Blogs > Cliopatria > Shelby Foote

Jul 2, 2005 11:56 am

Shelby Foote

I was a little surprised to realize that as yet no-one at Cliopatria has - I think - mentioned the death last Monday of American Civil War historian Shelby Foote. As a non-Americanist the only thing I really know or remember about Foote is what Slate's Field Maloney describes as his 'courtly drawl' on the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. I wonder if those in the know have more to say on whether Foote was, on balance, a Good Thing or a Bad Thing for the discipline.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 7/3/2005

Here's an interesting Slate article on Foote. It makes me more interested in reading him.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/3/2005

Yes, I suppose that historians like Foote do make a large impression on the public about what history is and what historians do, though I'm not sure that the public does much critical reflection on that. We had a discussion at Cliopatria some time back, when Simon Schama called on us to do more large frame narrative history of the sort that Foote did.

Alan Allport - 7/2/2005

Alan, my impression is that Shelby Foote made very little, if any, impression on the writing of history by professional historians in the United States.

I'm sure that's true, though perhaps you would agree that he did make an important impression on the general public's perception of what history is and what historians do?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/2/2005

Alan, my impression is that Shelby Foote made very little, if any, impression on the writing of history by professional historians in the United States. Your question about whether his legacy was "a Good or Bad Thing for the discipline" hinges in ways on the ambiguity that lies in history is a "discipline." So far as I can tell, anyone can hang out a shingle that says that she or he is a historian. There is no penalty a shyster must pay for making that claim. That's not true of doctors/ lawyers and it's unlikely, I suppose, that an amateur is likely to hang out a shingle and call herself a literary critic or a political scientist. That said, with background as a novelist, Foote had no professional training as a historian. For those of us who love good writing, I think there's much to be appreciated in Foote's work, as there was in Barbara Tuchman's. But I don't expect him to be heavily cited in dissertations or books on Civil War topics. That's partly his own choosing, since he made it a practice not to cite the sources on which he drew for his own narratives.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/2/2005

There are many tomes on the civil war, some by trained scholars others by some very good "untrained" historians. I wonder how many historians are like me and have not read many of these books.

When younger, I read much of Nevins' multi-volume work, and portions of Bruce Catton's work as well. But none all the way through. Since then, I've used McPherson's book of course. Alas I came to it after I started doctoral work, and so my encounters with it have been limited to the utilitarian.

And since finishing my doctorate, narratives of the Civil War are not what I have turned when I have wanted to pursue the joy of reading history as opposed to the search for data. I have read a couple of novels. The well-known "Killer Angels" and the less well known but wonderful "American Falls" by John Calvin Bachelor (may have mispelled last name). I watched the movie made out of the former--and which I think betrayed the novel by not balancing correctly the horror with the wonder.

I have even tried to make it through "Gods and Generals." It's way too long, and paced in a way that makes "Barry Lyndon" seem like a Road Runner cartoon. However, if I wanted to show students a clip of how some middle and upper-class southerners of the 20th century wanted to remember the South, I think I might use the Christmas parlor scene.

In all of this I never made it to Shelby Foote. That's not his fault. In Burns's "Civil War" he comes across as a marvelous raconteur of the old school, with a wonderful pace and color to his phrasing. Perhaps that skill was one thing that led Burns to his most critical mistake in the documentary, which was ending with a sentimental memory of Cemetary Ridge and not the reality of the failure of equality in Reconstruction. But that was his decision, not Foote's.

Perhaps the silence on Foote is not a reflection of his quality. Perhaps it simply reflects the wealth of competitors that he had and the fact that historians, unless they specialize in the Civil War or simply love it, have nowhere near the time to read all the really good works that are there.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 7/2/2005

He was one of the most well-known non-academic English-language historians in the 20th century, next to Barbara Tuchman. You're right that the silence is a bit odd.

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