“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”

July 1, 2005 | 17 comments
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Shelby Foote, from Mississippi, has died. He was 88. He was best known for his three-volume work, The Civil War: a Narrative

My father got used copies when I was teenager. I’ve read them twice, plus the beginning and the end several more times, plus the battle of Chickamauga several times. And sometimes I’ll just open it at hazard and read a few pages.

It would be hard to explain all the attractions of his Narrative. For one, he manages to recapture as a southerner Lincoln’s perspective that the Civil War was God’s drama, or fate, for his almost-chosen people. But the most relevant reason here is that I recognized something of myself in his writing.

He once explained that “[f]or every southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863.” And in his writing it’s clear that, though he is no partisan, the South is where his heart lies. The truth is that America has produced four indigenous nations (besides the prevailing one)–the South, the African-Americans, the Mormons, and Texas. One of those–Texas–is a more or less triumphant nation. It has accommodated with America on its own terms. One of the others–the African-Americans–is unique. But the Saints and the South have much in common. We both had a region and an approach to life and a separateness that was brought into the United States mostly unwillingly. We both have a memory. We both feel that we have lost something. And in both cases our memories of loss are tainted by the ‘relics of barbarism’–slavery in their case and polygamy in ours.

I’m not the first one to think along these lines. Several have pointed out the common postures of the South and the Saints vis-a-vis the federal government in the 19th Century. Richard Bushman has famously also pointed out that we still are partly a colonized people in the 20th Century. What Shelby Foote did for me was allow me to extend the comparison into the 20th Century. I found in his writing, in his approach to the war, a way out of my dilemma: how to honor my past and embrace it without rejecting the America that had replaced it, that I also loved? How to be both a Saint and an American? Shelby Foote loved America because he loved the South.

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17 Responses to “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”

  1. Seth Rogers on July 1, 2005 at 10:16 am

    The entire Intermountain West is still a colony of American imperialism. The parrallels between the Western states and British colonial possessions in Africa and Asia is actually rather surprising.

    Britain extracted the natural resources, while subsidizing the colonial governments and society.

    The US extracts the natural resources, while heavily subsidizing state governments and societies.

    Britain took the territory by subjugating the natives and warring with competing European powers.

    The US took the territory by subjugating the natives and warring with Mexico.

    Britain maintained a great deal of centralized control over the colonies from London.

    The US owns 80% of the land in the Intermountain West.

    Wealthy British would visit the colonies for health, relaxation and sightseeing.

    Tourism is a big deal in the Intermountain West as well.

    Sorry to hear about Shelby Foote. I remember watching the entire Civil War documentary as a kid. I was absolutely enthralled. I also distinctly remember Mr. Foote.

    The epitome of a perfect Southern gentleman. What a loss to American history.

  2. Nate Oman on July 1, 2005 at 10:37 am

    “But the Saints and the South have much in common. We both had a region and an approach to life and a separateness that was brought into the United States mostly unwillingly. We both have a memory. We both feel that we have lost something. And in both cases our memories of loss are tainted by the ?relics of barbarism??slavery in their case and polygamy in ours.”

    Perfect pitch. I once worked for a great Southern “character” and a great judge. He had more than a few great grandfathers in the Confederate Army and prior to administering to me my oath of loyalty as a federal officer pointed out with relish that what he was administering was a lineal descendent of the old “Iron-Clad Oath” used (wholly ineffectively as it turned out) to exclude ex-Confederates from federal patronage. I felt a deep affinity with his cantakerous but affectionately loyal relationship with the United States.

    (I also liked his judicial philosophy which he once described over fried green tomatoes in a shack of a resturant set on stilts over a bayou as “hippy Zen captialism.”)

  3. dannyboy on July 1, 2005 at 2:05 pm

    I am na immigrant to the USA, and Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy helped me to learn a lot about what America is and why it is today. Godspeed, Mr Foote, we will miss you.

  4. Kingsley on July 1, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    Mr. Foote was one of the last great smokers, too, thinking nothing of sucking down ten billion cigs per day as he churned out his masterworks longhand. One more great, multifarious, imperfect romantic dead and gone, while ten billion prim Jamba Juice-drinking word processor-reliant pining sighing egomaniacal father-hating memoirists (kill me now, God) crawl like maggots to take his place. RIP.

  5. danithew on July 1, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    Kingsley, someday I hope you will write my obituary.

  6. Jim F. on July 1, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    Danithew, I understand your desire to have Kingsley write your obituary, but I hope to live too long for him to be able to do so.

  7. A. Greenwood on July 1, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    Careful what you wish for, Danithew. How would you like your obituary to start, “Today there are only 9,999,999,999 prim Jamba Juice-drinking . . .”

    My kin are instructed at my funeral to quietly but firmly escort Kingsley outside.

  8. Kingsley on July 1, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    Where Kingsley will immediately proceed to write up a little monograph on the vices of inbreeding.

  9. danithew on July 1, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    A. Greenwood, I think I can understand your expressed sentiment. But I maintain my wish. Whatever Kingsley would write would have my disembodied spirit laughing so hard I wouldn’t care … all I ask is that there be no mention in the obituary of the sun, a clear moon or banners.

  10. Kingsley on July 1, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Heer lyes Danithew, a goodlee sunne, wyth the bryte bannere of God writtene fayr acrosst his twyn-lobede moone …

  11. danithew on July 1, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    Kingsley … that’s just not right. I’m using a wireless connection in a narrow apartment building stairway and now I’m having to forcibly contain explosive laughter lest it boom throughout the entire edifice …

  12. Mark B. on July 1, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    Here lies Dick Nixon, whom death couldn’t stop.

    I know it’s a threadjack, but, I just couldn’t help it.

  13. A. Greenwood on July 5, 2005 at 11:20 am

    One of the reasons I admired Shelby Foote so much:

    He defined the historian’s task as the art of publicizing the lives of great men so that we would have something to emulate.

    http://www.parisreview.com/viewinterview.php/prmMID/931 (via slate.com)

  14. john fowles on July 6, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    Adam, I thought this was a great post but take issue with one point. You write We both had a region and an approach to life and a separateness that was brought into the United States mostly unwillingly. I don’t necessarily think this is true of the Latter-day Saints. They always lamented their expulsion from the United States and did want to come back as a state of their own. I guess you were just referring to the discrimination they endured based on their free exercise of religion in the form of polygamy. In that sense, they gave up the practice most grudgingly, and only after God himself told them to discontinue the practice through revelation to his prophet.

  15. john fowles on July 6, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    By the way, Kingsley, we still have Umberto Eco as one of the great smokers, averaging over 60 cigarettes per day, I understand.

  16. A. Greenwood on July 6, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Good correction, John Fowles. I imagine the Saints would have willingly been part of the USA if they were allowed to have statehood without conditions. I said ‘unwillingly’ because they were brought in on the USA’s terms, not on their own.

  17. A. Greenwood on July 7, 2005 at 9:12 am

    “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men, and their story is not graven on stones over their clay, but abides everywhere without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives”

    -Thucydides

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