Every morning at 8, seven days a week, Shelby Foote goes into the converted bedroom, sweet with the country smell of woodsmoke, that is his study, sits at his broad-beamed oak desk facing a wall covered by quotations from Proust and a gold watch hanging from a nail, picks up a dip pen with a double-pronged Esterbrook Probate point . . .
. . . and begins to write.
The novelist-historian will work for eight hours with a lunch break. He will cover page after page of his special 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper with elegantly thin margin lines, top and left. Some pages will be filled with a dozen attempts at a single sentence. Every five or six words he will dip the pen again into the black Sheaffer's Script ink that he can buy these days only in 2-ounce bottles, much to his irritation. Ink is almost as hard to find as blotters, he says. Until he found two gross of the pen points in New York, he was constantly searching for them, too.
The words come steadily, deliberately, in a swift but stately form of printing, the broad ink line narrowing like a twisted ribbon on the curves, the strong verticals giving the page a cuneiform effect.
In a day he will write 500 words, maybe 600, occasionally 1,000.
In a week, that is 3,500 words; in a month, 15,000; in four months--were he to use them all--a short novel.
For 20 years Shelby Foote abandoned his career as one of the young southern heirs of Faulkner, with five successful novels to his credit, and concentrated instead on his three-volume "The Civil War: A Narrative." It has, he estimates, 1,655,000 words. He adds with amusement (and a certain quiet pride) that Proust's monumental "Remembrance of Things Past" has only 1,250,000 words. The Bible has a mere 773,000.
At the end of the history Foote wrote:
"So there now. Twenty years have come and gone and I can say with Chaucer, 'Farwel my book and my devocion . . .' " He went on to point out that while it took him five times longer to write the war than the participants took to fight it, "there were a good many more of them than there was of me."
Now that it is well behind him, with the first volume in its 14th printing and the last--which took him 10 years to write--in its seventh, with his novels reissued by Random House and another one published in 1978, he is taking up more or less where he left off.
He is deep into a massive novel about the Mississippi Delta where his people settled six generations ago after emigrating from England in the 17th century. It is called "Two Gates to the City," and his wall is plastered with its outlines and family chronologies, replacing the battle maps and portraits of dead generals that used to be there.
"I'm doing my best to forget everything I knew about the Civil War," he says. "People want me to do articles . . . books . . . the Spanish-American War . . . but that's all. No more."
It was like swallowing a cannonball, he says.
The original contract, dreamed up by the late Bennett Cerf, who wanted to see a history stylishly written by a novelist, called for a "short" version, maybe 700,000 words, but when Foote wrote his outline he saw immediately that it would come to three volumes. Random House considered this news for a week or so and said to go ahead.
"I thought I could write history a lot faster than fiction: After all, it's right there in the book. I thought it would take me about four years. I never would have begun it if I'd known it would take 20. But never for a minute have I regretted having done it, from start to finish."
All the way through, he looked forward to doing novels again. He also looked forward to reading Proust once more. ("When I've accomplished something I like to give myself a little reward, and the reward is always the same: to read Proust.") So he did. It took him a month. To date, he has read the great work nine times, and one can hear in his own book the rhythms of its sentences, those winding Mississippis of words, its foreshadowings and gradual revelations, its gigantic plan modestly concealed.
Foote's conversation, like his study, is crammed with great literature. In a few minutes he may casually mention Virgil, Balzac, Mann, Hemingway, Gibbon, Tacitus, Flaubert, Wilde, Eliot ("fiction and history? If you want to know England on the eve of the Reform Bill, read 'Middlemarch' "), O'Hara, and of course Faulkner, whom he knew well, and Foote's own contemporaries, Calder Willingham and Walker Percy, old friends and fellow southern novelists. It may come as a surprise to some that he quit the University of North Carolina after two years ("I took mostly English courses") and never bothered to get a BA, though he does have its distinguished alumnus award, won a Ford Foundation and three Guggenheim grants, lectured at Hollins, was playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage 20 years ago and so on. He is 66.
"I never had a typist, let alone a research assistant. I wouldn't know how to use one if I had one. I simply moved through the outline, and as a subject approached I'd read about it at night."
The basic reference was the 128-volume official history of the war plus the 35-volume naval history, augmented by about 200 other histories and biographies hanging around his study. He scorned the historian's traditional 3-by-5 cards, and relied on his visual memory.
"I'd remember something in a book, I might not remember the title, just the color of the cover and where the passage was, lower left side of the page. I'd go crazy looking for it."
The history itself is the kind of work that can change a person. For those who thought the war consisted of Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run and Sheridan's Ride, it opens vast new horizons of a struggle that raged across half a continent. For those who thought nearly all Union leaders were idiots and nearly all Confederate generals geniuses, it shows the reasoning that produced the disasters, the luck that created heroes.
