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The South’s Jewish Proust

Shelby Foote, failed novelist and closeted member of the Tribe, turned the Civil War into a masterpiece of American literature

Blake Smith
September 07, 2023

Tablet Magazine; original images: AP Photo/John L. Focht; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tablet Magazine; original images: AP Photo/John L. Focht; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shelby Foote (1916-2005) was one the greatest American writers—one of the greatest Jewish American writers. His trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative, published between 1958 and 1974, is to history what Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Foote’s favorite and most-read book) is to the novel, masterful in its staggering scope, architectonic sentences, and dazzling reversals of perspective and characterization. Descended, on his father’s side, from Mississippi Delta planters, including a Confederate commander at the battle of Shiloh, Foote played in public the blue-blooded raconteur. His appearance in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary in 1990 made him, for millions of viewers, synonymous with a genteel unctuousness imagined as typical of elite Southern whites.

Of his mother’s family—Vienna Jews who came to the Delta town of Greenville late in the 19th century—he rarely spoke, although, his father having died when he was 5, it was they who had raised him. Greenville’s small, bustling Jewish community, documented in the writing of its other most notable son, David Cohn (Where I Was Born and Raised, God Shakes Creation, The Mississippi Delta and the World), its synagogue, which he attended until the age of 11, and the inner life of its members hardly appear in Foote’s writing; he cannot be called a “Jewish novelist” in the sense meant for his contemporaries like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud.

He lived his Jewishness not as membership in a faith or a community but as something uncomfortable, half-secret, to be concealed or escaped. This may have been just what enabled him to become our country’s greatest student of Proust, whose biographical similarities to himself Foote surely understood and never discussed with interviewers. Foote was never more than a second-rate novelist—whether Southern, Jewish, or anything else—but, after a two-year writer’s block put him at the precipice of suicide, he applied himself to history as one of the most masterful stylists in American letters, doing in nonfiction what he could not do in fiction, and letting himself in the process be mistaken for the archetype of the pure-bred Southerner.

Foote did indeed identify with the South, and defend it with less the objectivity of a nonprofessional historian than with a political passion understanding of it as a victim of the American empire whose most compelling exponent—Abraham Lincoln—he unreservedly admired. His vision of history and politics, as the turns of the preceding sentence suggest, was far removed from the categories invoked by those today who would cancel or rehabilitate him. It hinges on a notion of honor—as what the artist seeks to win for himself and what the descendant owes to his forbears—that must have been particularly acute in a man who played the proud scion of Southern gentry to hide the other half of himself.

Shelby Foote lived his Jewishness not as membership in a faith or a community but as something uncomfortable, half-secret, to be concealed or escaped.

In a 1970 interview, after he had become, thanks to his leading role in Ken Burns’ documentary, not only respected by fellow authors and read by Civil War buffs, but a nationally famous image of Dixie gentility, Foote discussed, as he often would in later interviews, his father’s planter family, and—as he would hardly ever do after in public—mentioned his mother’s, who had come “from Vienna … from the world outside.” He did not say they—or he—were Jews. He went on to describe Greenville, where he grew up, as a cosmopolitan little town, where Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European merchants and craftsmen lent an unusual degree of diversity to Delta life. He noted—as if it had not been a personal concern—that hostility to outsiders was common elsewhere in the region, and that antisemitism was rife in towns just down the road, where Jews were excluded from country clubs, passing over his own experiences of discrimination.

What he learned about being different—and how to disguise it—came to him perhaps from William Alexander Percy, eccentric landowner, semicloseted homosexual poet, and uncle of Foote’s closest friend, Walker Percy, who mentored the fatherless Foote during his adolescence. William Alexander Percy introduced him to the emerging canon of literary modernism, to writers like Thomas Mann (his own mother, however, gave a 17-year-old Foote In Search of Lost Time). Uncle Percy was one model for how a man with a galling sense of interior difference might nevertheless cultivate himself in public as a model planter and Southern conservative; his 1941 memoirs Lanterns on the Levee are what must strike present-day readers as a bizarre compound of apologia for white supremacy (provided it is exercised not by ungenteel populist rabble-rousers but by dignified planter aristocrats), veiled defenses of “Greek” love, and swooningly purple descriptions of Southern moonlight, magnolia, and other such set-pieces of stereotypical down-home Arcadia. Foote learned much from William Alexander Percy, but neither he nor Nephew Percy (later a Catholic existentialist novelist under the influence of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon) would become such a reactionary.

After adolescence, two years at the University of North Carolina (during which he was barred from the fraternity his friend Percy had joined, when its members somehow learned that he was Jewish), military service blotched by his going AWOL (to fool around with a woman who would, briefly, be the first of his three wives), and a stint in local journalism, Foote became, and rather quickly, a novelist of some skill and reputation. He modeled himself on Faulkner—whose work William Alexander Percy failed to admire, because the author had once showed up at his house to play tennis, incapacitatingly drunk—who, in the 1930s and ’40s was himself becoming one of the most powerful writers in our national (and even more so in our Southern) literature.

