Foote’s Historia

There’s something to be said for attempting to read Foote’s Civil War at the same time as Proust.  I don’t know that I would have otherwise noticed quirks of structure in Foote’s work that, rather than seeming “Faulknerian” or “Classical,” are somehow, in a way I’m not yet ready to explain how, “Proustian.”  (Pause for a moment and examine just what this reading has done to my sentence structure.  And that’s when I’m trying to use normal syntax.)  Reviews, including those slapped on the back of my edition, compare Foote to either Thucydides or the Iliad; Walker Percy, in their correspondence, insisted upon the latter — I think it was the National Review that latched onto the former.  Yet it was Foote who spent roughly forty years admonishing Percy, “Read Proust!”  The Classics rarely show up in their correspondence; Faulkner, while an idol of sorts, is not the same object of worship as Proust.  Foote was a man who claimed to have read Recherche some six or seven times during his life — who rewarded himself upon finishing the manuscript of the final volume of his Narrative by opening that work for the first time in a decade.  It was, he insisted, the greatest achievement in all of literature.

I bring this up as a way of trying to get at the value of Foote’s work.  This value — and I think most will agree — lies not in its quality as a work of history, at least in the modern or contemporary senses.  There are no notes; just a partial bibliography.  His telling of Gettysburg is masterful — but over the course of these 200 or so pages, barely two are given to the Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, or the fight at the far left of Little Round Top, while the long slow summer morning-turned-afternoon building up to and culminating in Pickett’s charge unfolds with all the languid spaciousness of, well, one of Proust’s luncheon conversations.  One doesn’t read it for the details, though they are sometimes there, or for the “how,” though this, too, is sometimes there, or even for the “why,” which Foote doesn’t presume to answer (at least not yet, at least not fully).  It is frequently recommended because it is “beautiful” or “masteful” in its storytelling or structure — you know, the “novelist’s touch” or something like that.  Foote himself was frustrated by this.  It simply isn’t enough to indicate that a work has true value.

This is, in part, a result of the obvious goal of the work: to create a “narrative” out of the Civil War; to find, a century after the fact, a pattern to the war — both in its larger, political scope, and on a smaller, intra-battle, inter-personal scope.  Such a project and imposition of order is an inherently literary, as opposed to historical, project.  The problem — of which Foote himself was well aware — is how his work can claim to be both a work of history and a work of literature.  Those who reached for the Classics did so as an attempt to answer this problem, and were correct in at least one regard: Foote’s Narrative is not history, but historia — a kind of inquiry.

And, as I approach (finally!) the concluding pages of Proust, I have realized: the reason the Foote’s characters and their descriptions began to feel, over time, less Homeric and more Proustian is because his historia is not that of Herodotus or Thucydides, but of Proust.  It must be modified, of course, for the fact that it cannot be philosophy-in-life — but Foote’s narrator, while not a character, has a personality.  He begins with a sort of childish excitement and marvels in feats of victory-against-the-odds, but the attitude transforms as the war progresses.  By the time Lee orders Pickett’s men on their march, the attitude is thinly-veiled disgust.  And this narrating personality is narrating not for the sake of telling a story, or because Foote was under contract to tell the story, but in an attempt to understand the essence of the story.

(A few notes/caveats: I’ve finished neither work; I may finish one or the other and conclude that this is all horribly wrong.  Second, God help whoever wants to make this argument in a more rigorous form — so many pages of text, so many words to deal with! Finally, I may or may not read the comments to this post — I’m very close to the end of Proust, and while Rufus has been very good about not telling me what comes next, if I’ve made it this far, I’m not sure I want to risk it…)

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13 thoughts on “Foote’s Historia

  1. I’m just embarrassed to have never read Foote, even though about half the grad students in my department have raved about him. I’m currently working through War and Peace and trying to resist the urge to decide if that or Recherche is like the best novel ever. I won’t give away the ending to Proust, aside from saying it was very satisfying.

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  2. Foote’s a great writer, whether he succeeded in his personal quest with re: to the “Narrative” is another question.
    “War and Peace” was, of course, great..the best, I dunno?
    Two recent works are outstanding: Wendell Berry’s “Hannah Coulter,” and the Irishman, Nial William’s “John.” I recommend both.
    Re: the ‘late unpleasantness,” the finest army/battle analysis and review of Eastern Operations (and specifically Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia) is Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants”.
    The finest battle study is “Chancellorsville” by General Bigelow. Sadly, only 1,000 copies were published.

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  3. A question you observations raise is whether/what/who Foote thought that narrative voice to be as he created/employed it? Is it just his own? “His” own with him being located in a particular place/time slightly closer to the events? Or that of a figure other than himself of whom Foote was aware, even if he knew almost no details of him? And also, was the evolution of the narrator’s attitude toward the events that you describe a conscious authorial decision of Foote’s, or was it the result of a similar transformation that Foote himself underwent in earnest over the course of his ordeal in creating the work?

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  4. I haven’t read all of Foote’s magnum opus on the Civil War but have perused a good bit of the last book, with Sherman’s March, the last few battles in Virginia, Appomattox, Reconstruction, etc. The narrative and Faulknerian style impresses but the lack of supporting materials does finally present a problem IMHE.

    Foote offers a vision of sorts, as Dr Percy realized, and it’s historically based, and superior to cut-rate Civil War product such as Catton–spiritual, even. But Foote’s a bit short on specifics–say in regard to the South’s bumbling in regard to ordnance, ammo, rations, strategy, etc– and a bit soft on the CSA bumblers (Davis at least, and Lee at times, Beauregard, Johnston, etc).

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