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Shelby Foote on the Meaning of History and the Role of the Historian

Shelby Foote, who died last Monday at age 88, left quite a mark on the American mind. Made popular by the Ken Burns PBS series, The Civil War, Foote was one of those few historians who can communicate both in print and in person. His Mississippi drawl, bearded face, and irreverent manner gave him a persona made for television — at least for the folks who watch PBS.
Foote believed that history was best understood as the instructive story of how great individuals and great events had shaped reality. He was a master in the form of narrative history, but he held to the rather quaint and eccentric notion that the basic facts of history should not bend to accommodate modern ideologies.
In a 1999 interview published in The Paris Review, Foote explained his approach to history. Here are a few choice paragraphs:
On history and facts: I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time, but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. I maintain that anything you can learn by writing novels–by putting words together in a narrative form–is especially valuable to you when writing history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: if you have a character named Lincoln in a novel who’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s, eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just as in a novel you are working with facts that come out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, in at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way. . . .
Advice to young writers: To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there: and that’s learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that. Of course I would tell him: work, work, work, sit at that desk and sweat. You don’t have to have a plot, you don’t have to have anything. Describe someone crossing a room, and try to do it in a way that won’t perish. Put it down on paper. Keep at it. Then when you finally figure out how to handle words pretty well, try to tell a story. . . . You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that. He doesn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for it. He didn’t choose it. It was visited upon him. Somebody asks, “When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?” I never decided I wanted to be a writer. I simply woke up a writer one morning.
On the meaning of history: I think that’s one of history’s main jobs–to let men know what happened, before, so they won’t make the same mistake afterward. Also, the Romans believed history was intended to publicize, if you will, the lives of great men so that we would have something to emulate. That’ll do as one of the definitions.
In one of history’s remarkable twists, Shelby Foote was introduced to Walker Percy when both were young boys. Percy, who was recently orphaned, was introduced to Foote by his famous uncle, famed author Will Percy. The elder Percy noticed young Shelby Foote at the local country club swimming pool and decided that he would make a good friend for his nephew. The result — in more ways than one — was historical. Foote and Percy forged a life-long friendship that sustained each other through decades of trial, fame, and literature.
Foote never understood Percy’s commitment to the Christian faith. Russell Moore points back to their published correspondence and reflects, Sadly, Foote couldn’t seem to understand Percy’s attraction to Christianity, afraid that Percy’s conversion would weaken him as a novelist. Foote was concerned, for instance, about Percy’s insistence that characters in a novel should be “redeemable” or else they are uninteresting. “I think the real difference is, I’m talking about novels and you’re talking about Protestant Sunday-school tracts; old John Calvin is breathing down your neck.” The Catholic Percy was no doubt amused to be called a crypto-Calvinist.
When the Foote-Percy correspondence was first published, I picked it up and read it nearly cover-to-cover before putting it down. Seldom have two minds met with a more productive result. Shelby Foote serves to remind us that God has often used unbelievers to write some incredible literature.