Of his own early work Foote later said, “I had an excitement about language that flawed” the writing. The first draft of his first novel, Tournament, written in 1939, contained ramshackle mad sentences like: “Its dusty brick rainstreaked, its low pillars garbled, itself gutted, despoiled, vacant now for two years, with an air of febrile advocacy, a charivari of grandeur, possessing grain for grain the texture and stuff of the dregs of nothing more than backward yearning hope, recapitulant, somnolent, now tinted by the red rising sun behind it, the panache of dust and desire …” Such horrors were meant to imitate Faulkner, echoing, with turgid excess, the description of a similar house in Sanctuary (1931) “a gutted ruin rising gaunt and stark out of a grove.”

By the end of the decade Faulkner would become one of the eternal masters of American English, not least for his unheralded combinations of adjectives, but during Foote’s apprenticeship to literature he too was finding his way. Light in August (1932), for example, has its beauties, but they are proximate to disaster, as in: “The house, the study, is dark behind him, and he is waiting for that instant when all light has failed out of the sky and it would be night save for that faint light which daygrained leaf and grass blade reluctant suspire, making still a little light on earth though night itself has come.”

Here Faulkner—who had meant first to be a poet—channels Charles Swinburne and Gerard Manley Hopkins (like his American contemporary Hart Crane) to gush unmodern bathetic guff in an inverted Latinate style. Faulkner would do much better than this, soon—and at his best wrote what few will ever equal. He was still learning how to shift his bloated neologizing into a register capable of vatic pomposity, but definitively removed from the ridiculous to the cosmic, and also (perhaps from his experience writing scripts for Hollywood) capable of all the other registers of speech besides faux-antique grandiloquence.

Over the course of his apprenticeship in fiction, Foote gradually freed himself from sub-Faulknerian imitation, and moved into a maturer style characterized by graceful, sometimes mannered, even Olympian, detachment which, rather than being the mere embodiment or extension into discourse of the violence it conveyed, could now chillingly contrast it, as in this scene of the story “Child by Fever” from Jordan County (1954), which in its masterful cruelty puts its author on the level of Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

By Tuesday the rector was onto crutches, and ten days later, on Christmas Eve, Hector Wingate, hard-faced now in his middle fifties—he had gotten so he rarely spoke to anyone, and whoever spoke to him risked offense, either given or received—was killed by a Negro tenant following a disagreement over the ’77 crop. Thus at last he achieved his heritage of violence; it had been a bloody death, if not a hero’s. The tenant was caught late that night, treed by dogs in a stretch of timber east of town, and lynched early Christmas morning. That was the one they burned in front of the courthouse.

The deaths befall in passive voice, as if of no importance, and the lynching of any particular Black man appears so difficult to remember amid all the others (revealing, with such faint indirection, generations of organized murder) it must be distinguished with a “that was the one” addressed to the reader who, thus presumed to remember, is made one of the community of whites who have long been dispensing such violence. Playing long sentences in which dash-suspended digressions hang like narrow bridges against short, blunt ones, and lofty sententiousness (“Thus at last he achieved his heritage of violence”) against brutal directness (“That was the one they burned”), Foote showed himself a skilled writer—except that his attempts to give voice to a range of social classes and character types were more or less failures, all speaking alike the emergingly confident and distinct timbre of the Footean narrator.

He was, without knowing it, preparing himself to become a writer of history—a genre in which he would be spared having to invent distinct voices for his characters, who rather speak for themselves through the primary sources. Even as he learned to control his sentences, Foote deftly played with shifts in perspective among multiple narrators, culminating in his novel Shiloh (1952). In that final novel before he began the Civil War trilogy, battle passages are long, expansive, but tightly organized, tracking from one side to another, Union to Confederate, back and again, up and down through all levels of experience, from the general’s expansive vision to the private’s narrow baffled terror.

It spins around so many different perspectives that the reader may wearily grant Foote the prize in kaleidoscopic capacity, while regretting the neglect of human feeling (it is in that sense no surprise that Foote’s novels were appreciated less in America than in France—where Faulkner’s success in translation had paved their way, and where readers of the New Novel and its anti-narrative techniques and learned to savor fiction organized as a kind of ballet, a kinetic exercise, rather than an exploration of affect and personality in action). Foote’s notes and drafts for his novels and stories from the late ’40s and early ’50s are filled with charts of how interlocking shifts in perspective will outdo the accomplishments of Faulkner and other modern novelists who pioneered them in the decades prior, hardly sketching however a character or considering plot in terms of its psychological motivations rather than such intricate, sterile mechanics.