It reveals Grant, at Cold Harbor, refusing to ask for a truce after a futile charge mowed down 7,000 of his men in eight minutes; thousands died of thirst and exposure over three days, all for Grant's machismo. It gives us a Lincoln who overrode habeas corpus, ordered mass arrests and shook down federal workers for campaign funds in his fury to win the war, a consummate fox whose deep cunning outflanked even the conniving pols in his Cabinet because he was content to be thought a fool if it served his purposes "till they felt the ground drop from under 'em," because he simply did not care, ever, in any way, what others thought of him. "A cold man. He could stand outside himself and look at himself. People throw up their hands trying to understand genius. I think that's what we've got here."
Hundreds of characters people this sprawling landscape; innumerable vignettes bring to life those moments that history too often forgets but which after all comprise it; some men, their courage eroded by early events, crumble under pressure at the end, while others rise above themselves.
Most of all, the history makes clear how tantalizingly close the Confederacy came to winning, or at least to forcing a negotiated peace with the 1864 election, when Lincoln was believed sure to lose, and how Grant's inexorable drive south from the Wilderness changed everything. It offers a searing view of the death of Lee's army, tattered, literally starving, demoralized at long last, and it honors the stubborn courage of the mismanaged northern armies.
It gives insights, not only into the war itself, the military, social, political and economic undercurrents, but also into what we gained as a nation, and what we lost, all of us: a fineness, a generosity, a moderation that the country so desperately lacked in the venal decades that followed the war, the era of northern robber barons, the Jim Fisks and Jay Goulds, the Rockefellers and Mellons and Carnegies and Morgans and other frantic scramblers.
The book was criticized for sticking to the printed sources and not getting into the mountains of unpublished memoirs and diaries. He didn't pay enough attention to the why of the war, the economics and politics of it, they said. He didn't offer a theory. He didn't even try to explain it.
But the more you know about any subject, from an event to a person, the more you respect it, and the less you want to fence it in with a definition.
"My hope was that if I wrote well enough about what you would have seen with your own eyes, you yourself would see how those things, the politics and economics, entered in. I quite deliberately left those things out. My job was to put it all in perspective, to give it shape. Look at Flaubert: He didn't criticize Emma Bovary as a terrible woman; he didn't judge her; he just put down what happened."
For example, many a historian has speculated that Spotsylvania Court House, where massed charges were ordered over and over against elaborately prepared breastworks, anticipated World War I. And Grant has been called the first general who grasped and embraced the concept of total war, abhorrent to Lee. Foote lets the reader figure all that out. "I read a brochure by someone who proved--not claimed, proved--that the South lost the war for want of axle grease. You can prove anything you want to.
"I'm not trying to crawdad in any sense in callin' the book a narrative," he drawls. "It's not an excuse."
A southerner, he adds, has an enormous advantage in writing about the Civil War and for that matter in understanding America's relations with the world. "Bruce Catton the Civil War historian says we Americans never lost a war. He should know better: he's a southerner, and we have a strong tradition of defeat. We also have an understanding of injustice. Southerners know various things are wrong with the concept of the 'home of the brave and land of the free.' In the middle of a wrong thing is a good place to be when you want to understand that wrong thing.
"You can't make a defense of the southern way of life based on the old southern aristocrats because those aristocrats had very little to recommend 'em except a way of life based on slavery or very cheap labor. But when you contrast that to Jim Fisk . . ."
Aside from swallowing the cannonball, Foote insists his life wasn't pushed out of shape by the 20 years. He would have been writing all day anyway, he says, and reading in the evenings, and the many battlefield visits became family vacations, always at the appropriate time of year. He likes Shiloh, just 100 miles due east of Memphis, because it looks almost exactly the way it did on April 6 and 7, 1862. One of his most successful novels was "Shiloh," the story of some individual soldiers caught up in its whirlwind.
"My great-grandfather Hezekiah William Foote was at Shiloh," he says. "He was 55, a captain. The tail was shot off his horse and his sabre was bent by a bullet. After that he went home to Macon and spent the war in the home guard. He lived to be 90, a judge, bled to death alone in his chambers after a fall."
It is useful to visit a Civil War battlefield. It's part of learning the book. And Shiloh is like a miniature of the war itself. It begins with a spirited attack by the South upon an overconfident, unprepared North. It involves a dashing Confederate general (Forrest) who cried for a radical tactic, a night attack, and a bumbling Union general (Lew Wallace) who got lost and reached the battle late, and a brilliant southern leader (Albert S. Johnston) whose death in combat hurt his cause more than anyone dreamt. It has a Sunken Road and a Peach Orchard--as did other battles in this homespun rural war--and the Hornets' Nest, which is all its own. Then, just in time, the Union's limitless reserves appear, the initiative shifts, the Confederates flee. And the Union, exhausted, fails to make the one last push that would annihilate the enemy, leaving it intact to carry the struggle on and on and on.
