Shelby Foote and the Art of History

Two Gates to the City

  • Author(s): Panabaker, James
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2004-12-10
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $32.00 | Buy Now

Ken Burns, creator of the television documentary The Civil War, has called Shelby Foote a “national treasure.” Foote, whose appearances on the program helped solidify its phenomenal success, earned a reputation among the general public as one of the nation’s leading Civil War historians. His three-volume history of the Civil War is considered by some to be among the most engaging treatments of the conflict to date—Walker Percy called it “an American Illiad”—and his novels, which straddle the line between fiction and history, have drawn both accolades and controversy.

Despite such widespread recognition of Foote’s work, reception by some in the scholarly community has been lukewarm; historians dismiss his lively narratives as literary, while literary critics tend to view his exhaustively researched works as historical. In Shelby Foote and the Art of History: Two Gates to the City, James Panabaker argues that Foote is one of a rare breed of artists, capable of combining the tools and sensibilities of a writer of modernist fiction with the discipline of a historian. As a result, the author argues, Foote is able to view his native South and its history in ways unavailable to writers from the Southern Renaissance such as William Faulkner, who clung to the mythologized version of southern culture.

Panabaker examines several key influences on Foote’s development as a writer and historian, from his upbringing in the progressive southern town of Greenville, Mississippi, and his relationship with William Alexander Percy to the inescapable shadow of Faulkner. The collision between the South’s chivalric ethos and Foote’s [m]odernist skepticism was also significant in forming his particular literary vision, which was often concerned not so much with defining “southernness” as with presenting characters caught in webs of opposing values.

Also included is the most extensive reading to date of Foote’s masterwork, The Civil War: A Narrative. Using Foote’s novel, Shiloh,  as a point of departure, Panabaker discusses how Foote successfully transferred his fictional techniques and thematic concerns to the writing of a modern epic. The historian and the writer, Foote has said, are both in search of truth—“the same truth.” In The Civil War, Panabaker argues, Foote achieves “truth” through a novelist’s unflagging commitment to record history at its most human level.

Shelby Foote has built a career on dichotomies: fiction and history, North and South, black and white, specific and universal, Faulknerian and Hemingwayesque. In Shelby Foote and the Art of History, Panabaker uses these pairings as “two gates to the city,” keys to understanding the works of one of America’s most popular and contentious tellers of history.

James Panabaker is an instructor in the Department of English at Kwantlen University College, Canada.