I actually ran across Shelby Foote quite by accident several years ago when I was living in Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time on the freeways so I was always in the market for something good to listen to in the car. At the time I was reading presidential biographies and had read up quite a bit on Lincoln, TR, and several others. I pretty much picked up The Civil War: A Narrative on a whim.
Foote’s Civil War, on audio, floored me for several reasons. I did not notice when I first listened to it — I have listened all the way through 3Xs and read it once — that Foote is actually a novelist in addition to, as James M. McPherson notes, a fine historian. [Side note: McPherson pays Foote the highest compliment in his Battle Cry of Freedom by closely following several of his battle accounts]. Foote brought the Civil War’s politics, battle scenes, and, above all, the characters to life in my mind’s eye. All is told from the perspective of soldiers, citizens, and statesmen. Their views are moderated and edited by an a narrator who relates the story while giving the impression that he is taking it all in with the reader as he goes. He too, it seems, is entertained, angered, bemused, awed and heartbroken as events unfold. He, too, develops strong views on the characters and events. For example, he manifests a deep sympathy to Jefferson Davis that I found difficult to share but readily understood. He makes you appreciate why Lee was so beloved, but also forces you to appreciate how utterly human he was. Later, Foote says that Gettysburg is the price that the South paid for Lee. This is palpable in the narrative. He also has abiding, albeit grudging, respect and admiration for Grant. Lincoln’s star shines brightest in the Civil War even though the narrator’s sympathies lean slightly towards the South.
The Civil War, let it be said, is a literary masterpiece filled with one gorgeous sentence after another. It is clear that Foote is steeped in Homer and Shakespeare. Others note that it is most like Proust – which I have never read. My Shelby_Foote_Q Twitter feed lets me pick out snippets of things in the book that I love. It gives me an excuse to keep perusing those gorgeous sentences and paragraphs that really do succeed in putting you right next to to Lincoln and Davis every bit as much as Grant and Lee.
About a month ago, I finally caught a bit of the Burns documentary. What I saw was wonderful, but what I watched paled in comparison to the imagery and beauty that Foote stamped on my brain. Burns, too, pays Foote the highest compliment by outlining pieces of the documentary closely on Foote’s narrative. The friend I was watching with was startled when I anticipated lines, quotes, and events throughout the show.