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.