Skip to comments."LIVE" WITH TAE Shelby Foote
Posted on 06/28/2005 2:32:59 PM PDT by Valin
Shelby Foote, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, was the author of five much-admired novels when his career took one of the richest detours in literary history: He spent 20 years writing a three-volume history of the Civil War that many regard as one of the great achievements in modern letters. More than a dozen years after the last volume was published, Foote became certifiably famous when his Delta drawl and handsome presence dominated Ken Burns PBS series, The Civil War. Foote, now 83, remains a Mississippi original: Images of Marcel Proust and bluesman Robert Johnson adorn his study, where he still writes with a pen dipped in ink. Associate editor Bill Kauffman interviewed Foote at his home in Memphis.
TAE: The holy warriors against tobacco havent convinced you to give up your pipe, I take it?
FOOTE: It took me 20 years to write The Civil War, and I wrote it seven days a week, six hours a day. I wrote it with a cigarette in my left hand and a pen in my right hand. At a conservative estimate of a pack and a half a day of regular Chesterfields, I figure I smoked 150,000 Chesterfields in the course of writing The Civil War, and Im here to tell the story.
They did convince me to give up cigarettes when I had angioplasty, but Ive been smoking my pipe three times as often as before.
TAE: Do anti-smoking zealots remind you of the mid-nineteenth-century fanatics, whether fire-eaters in the South or abolitionists in the North?
FOOTE: Fanatics we couldnt do without, but God knows they make a lot of trouble. I can no longer engage in any conversation about the Confederate flag, because youve got the black fanatics on one end and redneck yahoos on the other. We people in betweenwho, I suspect probably are a minoritycant be heard for the racket. So I stay out of that fuss, except to say that Im for the Confederate flag flying anywhere anybody wants to fly it at any time. If they have a referendum in a state that says Take the flag down off the state capitol, I think they ought to take the flag down. But the flag to me represents many noble things. It is strange to me how they can single out the Confederate flag and not have any objections to, say, the Japanese flag and the march on Bataan.
There seems to be no understanding that the Civil War was really an argument between one form of society and another form of society. Theres no way I can get people to see that the soldiers were not much concerned about slavery on either side.
Now theyre talking about compensating black for their ancestors labor while they were in slaverythats almost as absurd as charging them for their passage from Africa here. Many blacks Americans, if their great-great-grandfather hadnt come over here in chains, would be one of the skulls in Idi Amins collection in Uganda, or God knows what.
I really do understand the pain that an intelligent black feels when he sees the Confederate flag, because the Confederate flag, back in the 60s and 70s, was carried by yahoos who represented everything that had held them down and abused them.
By the time I was 24, I realized there was not a shred of clothes on my back, not a mouthful of food in my stomach, not a book on my shelf that didnt come out of exploiting blacks. And I was as thoroughly ashamed of that as I could be. I was an exploiter of blacks indirectly. The woman who was closest to me in my lifecertainly I had more to do with her than I did with my mother or anybody elsewas named Nellie Lloyd. She came to work for us for three dollars a week, and at the end of 25 years she was making $18 a week. Now, thats outrageous; but my God, she meant a lot to me.
TAE: In 1970 you wrote of Klansmen who had appropriated the flag: I tell them to their faces that they are the scum who have degraded the Confederate flag, converted it from a symbol of honor into a banner of shame, covered it with obscenities like a roadhouse mens room wall. Is the Confederate flag today still degraded, or have the recent assaults on it given it a new dignity?
FOOTE: Its still mainly abused and absurdly defended. And I understand blacks feelings when they see the Confederate flag. The real villains are Southerners who knew what that flag truly stood for and allowed yahoos to carry it.
What happened during the period of the Northern students coming down to the South during the civil rights struggle was that to people down in Mississippi they were a pretty scruffy-looking group, and we thought, Theyre sending their trash down here to make trouble for us. Let our trash take care of it. And our trash did, in a terrible way, like the murder of those three civil rights workers.
We should have stood up and said that those people ought not be allowed within 100 yards of the Confederate flag, let alone use it as a symbol for all they were doing. But we didnt. Its hard to take when people define you as corrupt people and scum. So you lash back.
