Thursday, November 17, 2011
Remembering Shelby Foote
I've thought about Shelby Foote several times recently, usually as they relate to his comments on certain Civil War battles but also a couple of times in relation to his novels, one of which I'm going to recommend to our book club this weekend. And then this morning, I noticed the date on my computer and remembered it was his birthday. Therefore, in honor of a great historian and writer, I post a couple of pieces that I originally posted elsewhere. The first is a letter I wrote to a young friend who had asked me to name my favorite historians and the second is The Book Den post I wrote following Shelby Foote's death in June of 2005.
You raise an interesting question and it's been kinda' fun for me to think about. A key element would be the type of history you're looking for. The fellows interested in, respectively, the history of philosophy or ancient Rome or World War II are, most likely, going to be reading different historians. Thus, my favorite guys will tend to cover the areas of history I'm most interested in.
Another factor is that some of my favorite history books are not written by professional historians at all. A conservative speech writer (Peggy Noonan) wrote my favorite history of the Reagan administration; a soldier wrote my favorite history of the American Civil War (Ulysses Grant); and my favorite histories of the U.S. space program were written by two scientists and a novelist (Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Tom Wolfe).
Another category similar to the above is the autobiography. Those can certainly be classified as history but few are penned by professional historians. Novelists and playwrights can also serve as excellent chroniclers of history, usually of their own times, but certain writers dip expertly into other eras and write historical fiction that is of immense value. Especially appreciated in this latter category are Dickens, Scott, Tolstoy, Dumas, Hugo, Cooper, Austen, Dostoevsky, Waugh, and the Bronte sisters.
So, if you can keep all of these things in mind, I will mention a few "professional" historians that have made the top rank for my interests and purposes. I'm quite sure I'll leave a couple out, but here's some names I'm thinking of right now (without classifying them as to time or subject): Shelby Foote, Samuel Eliot Morison, Walter Lord, John Toland, David McCullough, Antonia Fraser, Roland Bainton,Winston Churchill, Paul Johnson, Stephen Ambrose, Bruce Catton, William Prescott, Basil Liddell Hart, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Among these Solzhenitsyn, Foote, Morison and Toland are easily my favorites.
One of my four favorite historians of all time, Shelby Foote, died Monday night. [June 27, 2005] He was 88.
The native Mississippian gained an unusual sort of celebrity status when he lent his bearded visage, gravelly voice and good natured story-telling to Ken Burns' PBS documentary series "The Civil War," but I will always appreciate him most for the three-volume, 3,000-page history of the Civil War that took him 20 years to write. That work had not been widely read before Foote's appearance in the PBS series, but it has since come into its own. In fact, in 1999, the Modern Library ranked The Civil War: A Narrative as No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language works of the 20th century.