As I head to bed at 1:24am after a very long day, we’ll take a few moments to pay our respects and honor the memory of Shelby Foote, who died today at the age of 88:
Shelby Foote, the historian whose incisive, seasoned commentary – delivered in a drawl so mellifluous that one critic called it “molasses over hominy” – evoked the Civil War for millions in the 11-hour PBS documentary in 1990, died on Monday at a Memphis hospital He was 88 and lived in Memphis.
His death was reported by his wife, Gwyn, The Associated Press said.
Mr. Foote’s 89 cameo appearances in Ken Burns’s series “The Civil War” were informed by his own three-volume history of the war, two decades in the making, that blended his practiced novelist’s touch with punctilious, but defiantly unfootnoted research.
His mission was to tell what he considered America’s biggest story as a vast, finely detailed, deeply human narrative. He could focus on broad shifts in strategy or on solitary moments of poignancy, like the tearful but still proud Robert E. Lee picking his way through the ranks of his vanquished army to surrender.
“He made the war real for us,” Mr. Burns said.
His goal was to emulate the authoritative narrative voice of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Mr. Foote’s books carried a great plot, and as academic historians increasingly saw themselves as social scientists armed with the tools of quantitative analysis, he turned to Shakespeare for metaphors and to colloquialisms for literary impact.
“What sort of document was this anyhow?” he wrote of the Emancipation Proclamation, before going on to discuss it.
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 until you love it,” he said.
Critics suggested that Mr. Foote played down the economic, intellectual and political causes of the Civil War. Some said that Mr. Foote may have played down slavery so that Southern soldiers would seem worthy heroes in the epic battles he so stirringly chronicled.
Long a student of history, I was introduced to Foote the same way that millions of others were, through Ken Burn’s Civil War series. Foote, as outlined in the New York Times article above, was – more so than David McCollough, the real narrator of this series. Through almost ninety scenes in Burn’s incredible documentary, it was Foote that carried the story.. and in the end, he brought the series to its dramatic conclusion with his reading of Private Barry Benson’s writings:
“In time, even death itself might be abolished; who knows but it may be given to us after this life to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning role call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again to hastily don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the long roll summons to battle.
Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day? And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say, Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”
For my birthday, we purchased Foote’s three volume set of writings covering nearly four thousand pages and outlining the history of the war in great detail. Who knows when I will finish them…
But this man, this author, I will remember…
Rest in peace.