Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shelby Foote --- Gone with the Wind

He cut such a courtly figure.

When I first saw Shelby Foote on the Ken Burns PBS documentary "The Civil War," I immediately liked him. The white beard. The voice ripped right out of Margaret Mitchell's South. The folksy charm.

Foote became something of a celebrity after the program became a hit. And it was then that his mask fell off.

He was by reputation testy and downright rude. My pal Dewayne Lawson attended a lecture Foote gave at Transylvania University in the late 1990s. He said Foote refused to sign copies of his epic three volume work on the war. Lawson characterized his speech as "bizarre."

Foote told writer Tony Horwitz in the excellent "Confederates in the Attic" that he simply didn't want to be a celebrity.

"He also seemed more aloof than the grandfatherly figure on television," Horwitz wrote. "Without so much as a handshake or a hello, Foote led me into a study with a throw rug at the door that said, 'Go Away.' "

And yet he wrote like a poet. What I've read of his "The Civil War: A Narrative" reads more like a novel than a work of history. His piece of historical fiction, "Shiloh," is a must read for anyone in love with this wonderful, horrible chapter of our nation's story.

It took him 20 years to write his Civil War epoch --- all of it in longhand. His specialty was making characters come alive, a gift most trained historians never seem to possess, to the detriment of their work.

He was apparently a man of contradictions. He hated racism, but loved the Confederacy. He spent his life in the Bible Belt, but had little use for organized religion. He was a Democrat in an area that became GOP Country.

But nobody, not Bruce Catton, not James McPherson, not even Michael Shaara, wrote as well as the Master.

Shelby Foote died Monday. He was 88.

I never met the man, but I feel in a way like I have lost a friend. Or, perhaps more appropriately, lost a link to a past that is gone with the wind.

One suspects he is talking somewhere today with Stuart and Lee, Lincoln and Davis, and Forrest and Jackson. I hope his spirit took a walk around Shiloh one last time before heading off into eternity.

So long, Mr. Foote. Old times here are not forgotten...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great column, Jake. - Frith

8:35 PM  
Anonymous DL said...

Thanks for the quote. Now I'll be known in internet eternity as the guy who criticized the dead man.... ;-)

10:02 PM  

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