record unbroken made the entry: ‘May 10, 1864. I was killed to-day.’ ” My guess is that Foote got one of his excerpts mixed up others. I’m confident you would have enjoyed his company.

        1. Thanks for the comment, Mike – I believe you could be right here. I am wondering if the actual diary to back up Dorman’s account. If so, well…that would be an awesome sight to behold.
          I am sure I would have enjoyed his company as well – I wish I could have met him.

  3. Agree 100% Somewhere around 15 -20 years ago I was in Memphis for work. And I did look in the phone book, and yes, Shelby Foote had a listing. Just couldn’t bring myself to dial the number — now I wish I would have.

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