This country has two profound sins on its soul. One is slaverythats a sin that we will probably never be able to cleanse ourselves ofand the other was emancipation. They told four and a half million people, You are free, hit the road, and made no provision for education. Just told them to go out, and of course they drifted back into sharecropping, which is a form of peonage, and it was just a disaster.
If the South had not lost the war, Im sure that slavery wouldnt have survived into the twentieth century, and its possible that it might have been brought to an end in a more gradual, less disastrous way. Many of the troubles weve got today with black communities are from their being released into the world without being prepared to deal with it.
TAE: Was the diaspora of Southern blacks into Northern cities a tragedy for both North and South?
FOOTE: It was certainly a tragedy for the South. Im going down to Greenville tomorrow, and it breaks my heart to go down there: The subtraction of the blacks has changed society entirely. Its not as leisurely as it was; it lacks the grace that it had.
I speak the way I do because my nurse taught me how to talk. Now, the influence of mass communication has modified accents all over the place.
TAE: General Nathan Bedford Forrest is still memorialized in Memphis. Is it possible any more for white and black people of goodwill to sit down and figure out how to treat men like Forrest?
FOOTE: Its extremely difficult. Ive got a good friend here, a graduate of the Yale Law School, a black man who says from the time he was a teenager walking past Forrest Park and seeing that statue of this ex-slave trader and imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, his purpose in life was to get him removed from that park.
And I say, you dont know anything about Bedford Forrest. He was one of the finest men ever lived, in many ways. Plus being a true military genius. To take Forrest out of Forrest Park is as if the women in Paris got together and took Napoleon out of the Les Invalides because he wasnt nice to the ladies. But I couldnt get it across to him. He feels real pain at seeing this city more or less worship what he considers the worst oppressor of them all.
TAE: After the Civil War, a compromise was obtained in which the North acknowledged the bravery of the Southern soldiers and the valor with which they fought for a cause in which they believed, while the South acknowledged that maybe it was for the best that the Union was preserved. Has this compromise finally broken down?
FOOTE: It has. Senator Moseley-Braun (D-Il.) persuaded her fellow Senators to disallow the use of the Confederate symbol on the Daughters of the Confederacy stationery in Alexandria. It wasnt a Confederate battle flag; it was just a Confederate symbol. Well, thats disruptive of the compromise, which really worked to a considerable extent.
Some highly intelligent menthe agrarians, for instancestill regret enormously that the South didnt succeed in secession. The poet Allen Tate described the Civil War as an attempt by the North to put the South into Arrow collars.
Some of that has happened. But I dont know that it wouldnt have happened to the Confederacy, too. Whats more, the Confederacy probably would have exploded into pieces: [Georgia Governor] Joe Brown and some of those other governors were fixing to fly apart again.
Seward, Lincolns Secretary of State, believed that the erring sisters would return to the fold. He especially had an idea that a war with Mexico would reunite the North and South. But Lincoln made the thingLincoln is a true genius. It is absolutely incredible that he was able to define the war in a way to hold the Union together, being careful not to alienate the border state people while hes placating the New Englanders. He said at some point, I hope God is on our side, but I must have Kentucky.
TAE: In the Civil War trilogy, Jefferson Davis is presented as a man of integrity and character and purpose. Was Davis the equal of Lincoln?
FOOTE: You matched him against genius, which is unfair. Davis had faults and Lincoln had faults, but Lincoln always learned from his faults, and he was able to turn them into virtues.
Davis had this code of honor that literally was disruptive. For example, some superior officer came to him and reported that some brigadier was unfit for the job and should be relieved from duty. This brigadier was a good friend of Daviss, and Davis fired him. And the man came to see Davis and said, How could you, my old friend, do this to me? Davis didnt say, Your superior told me that I have to get rid of you. He said, Youve got your orders. Thats the code.
Lincoln would have found a way around all that. In the first place, he probably wouldnt have fired him. And Davis had this stiffness that gave him tremendous integrity, but it interfered with his efficiency as President. He also spent too much time on small things; night after night working on stuff that somebody else could have done. Lincoln didnt do that.
TAE: Union General George McClellan has gotten a bad rap from his age down to ours. Is it possible to view him as a decent man who shied from a war of attrition, who lacked Grants and Shermans brutality and wanted to spare civilians the horror of total war?