By the beginning of the 1950s, with the completion of Shiloh, Foote had written four novels and a collection of short stories, all of which did moderately well in sales and reviews. In late 1951 he felt ready to tackle what he planned in his diary to be a tremendous, multigenerational novel about a Delta family (gentiles) to eclipse Faulkner’s own sagas. In a letter to Walker Percy on Dec. 31, he crowed, “I’m among the greatest American writers of all time … and at the age of thirty-five.” The next New Year, after 12 months of uninterrupted writer’s block, he confided to his diary, “Bad situation—the kind that leads to suicide with some people.” His novel—Two Gates to the City—was going nowhere; another marriage had failed; he was broke.

When a publisher, appreciating the historian’s art on display in Shiloh, offered Foote a contract for what was supposed to be a short nonfiction overview of the Civil War, he had little choice but to accept, although it soon became not a quick cash-grab but his 3,000-page, two-decades-long masterpiece, the real work of his life.

Faulkner had been in Foote’s way; Proust was the light to his path. He had read In Search of Lost Time several times through before beginning the Civil War trilogy, and it was from Proust he learned the abilities essential to such a long, digressive narrative—which turns apparently meandering and spontaneous but moves only with its author’s deliberate, far-seeing and much-remembering care—to its long, digressive sentences, and to the art of characterization by which Foote, following Proust, would supply a telling detail at just the right moment to surprisingly revise the reader’s understanding. Here he added something new to his acquired mastery in moving among different perspectives, and became, albeit with found rather than invented characters, a master novelist, one who lets personalities shine out in action and be mirrored in the reactions of others. Foote does this even for the smallest characters who appear only briefly to receive a command or charge across a field.

Volume 3 of the trilogy, for example, begins with Grant, haggard, thin, fairly ugly, unphotographed and thus unfamiliar, visually, to the public, upon his arrival in Washington to receive command of the eastern theater:

Late afternoon of a raw, gusty day in early spring—March 8, a Tuesday, 1864—the desk clerk at Willard’s Hotel, two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, glanced up to find an officer accompanied by a boy of thirteen facing him across the polished oak of the registration counter and inquiring whether he could get a room … Discerning so much of this as he considered worth his time, together perhaps with the bystander’s added observation that the applicant had ‘rather the look of a man who did, or once did, take a little too much to drink, the clerk was no more awed by the stranger’s rank than he was attracted by his aspect. This was, after all, the best known hostelry in Washington. There had been by now close to five hundred Union generals, and of these the great majority … had checked in and out of Willard’s … The desk clerk … still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: ‘U.S. Grant & Son—Galena, Illinois’

This extract condenses the opening paragraph, which occupies more than a full page, wherein Grant’s taking command, with all its consequences, is introduced first through the snobbery of character so minor as to be otherwise invisible to history. This is Proust at war.

Proustian, too, is Foote’s account of the trilogy’s most important Jewish character, the Confederate cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin, whom Foote presents as a heroic organizer, a brilliant head for logistics unjustly despised by his colleagues and the Southern public. Introducing Benjamin in volume 1, Foote contrasts his own praise, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ vivid appreciation of Benjamin’s indispensable talents, with others’ hostility, and only, after several pages, in the middle of the penultimate paragraph of this section, brings in, through the quoted speech of someone else, the key fact of Benjamin’s Jewishness.

History, giving him characters ready-made, let Foote escape his earlier impasses—at least for the two-decade duration of his writing The Civil War. When he finished it, he turned back to fiction, with his final novel September, September appearing in 1977. The story of three white working-class criminals who kidnap the grandson of a prominent Black businessman in Memphis on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, and told from the perspective of several characters of both races, the novel is intended to have some social sweep. But all of its narrators, in their interwoven accounts, speak like Shelby Foote—with the criminals improbably sharing their author’s taste for Sibelius, or musing to themselves that Mark Twain is going to get book-banned and branded as a “racist” one of these days.

One of the criminals, Reeny, a middle-aged fallen woman, gives an account of her sexual history in a style at once excellent and utterly incredible:

That was the first, a Waco lumber dealer close to sixty. Others followed, to swing deals, promote relationships, sometimes just to get living-money … It wasn’t near as bad as it sounds … As a profession it’s got it’s points, so long as you don’t stay in it so long you stop learning and start enduring … All there was for me was men, and I kept trying … I got nothing from the Texan, not even train fare, and all I got from the Mississippian was a second-hand Ford, my worldly goods. I decided I’d better take it day by day, not get tied up, and trust to fortune. Around that time, Grace Kelly got to be princess without putting anything down, or very little. But she had folks and money to take her wherever she wanted to go, and where was I going to find myself a prince? At Bull Eye’s, that’s where; Rufus.

