The Battle Over Shelby Foote

Field Maloney in Slate:

Southern storyteller and maverick historian. Click image to expand.

Southern storyteller and maverick historian

Our nation’s obituarists responded to the death of the Civil War historian Shelby Foote on Monday night by splitting, roughly, into two familiar camps: those above and those below the Mason-Dixon line. Foote was universally recognized for his three-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative, which he published beginning in 1958, and more recently for his star turn in Ken Burns’ 1991 PBS documentary. The tenor of the Northern praise was respectful, occasionally admiring, but restrained—at least compared to the Southerners, a number of whom had reverential firsthand tales of droll conversations and shared bourbons with the elegant, puckish Mississippian. One columnist from North Carolina called Foote’s history of the Civil War “the Iliad of our nation,” while a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lamented, “we’ve lost a modern day Homer.” One Washington Post writer boldly ventured that with Foote’s passing now the Civil War could “finally be over.”

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