Robert M. Thornton
Robert M. Thornton writes from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
From what I have read, everyone who watched the Civil War series on television in 1990 was greatly taken by one of the commentators, historian and novelist Shelby Foote. My wife never had much interest in history while she was in school, but she said if she had had Foote as the teacher, she would have loved history -- or, for that matter, any subject he taught.
Why does Foote have this appeal to persons who have hardly ever looked into a history book and are certainly not Civil War buffs? Well, his laid back manner of speaking and a Southern drawl are pleasing to the ear. He carries his learning lightly and speaks as a person does while relaxing and conversing with friends. He never comes across as a preacher or a pedagogue. His knowledge of the men who fought in the Civil War is encyclopedic and he speaks informally about them in the same casual manner you or I might do about members of our family. Also, as Tracy Lee Simmons put it, his breezy, anecdotal and wise on-camera words leavened the mass of facts and images and music; they did much to deflate the sometimes embarrassingly pretentious pronouncements of the other commentators.
I doubt that the producers of the Civil War series used all of the interviews with Foote. If only they would make available the tapes of his commentaries in their entirety. Meanwhile we must make do with the interviews that have appeared in print. Conversations with Shelby Foote was published in 1989 and is made up of interviews with Foote from 1950 to 1987. The December 1991 and January 1992 issues of Crisis printed a long interview of Foote by Tracy Lee Simmons.
Shelby Foote wrote five novels before he began his monumental trilogy The Civil War; a Narrative. Volume 1 appeared in 1958, Volume 2 in 1963, and Volume 3 in 1974, twenty years after he started what was originally to be a brief history of the war. His work was well received, but Shelby Foote did not become a household name. He returned to novel writing and lived in relative obscurity.
Foote's life of quiet seclusion ended in 1990 with Ken Burns' enormously popular television documentary, "The Civil War." Foote watched an early showing in Washington and it was clear to him that Burns had a big hit on his hands. He also saw from the reaction to the eleven-hour program that he "was fixing to become some kind of star. I was wary. But I really didn't know how disruptive it would be." And without intending it, he did become "some kind of star" and the telephone in his house jangled constantly.
Probably most persons would be delighted to have people clamoring after them all the time to be a guest on television talk shows, attend conferences, review books, give interviews, and write articles for magazines. They would welcome the numerous offers that would bring them fortune as well as fame. Not Shelby Foote, however, who recognized the seductiveness of all that was his for the asking. He knew that the mass media would grab hold of him and squeeze him like a sponge if he let them. "I might have ended up on television four hours a day," he declared, "and I'd be a shell after about two weeks of that."
"I have had one absolute standard attitude toward money all of my life," declared Foote, "that is the utter need for spending it as soon as possible so it wouldn't be loaded on my back."
. . . An old jazz musician said a good thing one time. He said what you need to write the blues is no money in the bank and nobody loving you. So I feel an obligation to get rid of the money and alienate people so I won't be either rich or loved.
Some historians looked down their noses at Foote's narrative history of the Civil War because the usual scholarly apparatus was missing. As a novelist, Foote did not want to use footnotes which would shatter the illusion of sharing an experience. But, he insisted, everything he wrote was backed by sound documentary evidence; while acknowledging errors in his books, he noted that he has found many more in the works of some professional historians.
Both the novelist and historian seek the same truth -- not a different truth -- but they go about it in different ways when trying to show the readers how it was. Historians should learn to write well, he insisted, instead of just setting down the facts they have gathered in their research. They should employ the novelist's methods without his license because:
. . . no list of facts will ever give you the truth; it's what you do with those facts that makes them true. And God knows I'm not talking about distortion. I'm talking about what underlies the facts.
Foote also differed from many scholars in that he had no typists, assistants or research persons helping him; he did it all himself, and wrote with a pen, preferring nothing mechanical between him and the paper. He often worked eight and ten hours a day, seven days a week. With such a schedule, it is not surprising that he belongs to no clubs, does not play golf or poker, and has no hobbies. It is not surprising either that he twice expresses thanks to his friends in Memphis who gave him food and drink and had the grace not to demand payment in the form of talk about the Civil War.
Jacques Barzun's questions to aspiring young writers was "Do you want to write or to have written?" I imagine most would respond that the former was their wish, but this might change when they found out how much work was involved. As Thomas Craven wrote sixty years ago:
It is much more comfortable to sit in a cafe with one's girl and talk about art, than to hold one's self to the grinding labor without which no art ever came into being.
Foote would agree wholeheartedly, I believe, and his off-hand "advice" to young writers would discourage those unwilling to labor hard and long at their craft.
Avoid the life of the academy, Foote counsels aspiring writers, because the worst place on God's earth for a creative writer is a college campus. Grants are a bad thing for beginners because they make it too easy. If there is a need to earn a living outside their writing, they should get a physically demanding job (shades of Eric Hoffer) and keep it separate from their creative efforts. The important thing is not getting a college degree, but if you do attend a school, to take the courses that will help you as a writer, (and this does not mean creative writing 101). A writer learns by doing and by reading authors who really know how to do it. Anyone wishing to be a writer must read -- and read some more and keep reading. And he must write and rewrite -- and rewrite again.
Shelby Foote would also agree with what Hendrik Willem van Loon wrote in The Arts over fifty years ago.
In all of the arts there is a terrific amount of plain, ordinary routine work. There are no short cuts. If you really want to learn to play the piano or compose a sonata or sculpt a statue or to write decent prose, you simply have to do the same thing over and over again and for hours and hours and day after day and year after year, for an entire lifetime is hardly long enough to give you absolute perfection. (Becoming a artist) means work and then still more work, and the sort of work that would make a coal heaver or ditch digger turn away in disgust. *
"Government price-fixing, once started, has alike no justice and no end. It is an economic folly from which this country has every right to be spared." --Calvin Coolidge