This extract from a three-page monologue is thrilling stuff—Reeny speaks like a queen out of Shakespeare, and why shouldn’t, as D.H. Lawrence put it, “trivial people muse and thunder in such magnificent language,” except that it seems rather unnecessary to have multiple perspectives at all if all their narrators are going to talk like that. Faulkner, at the height of his powers in stories like, “The Old Man,” could write in a kind of cornpone-schizo-Biblical river of prose for the voice of his narration, and yet his characters—reluctant storytellers, slick operators, the taciturn and voluble, the semi-educated and the utterly ignorant—each ring out accurately their natures in language particular to them. There Foote never measured up.

In the years after September, September, Foote made pretenses of finishing Two Gates; as late as 1991 the Southern literary critic Cleanth Brooks was still urging him to finish his “big novel” and secure his place in the canon. But the diaries of his last three and a half decades record him enjoying success’s comforts—he had lived leanly in the years he’d learned to write, often borrowing money from friends, depriving, and alienating, his first two wives and daughter, and now was lavish and plumply indolent.

Foote’s failure in September, September to go beyond where he had left off in the early 1950s, at the edge of his long depressive episode, and to make progress on his much-put-off intergenerational Delta epic Two Gates could have been, rather than the beginning of Foote’s retirement, occasion for him to confront the theme he had only touched once in his earlier work: his mother’s family. His only story about a Jewish character, “The Merchant of Bristol,” tells of Abraham Wisten, a late 19th-century Vienna Jew who settles in the Mississippi Delta, opens what he means to be a store so magnificent it will set him among the local gentry, and soon finds himself ruined. He tells his wife, “I’ve lost my honor,” before killing himself.

Here the foreign Jew, the merchant, reveals no stereotypical head for business but shows rather that the Jew has as much a keen and fatal notion of honor as the Southerner, to the utmost limit, a knowledge that life is too serious to be lived under any terms but those of self-respect and that the man who cannot consider himself worthy of esteem must force redemption with a last display of his power to command, by ending, himself.

Where was such a sense of honor when Foote attempted to be rid of his Jewishness, furtively converting to Christianity in 1942—getting confirmed in the Episcopal church—apparently out of social snobbism rather than religious reasons? Throughout his life, before and after his conversion, he evinced contempt for religion, and particularly for Christianity, with the heat of a village atheist in his letters to the long-suffering Walker Percy. He seems not to have told Percy, or hardly any other friends, about his conversion, and indeed never discussed it even in his diary—in which he marked the Jewish New Year, as well as Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day.

Later he reflected, “I had to make a decision somewhere along the line whether I wanted to be a Jew or a Christian. And I chose the Christian thing because I figured that life’s hard enough without having to carry that Jewish thing with you too … it wasn’t a question between choosing them as religions.” Foote was confirmed in the denomination that, for white Southerners, means old money. It was the traditional faith of the planter class from which he had half descended, and of which, as his fame grew, he would more and more make himself into a living emblem or ambulant cliché. Becoming Episcopalian, even for the average Southern Protestant, is a tactic of social climbing—one that fit well with, and perhaps made possible, Foote’s three marriages (the final one successful) to upper-class gentile women from good Delta families.

As he was near to finishing the Civil War trilogy, Foote wrote Walker Percy describing how he watched a serialized TV documentary about World War II, and had begun “sobbing” during its episode on the Holocaust. He was, however, weeping not only for “the old Jews and the children, the terror that was on them—and somewhere among them, for all I knew, some kinsman of mine … with his long gray beard and the old old faces on some of the children in the camps and the women stripping naked in the cold before they stepped into the shower rooms, already knowing what was going to happen to them inside, and then, later, the bodies, all crowded in a sort of pyramid from having huddled together and clawed their way to the top for air,” but also “for the ones inflicting the indignities and the torture; in other words for myself, that I belong to a species capable of such action … all those fine looking German soldiers; it didn’t seem to bother them at all.”

Foote’s fiction has little such transgressively unconstrained empathy, such a kinship with victims and perpetrators. The sense of himself linked inescapably to the Jewish people and to those who commit the worst offenses against them may have been what, in order to live with any self-respect, let alone a great deal of publicly declared commitment to “honor,” Foote had to keep out of all but his most private correspondence. Perhaps this is what, if he had the means to place it into fiction, would have made him a major novelist.

Such a Foote might have written the great Southern Jewish novel, a multigenerational story stretching from a ruined but honor-bound Abraham Wisten to a midcentury descendent confronting the Holocaust and his own guilt at having tried to murder the Jew in himself, who sees his Jewishness as a disfiguring burden but remains entangled—as much as any doomed protagonist out of Faulkner or self-hating, self-concealing Jew or homosexual in Proust—in what he would be rid of and cannot help but look, lovingly and hatingly, back on.