FOOTE: I think you can make that case very well. The main thing to remember about McClellan was he created the instrument with which Grant won the war. It was McClellan who made the Army of the Potomac. Also its overlooked how much his men loved him. He and Robert E. Lee and Joe Johnston could all have a big scramble over who won the most affection. The nearest competitor on the Northern side would be Sherman, not Grant. Grant never courted anybodys affections.
Grant is a man worth studying. He never accepted blame for anything ever at any time. Thats what made him so steady on the line. The other thing is, he worried very little about what the enemy might do to him; he always thought about what he was going to do to the enemy. Hes a superb soldier; hes brave. And yet hes a complicated man in a lot of ways.
He couldnt eat meat unless it was cooked to a char because he didnt want the sight of blood. My Godthe Army of the Potomac had more casualties than Lee had in his whole infantry and artillery combined. And he kept going all the time; never thought of turning back, didnt even cross his mind.
TAE: The National Park Service has begun de-emphasizing battles at battle sites and instructing visitors in the real cause of the war: slavery. What do you think of this?
FOOTE: It is outrageous. What went on on that battlefield ought not be cluttered up with all these things. You want to understand that battle, youd better study the battle.
Whats more, if theyre going to talk about slavery at any great length, theyre also going to have to talk about the Constitution and God knows what else. I have no objection whatsoever to instructing people about the evils of slavery or the tricks and trades of the Constitution; I think thats all good. But when youre studying the battle, youve got to get all of that out of your mind and concentrate on the men who did the fighting, who didnt give a damn about the Constitution or slavery while the battle was going on.
TAE: Was it for the best that Lincoln won in 1860?
FOOTE: Yes. I think that its best that the country didnt split in two; I do believe that firmly. And Lincoln was the one who kept it from splitting in two. Im not saying that some other man couldnt have done it, too, because the occasion does make the man. Lincoln was made great by the war. Bedford Forrest, if it hadnt been for war, would simply have been a very efficient alderman here in Memphis.
The thing I just wish so fervently is that after Shiloh, both sides would have said, Wait a minute. They had 24 percent casualties at Shiloh. Thats the same as Waterloo. There were 100,000 men on that field, and 24,000 casualties. We should have said Whoa, wait. Were going to kill all the young men in the country if this keeps on. And though they didnt know it, they had another ten Waterloos down the road.
TAE: Have you seen any good Civil War movies?
FOOTE: Gettysburg was a good job, if he had just gotten Longstreet a better beard.
TAE: Its very good, though Martin Sheen plays a fey Robert E. Lee.
FOOTE: I happen to know, from talking to Horton Foote, that it is the dream of Robert Duvalls life to play Robert E. Lee. Why they didnt get him, I dont know. Duvall would have been superb.
But I like Martin Sheen. He communicated Lees nervousness, his being off stride, and that was very bold and brave of him to do that. He didnt communicate Lees dignity, but he communicated the most important thing at Gettysburg.
TAE: You wrote the first two volumes of the Civil War trilogy during the genesis and then the critical years of the civil rights movement. Did the antics of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus and suchlike have any effect on the writing of the books?
FOOTE: In the bibliographical note to the second volume, which came out in 63, I thanked Wallace and Faubus and [Mississippi Governor] Ross Barnett for making me better understand the problems that caused the Civil War and for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing in their action much that was least admirable in the position my forbears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln.
TAE: Were you at all sympathetic to the states rights arguments that these guys were making?
FOOTE: Im sympathetic to the states rights people only in a pragmatic way. To have the same speed limit in Vermont that you have in New Mexico is ridiculous.
Im a yellow-dog Democrat, a true believer in everything that the Democratic Party stands for. I still admire Franklin Roosevelt tremendously for saving us from fascism or communism. Im inclined to think the government can solve all problems; I have found out that thats a long way from true. The central government does a very bad job if you turn education over to them: You wind up either with a bunch of academics who think they have the answer to everything or politicians who will do things for political reasons, and its a bad scene.
I have found out over the last 50 years that the government can create as many problems as it solves, but Im still a good, solid Democrat. One thing I admire about the Republicans greatly is their intense concern for the individual as opposed to the state. Theyre always out to protect the individual.
