I’ve been doing some research lately on Shelby Foote and his work on The Civil War: A Narrative. In his correspondence with his friend and fellow writer Walker Percy, Foote provided ongoing updates about his progress on the work, which stretched on for twenty years. “What I have to do is learn everything possible from all possible sources about a certain phase or campaign, then digest it so that it’s clear in my own mind, then reproduce it even clearer than it has been to me until I actually began writing about it,” he explained to Percy.
Early in the process, Foote mentions time and time again how amazed he is by what the war keeps teaching him. Later in the process, he talks about how much he appreciates what it teaches. Throughout, he talks about how difficult yet invigorating the writing process is.
Foote’s admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest is well documented, so it’s no surprise that he mentions Forrest a lot in his correspondence. Sherman, particularly during the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea, gets a lot of attention, as does Grant (although less than Sherman). Foote frequently mentions Lee, too, and Jefferson Davis, who serve as a hero/antihero for the entire three-volume narrative—a literary conceit that makes everything come together for Foote. “I knew the last line from the time I started the book,” Foote told the Paris Review in a 1999 interview: “‘Tell the world that I only loved America,’ he said,” referring to Davis.
On the correspondence with Percy, Foote had a particular affinity for mentioning personal calamities that he happened to be working on at the time. He articulated those calamities with the same turn of a phrase that marked his more formal writing. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites, which come from The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, Jay Tolson, editor (New York: W.W Norton & Co., 1997):
On Sept. 8, 1960:
By the end of the month I expect to have killed Stonewall Jackson dead as a mackerel; which makes an excellent stopping-place before I tackle the complexities of the Gettysburg Campaign. (122)
On Jan. 19, 1970:
[N]ow am finally back on pulse, crossing the Chattahoochee with Sherman and getting ready to send a bullet straight up James Birdseye McPherson’s ass. A good lodgment. . . . (139)
On Jan. 26, 1973:
For the past two months I’ve been deep into a Lincoln thing. . . . I got him back to Washington yesterday (Lincoln I mean) with five days left between Sunday and his Good Friday appointment with Booth’s derringer. He gets a wire that Sunday night from Grant: Lee kaput. . . . (169)
On May 13, 1973:
Lincoln about to get shot. First was Old John Brown; now there’s J.W. Booth—two madmen, one to start it, another to wind it up. Then Davis: Lucifer in Starlight. (174) [“Lucifer in Starlight” was the name of his last chapter, referencing Davis]