Instead his literary monument is the Civil War trilogy, which, given his biography, it would be a grave mistake to imagine either as a bit of neo-Confederate hagiography or as objective history. It is, rather, a beautiful work of prose—and a powerful critique both of American politics and our conventional understandings of the relationship between politics and art.

In later life, after the publication of the trilogy, Foote sometimes expressed his regrets that during the crucial years of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, he had kept out of politics, commenting little on the Civil Rights Movement and its connections back to the Civil War and Reconstruction. The latter he did bitterly criticize, saying on various occasions that the victorious United States had abandoned freed Black people to terrorism and peonage (inflicted, he did not perhaps sufficiently stress, by many of the same people—not least Nathan Bedford Forrest—whose military feats he had immortalized).

But The Civil War: A Narrative is a political book, one that sets the Civil War not—as we increasingly do today—as a central chapter in America’s long sinful history of white supremacy and the struggle to overcome it, but rather, indirectly though distinctly, with the Vietnam War as its unspoken background, as an epochal moment of American imperialism, to be at once regretted and, in the person of its great champion, Lincoln, celebrated.

In a 1972 letter, as Vietnam was coming to its disastrous conclusion, Foote paralleled the senseless carnage of American bombing with the “Gotterdammerung” of the last days of the Civil War, when Sherman burned and pillaged his way across hundreds of miles of the South, and Grant and Lee locked themselves in months of trench warfare as Southern civilians starved. This was a “rehearsal for later glories, such as Vietnam.”

Throughout The Civil War (although he has been criticized since for attending so much to military history that he neglected the motivations of the belligerents), Foote emphasized the radical aims of the “Jacobin” wing of the Republican Party. Already in 1862, many Northerners—and not only politicians—were calling for a total revolution in the to-be-conquered South. One Massachusetts colonel wrote his governor that the North must wield “permanent dominion” as a “regenerating, colonizing power … Schoolmasters, with howitzers, must instruct our Southern brethren that they are a set of damned fools in everything that relates to … modern civilization … This army must not come back. Settlement, migration must put the seal on battle.”

Today’s politically advanced Yankees who see the scourge of settler colonialism as one of the founding evils of America, coeval with slavery, would do well to consider that Reconstruction—their ancestors’ unsuccessful effort to undo slavery and its pernicious consequences—was conceived by its exponents, literally and explicitly and proudly, as a settler-colonial enterprise. To say the Civil War was a war of American imperialism, a campaign by the North—that is by the leading power of what we now call the “global north” of advanced industrial power—to absorb what was seen as a materially and morally backwards periphery is not to impose present-day categories on the past in a feat of paradoxically counter-woke presentism, but to cite the terms of the historical actors themselves. It should be difficult, although in their unreflecting bad faith so many progressives make it easy for themselves, to oppose both American imperialism—the self-righteous export of our own liberal-democratic regime and the imposition of our hegemony (when the former is not merely a mask for the latter) over the “global south,” from the Confederacy to Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan—and slavery, racism, and other evils, which after all are only ever extirpated by the violence of empire.

Foote famously said in interviews that he would have fought for the South had he been alive during the war, and would fight for it now—that is, would lose, and perhaps die, knowing he would lose—if the war were to be resumed, as a matter of “honor.” Tablet readers who recoil at this statement might reread Leo Strauss’ “Why We Remain Jews,” which argues that American Jews unable to believe in the religion of their forefathers, at least in the manner their forefathers had, who might indeed find it superstitious, outmoded, chauvinistic and lamentable, were bound nevertheless to continue to identify with it and defend it by just such a sense of “honor.”

The claim, rooted in a sentiment we are every day less capable of feeling, is perhaps an incorrect one, but not unfamiliar to Americans of many sorts who only a few decades ago looked out on what Allen Tate called the “immoderate past” and its passions and struggles back into which we descendants can no longer wholeheartedly or unreservedly project ourselves, and found in the notion of honor a means to remain in a kind of intellectually qualified but existentially committed fidelity to those whose lives had made their own possible, to remain sons and daughters of their mothers and fathers.

This readiness to fight for the South, however, had in no wise a counterpart in any sympathy for what the Confederacy represented. Slavery of course was abominable. Even taken on the terms of states’ rights, to which apologists for the Confederacy then and now often appealed—as if this were not merely a legal fig leaf for slavery—secession had been absurd. The leaders of the various Southern states resisted Jefferson Davis’ efforts to impose a properly working centralized government appropriate to the military crisis, and his attempts to mirror Lincoln’s unpopular but necessary suspension of habeas corpus and enactment of the draft.