When television first came on in the early 50s during the Eisenhower campaign, I said, Now we can now look the creature in the face while hes lying to us, and were going to be able to tell. And I was wrong as I could be. The man is packaged on television for you to look at, and you can be fooled very badly. The result is, in an election, I no longer vote for the man, I vote the party.
TAE: Do you watch much TV?
FOOTE: Yes, I watch the news every night. I watch talk shows like Chris Matthews, whom I despise. I love watching him because hes so awful. Chris Matthews, hes bouncing on his ass with delight at giving the President trouble. And that vexes me.
TAE: You like the President?
FOOTE: Yes. I think Clinton has made a hell of a President. Hes also a hell of a fool, but that goes with it.
TAE: Politicians today dont even speak their own words.
FOOTE: Thats quite true, and its always been to a degree true. Lincolns speeches were mostly by himself, but the better angels of our nature was Seward. I said Lincoln was a political genius; hes other kinds of geniuses, too. Hes a writer very close to the caliber of Mark Twain.
I have found that children are no longer required to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school, and that dismays me to think of young people wandering around without those rhythms in their brain. Memory work is frowned on now in schools: thats crazy. Im very old-fashioned. I do not know whats going to happen as a result of being able to get all the information you want with your index finger on a computer. I cant begin to say how many things I discovered while I was looking through books for something else.
TAE: You dont use a computer?
FOOTE: I dont have a computer, I dont have e-mail, I never wanted any kind of secretary or typist or anything like that. Partly for the reason Im talking about: I made huge numbers of discoveries doing my own research.
TAE: Were you in Memphis when Martin Luther King was shot?
FOOTE: I saw King get off the airplane as I was leaving to go to Virginia. I started to go up and speak to him, shake hands with him, tell him I was glad he was in Memphis. But he looked so frightened that I thought that if I walked up to him, they would think I was some kind of an assassin, so I didnt do it. Ive always regretted I didnt do that.
TAE: Would you say youre a Southerner before youre an American?
FOOTE: Im a Southerner first. Theres no need in denying that; I simply am. When I see a list of people killed in an airplane crash, I look for the Southerners on board.
And of course Ive got racism in my bones; Im against it and I counteract it as best I can, but if I had on clean clothes and was standing on a curb waiting for somebody and a Cadillac passed and splashed mud on me, and it was all blacks in the Cadillac, I would say, They never shouda let them up. Thats in your bones and you cant get rid of it, but you can counteract it, which I do.
TAE: In your correspondence with Walker Percy, occasionally youll casually write nigger. Do you think that 50 years hence, as we grow morally loftier, literary critics are going to say, Foote was beyond the pale using language like that?
FOOTE: You get back to what hurts peoples feelings, which is never a good thing to do. And I dont think in my whole life I ever called a Negro a nigger to him, unless I was joking the way they do with each other.
Ill tell you when this race thing will straighten itself out. Ill know that its solved when black writers stop being black writers. I dont know of a single black writer who isnt consumed by the fact that hes black. I believe in people writing about what they know aboutGod knows, everything I do is Southernbut Ill know that weve got some kind of equality when I can no longer recognize a black writer by glancing at the page.
Johnny Cochran, in the O.J. Simpson trial, was absolutely indignant because some witness said he recognized a Negro voice over the telephone. Well, thats absurd. I recognize a Negro voice over the telephone all the time. And the worst racist in that courtroom was Johnny Cochran.
TAE: Did your elevation to celebrity status after the Ken Burns series vex you or did you find fame easier to take than youd expected?
FOOTE: Both. Its irksome when its a disruption, but its pleasant, too. Its an affirmation that youve done something that will be here after youre gone. Its nice to get a good table in a restaurant; its nice to have people tell you they like your work; its nice to have firemen waving at you; thats the good side.
The other is the disruption. People will come up to you and call you by your first name whom youve never seen, or call you all hours on the telephone; Im so stubborn I wont take my name out of the phone book, so I run into all kinds of trouble.
Freud said all men have three urges that make them do what they do: the desire for fame, the desire for money, and the love of women. He didnt mention inspiration or any of that. He was wrong to leave something out: theres a great pleasure in good writing. To engage in art in a way that pleases you is an enormous satisfaction.
TAE: Which of his trio is the most powerful?
FOOTE: The desire for fame. We all want to say, Kilroy was here.
