Historian Shelby Foote was, at best, a minor celebrity. Historians tend not to evoke strong emotions in the MTV generation, and Foote would have probably been little more than a footnote himself had it not been for a TV appearance in Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS documentary on the Civil War. But, for better or worse, it is the courtly Shelby Foote – the southern aristocrat who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Gone With the Wind – who remains most indelible from that landmark television event. He was the ideal PBS superstar: erudite, genteel, and a crackling good storyteller whose sly wit and keen insights revealed a mind as sharp as a Confederate saber.
When he died a couple days ago I felt like I had lost a friend. Historians – even historians who serve as talking heads on television documentaries – don’t usually elicit that sentiment in me, so I decided I needed to think about why I reacted as I did. And I realized that it was because I felt like I actually knew the man; knew him through his television commentary, yes, but knew him ever better through his own writing.
Before 1990 the American Civil War was dusty, ancient history to me. I knew it from the cursory overviews I had received in high school and college history classes – names, dates, a few famous battles, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln at Gettysburg and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. Ken Burns changed all that for me in 1990, as he did for millions of Americans. Burns brought it all home – the horrendous loss of life, the enormous issues at stake, the complex characters who played their parts in shaping the country we know today, and, above all, the humanity of those involved. Fifty thousand soldiers didn’t die at the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand husbands and fathers died, fifty thousand homesick farmers and church members and letter writers. That was the aspect that had been missing from those boring factual overviews. And that was the aspect that Burns captured masterfully.
I later found out that Burns had cribbed virtually his entire script from Shelby Foote’s massive, three-volume, 3,000-page The Civil War: A Narrative. And so I picked up copies of all three volumes, lugged them home with difficulty, and set before myself the Herculean task of plowing through an eight-inch wide, ten-inch long, two-feet high cube of tiny print.
It wasn’t a struggle; it was a joy. Within two pages it was evident that Shelby Foote was a superb writer. And he wove together a seamless blend of political, economic, social, and military history that still provided ample room to explore the unique personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the leading players. Foote clearly understood that history is about people, and although he never lost sight of the larger narrative, he always made room for the human dramas that took place in hearts and minds as much as they did on battlefields. I loved him for that. He made history come alive.
It gets weirder, and better. A couple years after reading The Civil War: A Narrative I found out that Shelby Foote was best friends with Walker Percy. Who is Walker Percy? One of my favorite novelists, and someone who (along with folks like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and C.S. Lewis) helped me better understand what it means to be a real, three-dimensional Christian through works of fiction. I had been a fan of Percy’s for years, and here was a connection I had not anticipated.
Percy and Foote grew up together in the sleepy backwater Delta town of Greeenville, Mississippi. They were boyhood friends. I’ve been to Greenville, Mississippi a few times. I have an aunt and uncle and a couple cousins who live there. And I was amazed to find that something other than mosquitoes and water moccasins could hail from there. More amazingly, I was astonished to find that two literary giants could be raised a few blocks from one another. Must be something in that muddy Mississippi water.
But those two literary giants could not have been less alike. Shelby Foote was a loquacious, charming, funny cad, a ladies man, a hard drinker who liked to party into the wee hour of the morning. Walker Percy was a shy and retiring introvert, an intellectual, a deadly serious student who eventually pursued a career in medicine, and who became an M.D. in his mid-twenties. Shelby Foote, meanwhile, became a disc jockey at a Memphis radio station. Their paths seemed destined to diverge for life.
But a funny thing happened. Foote began to write. Percy began to write. And these boyhood friends began to write to one another as well – about pursuing literary careers, about families, about their hopes and dreams, about religious doubts and questions, about Percy’s later conversion to Catholicism. And they kept it up for the next sixty years, until Percy’s death from prostate cancer in 1990. Characteristically, Foote threw away the letters he received from Percy, at least the letters from the first twenty years. Percy saved every scrap he received from Foote.
Their letters – most of them, at least – have been preserved in a remarkable book called, appropriately enough, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. If you want a quick study in true, deep, lasting friendship, I cannot recommend it highly enough. These two men – so unalike and yet bound together by common roots and a common passion that drove them to the typewriter day after day – simply share their lives with one another. They express love and admiration for each other. They get angry with each other, and debate important and not-so-important topics, and get exasperated, and hector one another. They share the holes in their souls, their quiet desperation, the answers that faith does and does not offer. And they do it for sixty years running.
And now the remaining friend is gone, too.
In his most famous novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy puts what must have been his own sentiments into the mouth of his main character: “...Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”
Shelby Foote was a great writer, a rascal, a good and true friend. He was one of the friendly and likable people, and now he is dead. And the world seems a smaller and meaner place.