Although they were fighting a “war for survival … the ultra-conservatives … who had done so much to bring it on, had been using the weapon of states’ rights too long and with too much success, while they were members of the Union, to discard it now that they had seceded … It was in this inflexibility that the bill came due for having launched a conservative revolution, and apparently it was necessarily so, even though their anomalous devotion to an untimely creed amounted to an irresistible death wish.” Compared to this trenchant, clear-eyed critique of the Confederacy as a “conservative revolution” that failed, and necessarily, on its own misconceived terms, any moralizing condemnation that it was, as it of course was, a regime founded on enormous human suffering, seems beside the point.

The Southern elites Foote condemned (the political men, not the generals and soldiers whom he admired) feared political tyranny, from the North and from their own leaders, even as they understood freedom as the ability to exercise unrestricted local tyranny over their own households of slaves. Foote, in contrast, celebrated Lincoln, whom even now many Southerners remember as a despot. Responding after a 1999 graduation speech to a young Southern man who asked him how he could admire Lincoln who had acted “almost like a tyrant” in arresting thousands without writ of habeas corpus, suspending freedom of the press and silencing dissenters, and generally taking upon himself extra-constitutional powers for which there was no precedent but which provided the precedent for the long growth of our modern imperial, nearly unbounded presidency, Foote replied: “He trampled on some civil liberties. He is without question—I don’t know anyone who disagrees with me on this—the greatest of our presidents.” He then immediately dropped the political question, rhapsodizing on Lincoln’s eccentric manner of dress and character, “and above all he is one hell of a writer. He’s knocking at the door of Mark Twain and any other American writer you know.”

It was not that Lincoln’s political greatness—greatness that for Foote defined itself precisely in his willingness to suspend conventional political norms when the very existence of the Union, as he understood it, was imperiled (a willingness Confederate politicians, who stillbirthed their country out of a misguided attachment to abstract principles, resisting their own president’s demands for greater power, could not comprehend)—was inconsequential. Rather political greatness came to him as a consequence of his intellectual and artistic greatness, the swelling of what Foote called, from the beginning to the end of his narrative, “the Lincoln music.”

This “music” was peculiar, lofty but demotic eloquence so different from the pseudo-Ciceronian high-falutinness that predominated on the rostrums of his day—that expressed his deepening convictions about the universal moral import of the question of slavery in America and, as the war began, the task of preserving the Union not only as a model of a functioning mass democracy—the first of its kind in the world and still a precarious, doubtful experiment watched critically from the old autocracies of Europe and their world-striding colonial empires—but as the miniature or embryo of a planetary future.

Lincoln was in his wartime speeches ever more direct in asserting that the South must be defeated not only or even primarily to efface what he came to regard as the stain of slavery, but to demonstrate to a global audience and for the benefit for all posterity that, as Foote put it “world democracy, which was shown to depend on survival of the Union with the South as part of the whole,” could triumph over its enemies. In this respect it is Lincoln, even more than Wilson or FDR, who set forth in speech and confirmed in feats of arms the doctrine that the United States was the vector by which the world would become what America is—the prophet of our empire.

Whether or not one salutes the imperial order, Lincoln’s manner of prophesying, his “style,” his “music,” was, Foote insisted in the penultimate paragraph of his Civil War trilogy, “an imperishable legacy.” Yet Lincoln’s brilliance as a writer, Foote often noted, went unnoticed during his own lifetime. “Apparently it was miracle enough that a prairie lawyer had become president, without pressing matters further … In fact, so natural and unlabored had his utterance seemed, that when people were told they had an artist in the White House, their reaction was akin to that of the man in Molière who discovered that all his life he had been speaking prose. … Natural perhaps it was; unlabored it was not. Long nights he toiled in his workshop, the ‘inner sanctuary’ from which he reached out to the future … he worked with the dedication of the true artist, who, whatever his sense of superiority in other relationships, preserves his humility in this one … the President was at work: which meant writing.”

Here Foote cast Lincoln as a brother-aesthete (and a brother in misrecognition from an unworthy public) for whom even the work of holding together the Union was subordinate to—unless it was identical with—becoming a supreme artist. Of course, Foote’s own writing is neither natural nor unlabored; it has the august pomposity of the 18th century—to which the Southern man of letters remains proximate in a way impossible to the Yankee for whom Pope and Gibbon are churchman and fauna—without the earthy directness of Twain or easy gravity of Lincoln. But he knew that none of these rhetorical poses can be learned without a sweated ascesis of long devotion—that they are craftwork, the achievement of which demands an isolation and egoism relative to other spheres of life and their inhabitants, a willingness to risk failed marriages, penury, unpopularity, misrecognition—a capacity to tyrannize.

Foote cast Lincoln as a brother-aesthete for whom even the work of holding together the Union was subordinate to—unless it was identical with—becoming a supreme artist.

