Thoughts on Shelby Foote’s “Narrative”

Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative certainly stands as one of the most recognizable texts of the Civil War “canon” (if such a thing exists). The three volumes, when placed side by side, make an imposing and impressive sight. Whether you’ve read them, you certainly know of them, and maybe you even own them. They do, after all, look good on a bookshelf.

I’ve read much of Foote’s Narrative before but not all of it, so I’ve decided to tackle it. This will be my first time through the entire work from start to finish. As I go, I’ll periodically share with you my observations and reactions, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in return.

In the meantime, I invite you to consider this comment from Foote. What do you think?

Well, I am a novelist, and what is more I agree with D.H. Lawrence’s estimate of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life….’ The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the even took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to recreate it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.

This has been my aim, as well, only I have combined the two. Accepting the historian’s standards without his paraphernalia, I have employed the novelist’s methods without his license. Instead of inventing characters and incidents, I searched them out—and having found them, I took them as they were.

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12 Responses to Thoughts on Shelby Foote’s “Narrative”

  1. I would think that the popularity of Foote’s work is a result of having written an openly narrative history, as it is the story of history that makes it so inspiring and enduringly popular, given that it is part of our story as a people, both individually and for our nation as a whole.

    • I appreciate that he put, right in the title the phrase “a narrative.” He’s focused on story, not necessarily the conventions of historical writing, although he claims to have used the same high standard of research. I know a lot of people debate that. It’s hard to argue with the contention that he’s a good storyteller, though.

  2. Eric Hedden says:

    From the standpoint of my own personal taste in literature, I find Shelby Foote’s narrative to be frustrating. In the statement in question he says “I am a novelist. . .” Fine. One can read his novel entitled “Shiloh”. But when a supposed historical narrative takes too much liberty with “the truth”, as he calls it, it gives me heartburn. A case in point is Foote’s narrative of Forrest’s heroics at Fallen Timbers, in the rear guard action of retreating Confederate troops from Shiloh. His assertion that the severely wounded “Wizzard of the Saddle” grabbed a Yankee by the belt, and threw him up behind him, to use as a human shield, as he rode back to safety — Come on! That account is not born out by any historical rendition. What sounds exciting, and titillates our imagination should never be seen in the same light as actual history.

    • I’ve never had the opportunity to follow up on some of the stories that he includes, although I should make the time at some point. I can see how he, as a storyteller, would want to include a story like that one because it’s too good to pass up–even if it’s also too good to be true. I wonder if he included it because it was, to the best of his knowledge, something he believed to be a true story.

  3. Joshua Horn says:

    I think it’s a pretty useful summary of the Civil War, and although it of course has its problems, every book has some. The worst problem is a complete lak of footnotes.

    • I think he was pretty up front about his choice not to use footnotes, though. As I understand it, the reason the Pulitzer committee decided not to award him the history prize was precisely because he made that choice, though. I know he was bitterly disappointed not to win the Pulitzer.

      Your use of the word “summary” made me chuckle. I suppose his account of any one battle IS a summary compared to the depth a lot of microtactical studies go into these days–but taken as a whole, the length of his total narrative hardly feels like a summary! ;-)

  4. Max Terman says:

    I wrote Hiram’s Honor as a first-person dramatized account of my ancestor’s Civil War experiences and can relate to Foote’s appreciation of the power of a novel as a way to convey not only facts but the human drama of historical events.

    • I agree. I also have historian friends who disagree vehemently (but in good conscience). Art is art and history is history and never the twain shall meet, they say.

  5. Shelby Foote’s trilogy was a primer for me, I loved reading from front to back, and frequently use the books as a reference.

  6. Meg Thompson says:

    I am going to toss this out to the other students in my Master’s class. Being beginners, we have been talking about this very topic nearly non-stop. Sometimes we sound pompous, mostly we sound exactly like . . . a bunch of wanta-be historians in one of our first general classes. Once in a while someone says something astounding. There is hope! I am looking forward to comments here.

  7. What’d you find out from your classmates, Meg?

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