Shiloh in February is a tangle of smoky gray woods carpeted with dead oak leaves and old butternut shells. Pines stand out on cleared fields in the rolling countryside. The Sunken Road is still almost a foot deep, with moss softening the lip. A modest old iron sign says, "Hornets Nest--center of Union line" and from it you stare into the incredible jumble of brush and vines and scrub oak that faced Prentiss' unblooded Iowans and Michiganders and Missourians and Wisconsinites who stood and fired and loaded and fired all through the morning and the weary afternoon, while half the South came at them and fell back, rushed up and fell back again, until the artillery was concentrated on them and they surrendered finally, having held up the whole attack just long enough.
A few yards away is the Peach Orchard, where petals fell like new snow on the bodies, and beyond that is the Bloody Pond, 40 yards across and hardly a foot deep, still preserved as it was that day, when horses and men of both sides limped there to drink, to feel cold water on their wounds. Side by side, on hands and knees. "Hey, Yank." "Hey, Johnny." By sundown the pond was dark pink.
You can see the 10-foot stump of the tree, metal-capped and propped up with an iron collar, by which Johnston was sitting his horse when he took a bullet in a leg artery, and the gentle ravine 100 yards away where Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris, a well-meaning volunteer aide, led him to die. A tourniquet would have saved him.
You can't see Shiloh without feeling all over again how personal that war was, how deeply . . . American.
It was the kind of war in which Lee at Fredericksburg, watching the Union shells land repeatedly on a small barnyard in the town between the lines, endangering the cow tethered there, could say, "I wish those people would let Mrs. Smith alone." It was the kind of war in which Phil Sheridan, who hated all southerners and who had been suspended from West Point for threatening a Virginian with a bayonet, met the man on the field of Perryville, shook hands and made up with him before the battle. The man was killed a few hours later.
At Gettysburg, the very tip of the Union left flank on Little Round Top was held by some Maine men. The good New England stone wall they built in the dark there still stands.
Foote was asked by phone if he ever came to the Washington area, or New York, to be interviewed. "I'm here," he said. "I'll be right here."
When a photographer appeared in his study, he turned instinctively to his desk, his chair, his spot. He and his wife, Gwyn, have lived for 18 years in the fine old brick-and-beam house, with quirky angles and doors and garden gates, half-hidden by trees and a high wall. There is a grown daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee, still in college.
"I can't write in an unfamiliar place," he says. "Not like D.H. Lawrence, who hopped all over the world. You know, Faulkner would have no radio or telephone or even a doorbell in his house. I'm lucky in my friends. They don't talk shop. When I was working on the history they supplied me with good conversation and whiskey; never a word about the war."
On the wall, mounted in front of a copy of Picasso's "Guernica," is a World War II Garand rifle. By the fireplace is a U.S. army helmet with captain's bars. "I was with Patton, fifth division regular army, a battery commander of field artillery. Got into a big squabble with a general, left the army completely, came back to New York and worked three months for Associated Press, then joined the Marines. Went through boot camp and everything. I was out in California fixing to go over to Japan when they dropped the bomb."
He says he has cleared the Civil War clutter from his room. There are still a few things, one of those old Union caps that looks like someone stepped on it, a manikin of Lee on the massive hewn-oak mantel, a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Certainly the history is objective, severely objective, sober, austere and magnificent in its objectivity. But every now and then a little something extra comes through.
Forrest is one of Foote's heroes. He tells the battle of Brice's Crossroads--unheard-of by most Americans, yet still studied in the war colleges--with special loving care. He likes to tell the stories that have collected around the colorful cavalry genius. At Shiloh, galloping from one campfire to another seeking in vain someone who could authorize his unprecedented plan for a night attack, he was all but frustrated out of his mind. One of his men said, "He was so mad he stunk."
"There were some I didn't like, too. Not the obvious villains like Secretary of War Stanton, whom I prized for his ability, but people like Sheridan and Joseph Johnston. Sheridan was a little man who went around acting like a big man. 'Smash 'em up, smash 'em up,' he was always saying. Johnston was always retreating."
He was going to do a novel about Vicksburg, but the history took care of that. He doesn't really like to talk about his work. He is charming to a visitor, offers coffee and relaxed talk, discusses the realism of Hemingway, who stripped away all but the essence of an experience, and that of Faulkner, who included all the things around it. His own novels, especially "Love in a Dry Season" and "Follow Me Down," and the later "September September," are inclusive, but spare. They suggest much.
The new book . . . well, he can't say when it will be done. After the handwritten draft will come a typescript, and later the manuscript will be copied by hand in a bound leather volume with the name embossed in gold, to find its place on the shelves with the others.
At this very moment, as you read, he is writing, the words in their unending rows progressing down the page, a river, slow and steady.