Foote’s homage to Lincoln is not the merely political transcending of sectional differences or the historian’s disinterested recognition of greatness, but a passionate identification. Whether or not Lincoln is most rightly understood as a man whose ultimate dedication was to art, to call him such was for Foote the intensest compliment—to name Lincoln a fellow and indeed a master to be imitated, if not in the texture of his sentences then in his toilsome, total commitment to style as the means by which he seized and surpassed politics.

In turn Foote’s account of Lincoln’s assassination is one of the greatest passages in American literature (and who knows it?). Here is the moment of Booth’s shot, which in its wild energy recalls the Faulkner of the ’30s from whom Foote first learned to write, and anticipates Cormac McCarthy (one of the few younger writers whom Foote admired and with whom he corresponded—one who continued on, as Foote at first had, the path of Faulkner’s crazily accumulating sentences of rough clauses and gristly blood-spattered newfangled verbiage careening around the violence of men) but with a balance and pacing he had acquired from the French tradition culminating in Proust, wherein great phrases, rather than pile and crash, swing in a rhythm whose apparent unpredictability conceals painstaking control:

Then it came, a half-muffled explosion, somewhere between a boom and a thump … then a boil and bulge of bluish smoke in the presidential box, an exhalation as of brimstone from the curtained mouth, and a man coming out through the bank and swirl of it, white-faced and dark-haired in a black sack suit and riding boots, eyes aglitter, brandishing a knife. He mounted the ledge, presented his back to the rows of people seated below, and let himself down by the hand-rail for the ten-foot drop to the stage. Falling he turned, and as he did so caught the spur of his right boot in the folds of the flag draped over the lower front of the high box … He rose, thrust the knife overhead in a broad theatrical gesture, and addressed the outward darkness of the pit.

As Lincoln lays in his deathbed, it requires all the lessons Foote learned to keep the lengthy scene of mortality always just this side of melodrama, achingly sublime, with an edge of cruelty in its precise descriptions of physical symptoms and the derangements of grief:

[T]he stertorous uproar of his breathing, interspersed with drawn-out groans, filled the house as might have filled a torture chamber. “Doctor, save him!” she [Mary Todd Lincoln] implored first one then another of the attending physicians, and once she said in a calmer tone: “Bring Tad. He will speak to Tad, he loves him so,” But all agreed that would not do, either for the boy or his father, who was beyond all knowledgeable contact with anything on earth, even Tad, and indeed had been so ever since Booth’s derringer crashed through the laughter in the theater at 10.15 last night. All the while, his condition worsened, especially his breathing, which not only became increasingly spasmodic, but would stop entirely from time to time, the narrow chest expanded between the big rail-splitter arms, and then resume with a sudden gusty roar through the fluttering lips. On one such occasion, with Mrs. Lincoln leaning forward from a chair beside the bed, her cheek on her husband’s cheek, her ear near his still, cyanotic mouth, the furious bray of his exhalation—louder than anything she had heard since the explosion in the box five hours ago—startled and frightened her so badly that she shrieked and fell to the floor in a faint.

In a 1985 letter to Walker Percy, Foote lamented, “it’s no small sport to have written something as great” as the Civil War trilogy, “and to watch it go unrecognized for what it truly is.” The great increase to his fame in the following decade left unchanged the problem for his literary reputation, which he accurately defined: “Historians won’t read it because it lacks footnotes, and liberal arts professors won’t read it because it’s history; I fall between two stools and mainly find my following composed of ‘buffs,’ a sorry lot who know little or nothing of either history or literature.”

He had succeeded in a genre—historiographical nonfiction—that once, in the era of Voltaire, or of Francis Parkman in a younger America, attracted the finest talents to write what they meant to be enduring masterpieces less of erudition than of writerly prowess, but which now is divided into scholarly monographs not intended to be read with pleasure and airport-bookstore bestsellers about World War II or George Washington given to fathers on their birthdays. His success in this domain neither greatly raised the stature of his early mediocre novels nor taught him how to write better ones. He despised his fans. He was a sort of illustrious failure.

But, he knew, he had written a masterwork. Let any future critic, he said, “pick up any one of the three volumes, open it at random, and read any two consecutive pages; he’d know right then what he’d got hold of. Yet he won’t do that till enough random eggheads have preached its gospel; then he’ll look into it and he’ll know” (as one of Tablet’s resident random eggheads I contribute my part to the fulfillment of Foote’s vision).

Much of the subsequent critical discussion of Foote’s trilogy has focused on its qualities as a work of history, on its supposed bias or admirable neutrality—or the moral and political character that his writing revealed. He is thus made out to be, as he in a Faustian bargain let himself be made out during his lifetime, a representative of the Confederacy and the post-Confederate white South, of its evils and incomprehensions (as though Proust were to be put on trial for the stupid turpitude of the French aristocracy he chronicled and snobbed in) or of its honorable, gentlemanly virtues.