TAE: Your maternal grandfather was a Viennese Jew. Did you ever feel Jewish at all?
FOOTE: I went to the synagogue as a boy. I went to Saturday school, so that I know the Shema Yisrael and so on. But no, I never felt Jewish. And I always knew the disadvantages of being Jewish. Im three-quarters Episcopalian, and it seemed to me I was going to have a much easier time in life being an Episcopalian than I would as a Jew.
TAE: Have you ever been tempted by the religious impulse?
FOOTE: No. Thats left out of me. I have very little concern with life after death. Thomas Hardy said Ive been looking for God for 50 years and if he was there, I would have found him.
TAE: What do you think of writers being subsidized by the government through things like the National Endowment for the Arts?
FOOTE: Im very much against it. Im for subsidizing the artsopera, the theater, symphony orchestras, and so forthbut I think creative people should be left alone. It takes away from what youre doing. Even a grant does that. I think just making enough to pay the light bill is an affirmation of your commitment.
American poetry, as far as I can see, is as dead as a doornail. The reason is that all the American poets are on college campuses, and they sit around talking about their workwhich a writer knows youre not supposed to doand jumping the coeds, which is time-consuming.
TAE: You once said that small town America in 1910 is still my notion of the happiest time on earth. Why is that?
FOOTE: It was before all the new things like the telephone, let alone the radio and so forth, which came in to clutter up our lives. I can remember a time about 1920, with men in the evening out watering their lawns with a hose, and there was a strong feeling of family; front porches were used in hot weather. It just seemed like a cozier time and a time when there was more mutual understanding.
That may not be true, incidentally; but it seemed to me so.
Published in Model Schools January/February 2001 Issue
Rest in Peace sir..
bump and ping
A great interview. Thanks for posting.
I didn't know the man personally, of course, but I admired both his outstanding body of work in the three-volume account of our saddest war and the dignity he brought to the Ken Burn's documentary which made him famous.
RIP, Mr. Foote. Your wise voice will be missed.
Valin, thanks for the post.
RIP Shelby Foote.
I lost a great friend last week, also born in 1916, a man of massive learning. Much of my friend's contribution was tenebrae service, among the shadows. But like Foote, his was a life spent writing (40 books, hundreds and hundreds of articles). As executor, I had to take away all his books earlier today, and it really flattened me.
But I am grateful for Foote's (and my friend's) modesty, the absence of self-service and self-congratulation. After thousands of research hours, and hundreds of discussion hours with my friend, I consider this the ultimate moral (artistic) code: that what you do as an artist is on behalf of and in furtherance of humanity. It must be life affiriming. If not, it has no place except in the shadow of great art. Our commercial arts, athletic arts, collaborative arts, filmic and television arts are largely of this caste, having no place except in the shadow of great art.
My one issue with Foote's comments: "American poetry, as far as I can see, is as dead as a doornail."
-Not just yet.
My one issue with Foote's comments: "American poetry, as far as I can see, is as dead as a doornail."
-Not just yet.
I hope you're right.
Most poetry is horrible. People write it for the rhymes, for its sing-song quality, to amuse themselves.
Great poetry, real poetry, whether written or read, requires massive learning and vast skill sets, and, to some degree, the contemplative life. Lifetimes are spent in consideration of a single line written or read.
Initiates know these things. They know things, see things others cannot see in the language. Everyone has a story to tell of course (every man, woman, child and domestic pet has written a book that is for sale right now at Border's), and more literacy is better than less. Still, these lesser arts have no place but in the shadow of great art (see John Gardner's "On Moral Fiction" or Walter Raleigh's "Style.")
So, in reality, there aren't many initiates. Plath may have had her moments, but she's no Lowell. He had his superior piece or two, but in fact but he's no Eliot. The truth is that we only get one really great one every now and again (there may be only 25 or 30 guys in history that are of Eliot's stature), one with the learning, vision (of his predecessors and of the future), and skills to get it done.
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He's on my list of authors to read. Since I'm cable deprived, I missed this. The WP had a nice obit and Style Section piece. I loved the sound of his voice. Watching his commentary on the Ken Burn's series I thought with that weary voice and sad eyes that perhaps he might have been a Southern General in another time.
What can I say? The man was wise. ;O)
I don't have cable neither, but if you go to their website you can watch.