Friday, January 16, 2015

The Civil War: A Narrative -- Shelby Foote

Why aren't Mr. Foote's three volumes required reading at VMI? Why isn't Homer? Or Hemingway?

"Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that there is “properly no history; only biography,” and to reread Foote is to see how the greatest historians are those who recognize that the past, like the present, is shaped by flawed, flesh-and-blood individuals, from presidents to foot soldiers. “The whole thing is wonderfully human.... In that furnace (the War) they were shown up, every one, for what they were.”
Though he dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Foote was a literary man by inclination and training. One of the great readers of his age, Foote consumed Proust, Hemingway, Homer, the Russians—nothing of note seems to have escaped him. It was this immersion in the most enduring works of imaginative literature that informed his rendering of the Civil War. “The Iliad is the great model for any war book, history or novel,” he said.
Like Homer, Foote focused on two things: the clash of arms and the lives of the warriors. The grand issues of politics and diplomacy, of economics and culture, mattered less to Foote than re-creating the reality of battle. “The idea is to strike fire,” he wrote, “prodding the reader much as combat quickened the pulses of the people at the time.” Critics took Foote to task for this single-minded focus, but he believed in his approach, and stuck to it. “I think the superiority of Southern writers lies in our driving interest in just…two things, the story and the people.” In a way, Foote is one of the little-noted pioneers of the New Journalism, the movement to bring fictional technique to nonfiction subjects, elevating journalism, history, and biography to the level of literature."

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