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We Could Use a Shelby Foote Today

One of the greatest Civil War historians saw nobility in the stars and bars.

Back in the summer of 2000, when men still said what was on their minds (sometimes) and before the hoary ideal of freedom of speech had collapsed under the accumulated weight of 9/11, the Patriot Act, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and the enshrinement of the hall monitor as the exemplary American undergraduate, I spent an afternoon chatting with Shelby Foote, whose magisterial three-volume history of the Civil War is one of the great achievements in modern American letters.

The subsequent article from that interview ran in the now-defunct American Enterprise, where acaption writer described our interview as a “spunky ramble,” thus stirring one friend to refer to me thereafter as a Spunky Rambler.

Foote, then 83, was so cool he made Lou Reed look like Anne Murray. When I showed up on the porch of his stockbroker-Tudor home in Memphis about noon, the long-haired Foote, clad in ratty old pajamas, drawled, “Ah wuz jes’ fixin’ ta go ta thuh whiskey stoah.” Images of Marcel Proust and bluesman Robert Johnson adorned the erstwhile novelist’s study, where he still wrote with a pen dipped in ink.

Foote was absolutely sui generis: a Southern literary man who defied categorization. While he was a son of the Mississippi Delta, his maternal grandfather was a Viennese Jew. He edited the high school newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi, where his staff included a gossip columnist named Walker Percy. He was friends with Stanley Kubrick and was a certified celebrity due to his folksy-raconteur presence in Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Civil War, but Foote was “a Southerner first—there’s no need in denying that,” he said. “When I see a list of people killed in an airplane crash, I look for the Southerners on board.”

Foote had written of the Klansmen marching under Dixie’s banner: “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 wall.”

Yet this self-described yellow-dog Democrat (“I no longer vote for the man, I vote the party”) and fan of Bill Clinton’s told me, “I’m 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.”

“There seems to be no understanding,” he continued, “that the Civil War was really an argument between one form of society and another form of society. There’s no way I can get people to see that the soldiers were not much concerned about slavery on either side.”

He spoke sympathetically of a good friend, a black attorney in Memphis, who felt “real pain” when passing the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, “this ex-slave trader” and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. (Which Forrest later repudiated.)

Foote explained to his friend the qualities in this “military genius” that have recommended Forrest as a subject to thoughtful Southern writers from Andrew Lytle to Madison Smartt Bell. His efforts were in vain.

In the current hysteria, with Robert E. Lee a goner and Thomas Jefferson on deck, the Shelby Footes are in short supply.

But if the proper response to speech you find objectionable is not censorship but more speech, isn’t the proper response to monuments whose subjects one disesteems the emplacement of more statues? Besides, a sculpture is a work of fine art, and the destruction thereof is akin to the burning of a book.

A statue of our native son General Emory Upton, postbellum military reformer, directs traffic in the center of my hometown. Upton had one outstanding quality: He was ours. On the debit side, historians tell us that he was a humorless precisian, an admirer of Prussian militarism, and a withering critic of civilian control of the military. (David J. Fitzpatrick’s new Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer powerfully challenges this received wisdom.) I’m sure Upton grimaced when my peasant Irish Catholic forebears came to town. Yet whatever his sins, I would never petition for the removal of Upton’s statue, let alone attack it with a sledgehammer.

I’d rather put up markers, real and figurative, to the forgotten men and women whose labors and love built our communities.

The Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, author of the extraordinary Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, said that you should never ask a man to spit on the graves of his ancestors. Anyone who would accede to such a request is beneath contempt, and as for those who make the request, Jack Kerouac’s words, in another context, are apt: “Woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back.”

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.