Telling History vs. Making Art: The Civil War’s great storyteller

Part six in a series.

No written work embodies the tension between art and history more fully than Shelby Foote’s mammoth three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. Few people realize Foote was a novelist before he became the “warm and folksy raconteur” of anecdotal Civil War history; his novel Shiloh sits almost forgotten in the shadow of his magnum opus.[1]

“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….’” Foote said in his author’s note at the end of the first volume, Fort Sumter to Perryville:

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.[2]

Although he listed his primary and secondary sources at the end of each volume, he made the intentional choice to leave out footnotes along the way, “believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience.”[3]

Foote’s lack of footnotes, in particular, has drawn the scorn of historians, as has his anecdotal style (and, frankly, his success—illustrating again the gap between public and professional perspectives).[4] People even harped on him for taking so long to complete the trilogy. “[I]n response to complaints that it took me five times longer to write the war than the participants took to fight it, I would point out that there were a good many more them than were was of me,” he wrote at the end.[5]

More serious criticism was leveled at him for focusing too much on military matters and for downplaying the role of slavery. “Shelby Foote is an engaging battlefield guide, a master of the anecdote, and a gifted and charming storyteller, but he is not a good historian,” says Leon Litwack.[6]

Trends and tensions within the field of history itself actually leave any historian open to that kind of criticism. I’ve heard historians dismiss each other as “too military” or “too Southern” or “too focused on a particular site and not enough on the big-picture,” and as a field, military history continues to take a back seat to social history. Despite that emphasis on social history among professional historians, though, military histories “remain the most popular works Civil War historians produce for a general audience.”[7] What the public wants and what scholars choose to study remain two separate spheres. It’s no wonder the two groups come to a creative work as readers/viewers with vastly different expectations.

What gets forgotten in any discussion of Foote’s lack of footnotes, for instance, is the beauty of his language, the smooth skill of his pacing, and the adroit weave of his complex narrative structure. Look at the way these two sentences, 113 words in all, unwrap as they go:

A mile to the right of the point where the cluster of spires and gables showed above the ridge, and facing the road the led northward along it to Hagerstown, a squat, whitewashed building was set at the forward edge of a grove of trees wearing their full late-summer foliage; the autumnal equinox was still a week away. The sunlit brick structure, dazzling white against its leafy backdrop, was a church, but it was a Dunker church and therefore had no steeple; the Dunkers believed that steeples represented vanity, and they were as much opposed to vanity as they were to war, including the one that was about to move into their churchyard.[8]

Foote uses labyrinthine phrasing and careful punctuation—a style strongly influenced by Faulkner—to build his image of the church, revealing detail after vivid detail. He cleverly links “opposition to vanity” to “opposition to war,” allowing him to work in additional information in a creative way. Then, his final phrase, “about to move into their churchyard,” lets him return from his momentary snapshot of description back to the forward movement of the narrative.

He structures Volume I with a long section introducing Davis followed by a long section introducing Lincoln, whom he then uses as a springboard into a discussion of the large strategic picture. He draws the volume to a close in reverse fashion, first uses Davis’ viewpoint to sum up the Confederate perspective as 1862 draws to a close, then uses Lincoln’s perspective to sum up the Union perspective. He starts the book with Davis resigning his seat in the U.S. Senate to open a new chapter in his public life; he ends the book by returning to Capitol Hill for Lincoln’s address to Congress: “Then came the end [literally as Foote ends the book], the turn of a page that opened a new chapter.”[9] The parallels between beginning and end are subtle and masterful. When he finally wraps up his Volume III, Foote does so by returning to Davis again—this time as “the embodied history of the South” in his last days—thus using him to bookend the entire narrative in tidy fashion.[10]

The Civil War: A Narrative—all three volumes and 1.3 million words of it—represents an amazing creative achievement. With its focus on military matters, it also represents a monument to the Reconciliation tradition’s emphasis on battlefield valor. Considering Foote’s identity as a Southern writer, the biggest surprise might be that the book does not stand as a testament to Lost Cause sympathies.

In the end, those naysayers who criticized Foote’s lack of proper historiographical technique won out: the Pulitzer committee passed him over, as did the National Book Award committee. It left Foote “bitter and angry.”[11] The day would come, though—some fifteen years later, through the efforts of Ken Burns—when “Shelby Foote” and “The Civil War” would be synonymous for nearly every adult America.

Next: Communicating the “incommunicable experience of war”


[1] Horwitz, 151.

[2] Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume I: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Random House, 1958. Pg. 815.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Horwitz, pg. 151; Chapman, 177-178, 192-194, 218-220.

[5] Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume III: Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1975. Endnote.

[6] Litwack, 127.

[7] Meyers, Barton. “The Future of Civil War Era Studies: Military History.” The Journal of the Civil War Era. Web. 18 August 2012. <http://journalofthecivilwarera.com/forum-the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies/the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies-military-history>

[8] Foote, Vol. I, 682.

[9] Foote, Vol. I, 810.

[10] Foote, Vol. III, 1055.

[11] Chapman, 223.

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5 Responses to Telling History vs. Making Art: The Civil War’s great storyteller

  1. Excellent post. The piling on to Shelby Foote began almost immediately after The Civil War’s release in 1990. As you point out, many forget, or never knew, that Foote was first and foremost a novelist and that he always saw himself that way. He was part of the Southern Gothic literary movement, as well as an admirer of Proust, and had specific goals he was trying to achieve in his narrative. I would not turn to his trilogy as the authoritative take (or even “an” authoritative take) because it lacks a great deal on the conflict, but it has much to offer Civil War historians, interpreters (park rangers, tour guides, etc.) and general enthusiasts. Taken with certain caveats it is an extraordinary achievement and one we can still profit from.

  2. Meg Thompson says:

    The Civil War: A Narrative, is what one gets when poets write history. I have never read more moving and beautiful words. The silliness of debate about footnotes will continue forever, I guess. In the meantime, I will always fall on the side of lovely writing. Fact checkers can be hired–poets are a rare natural phenomenon.

    • Will Hickox says:

      Footnotes are there for a reason; they aren’t silly unless an author uses too many of them. Both the literary approach and the academic approach have their merits. While I too wish that more academic historians wrote smoother prose, verifiable facts and claims are our stock in trade, and leaving an evidence trail for others is both professional and courteous. While I’ve never seen anyone accuse Foote of it, we all know of so-called scholars who lied and distorted their way onto the bestseller lists. Foote’s trilogy is great entertainment but it isn’t useful as history because much of it is impossible to verify.

    • Will Hickox says:

      Also, dismissing professional historians as “fact-checkers” is more than a little misleading and uncharitable. How many fact-checkers go to school for ten years or more and are then responsible for educating young people?

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