Whether as Ta-Nehisi Coates once, during his heyday as NPR-listeners’ favorite metaphysician of racial polemic, put it, in his inimitably vile, condescendingly ignorant way, “Shelby Foote wrote The Civil War, but he never understood it. Understanding the Civil War was a luxury his whiteness could ill-afford,” or, as the ploddingly genteel conservative Jonathan Clarke has it in a recent milquetoast defense of Foote, “[W]e should resist the temptation to put our reading life too much at the service of our politics … [W]e should continue to read Shelby Foote with pleasure … [despite] the fact that we cannot fully agree with him.” Foote’s present-day readers imagine his legacy as a site in the ongoing struggle between “political” and “aesthetic” modes of reading.

One of the clumsier defenders of a humanistic perspective against Coates-like woke-ist moralism has lately declared we are in the midst of an “aesthetic turn,” which, if her declarations have any power of self-fulfillment, might even see Foote recognized as a great apolitical artist. This would be an improvement on the present—on the captivity of his reputation to the buffs he despised or to commissars at The Atlantic, but it would be another, albeit minor, kind of misfortune unless we reappraise from the vantage of his masterpiece what “the aesthetic” means.

Foote—like Proust—is in some sense apolitical (how oddly and obliquely the war comes to In Search of Lost Time, of how comparatively little importance), seeming to set the egoism of the artist ahead not only of civic responsibility but his own domestic happiness. But this is not simply being apolitical in a mode of preserving the autonomy of the artist, or, more public-mindedly, of exemplifying qualities necessary to a certain kind of liberal, tolerant society that can with evenhanded narratives soothe itself out of the immoderate past into the safety of what Clarke imagines as sedate readerly pleasures.

Beauty, though it may give pleasure, is first of all tyranny, the violent appropriation of attention and power. By learning to write beautifully Foote meant to storm the heights of our national and Western literature, to master it in becoming one with it—in a spirit of determined assimilative prowess—to become immortal in the only way he believed possible. To say that such a demand upon oneself to achieve the utmost excellence, a will to shine forever in the memories of men, is not political, is to imagine as unpolitical Achilles and Napoleon. To reveal one’s superior nature in arms or words is a primordial desire for and by which the space of politics—our law-bound life in common—is made (a point Arendt, that most Greek of modern thinkers, recalls throughout her work). Some of us desire to be better, and acclaimed better, than others, and give their lives over to discipline, sacrifice, and risk that they might be honored, if not by the contemporaries whose approval they alternately court and spurn, then by posterity.

Honor, a word that names both what we owe to the ancestors whose principles we cannot quite espouse and what we hope to merit ourselves from an audience of unknown descendants, is in tension with the values of liberal democracy. Within the horizon of the latter we may judge a work of art according to its contribution to the realization of social justice, or to its capacity for giving and teaching unpolitical pleasure, but rather shirk from admitting the artist to be a moral equivalent to the tyrant, someone who presumes to excel beyond the common measure and to demand the approval of us whom his accomplishments mark as his inferiors. It is hard for us to honor him. Hard too to honor ancestors who asserted, individually and collectively, their superiority over others, their right to conquer, enslave, exclude (and all of ours, whoever we are, did so—unless we prefer to imagine ourselves, members of whatever group, the heirs of innocents so incapable and inconsequent they never wronged or thought themselves above others).

The vocation of the artist, the soldier and the statesman are accessible only to those who can honor and hunger after honor, who, drawn backward into the past and forward into posterity, disjoint themselves from our flat present and its imperatives to egalitarian political correctness or “aesthetic” harmlessness. Perhaps we would be better off without such human types. Certainly we may not want to become them ourselves. It may be too that we ought to speak candidly about them and what their fulfillment requires only in private, and in public to let them assume such guises as, for example, the gentlemanly, avuncular Southerner with a gift for stories about old times—entertaining, interesting tales that can go unnoticed as incitations to honor the teller and those about whom they are told.

Personal greatness, an aristocracy of spirit, persists among some members of a democratic people without our noticing it, because we do not notice it and mistake it rather for something safe—in this instance, representative regional character, a local quirk, or as a tragic case for the psychologists. It survives in concealments. Foote the Civil War historian conceals Foote the consummate stylist; Foote the archetypal member of Delta gentry conceals Foote the Jew; Foote the wicked white man or giver of literary pleasure conceals the artist who, as artist, wagers his greatness against our mediocrity, insisting to the last that if we could only look on his beautiful work we would be forced less to enjoy ourselves than to honor him, and who can see the murdered and tyrant in himself. To keep alive—yet somehow render harmless—such passion for preeminence is a task for which categories like “the political” and “the aesthetic,” in their usual meanings, now seem exhausted, their renewal being, like Foote’s remembrance, the random egghead’s burden.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.