By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Essays

The Spirit of Appomattox

Shelby Foote, Then and Now

Jonathan Clarke

robusa/Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1990, American public television viewers were introduced to the Mississippi novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote (1916–2005). The unlikely star of Ken Burns’s epic 1990 PBS documentary The Civil War, Foote proved to have a gift for humorous anecdote and a way of rounding off a scene. Burns and his team shaped the narrative, but it was Foote who gave the landmark series its distinctive register of aubade, leavened by a rich appreciation of the war’s human comedy. We remember the Civil War today largely in his voice, as the event that, in his words, “defined us as the nation we were going to be.”

Academic historians began to register their complaints about Foote’s appearance in the series even as The Civil War was being broadcast. His sudden stardom, which made him wealthy through renewed sales of his enormous three-volume history, The Civil War: A Narrative, generated resentment.11xShelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Random House, 2011). First published 1958–74. Some also complained of a lack of balance in Burns’s documentary. Foote, a white Southerner who emphasized the fighting itself—and who had no formal training as a historian—was on camera for forty-six minutes; Barbara Fields, a black Columbia University professor who had written extensively on the war’s ideological conflicts, was given less than nine minutes.

Foote made things worse by presuming to instruct other historians on how they should approach their craft. Before he began his Civil War epic, in 1954, he had been a fiction writer, publishing five novels mostly set in his native Mississippi Delta. In writing his history, he stuck to the tools of a novelist, emphasizing narrative shape and vivid characterization—history, he often said, “has a plot.” In interviews, he suggested that the historians on whose work he relied could improve their craft by “learning to write well, which most of them have never bothered to do.” “The reader must sense behind the work,” he said, “a credible author, and find in his pages an artistically constructed point of view.”

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