Thursday, March 10, 2011

Slow Foote

A bloggist of my acquaintance posted recently on Shelby Foote, the great historian and writer, whose earthly belongings went for sale recently. In that post, he linked to a wonderful CNN interview with the author. On that jump, I found a wonderful trove of interviews with other writers and personalities -- I recommend a visit.

After listening to Foote, I went through Cronkite and then Dean Brown on Ernie Pyle, and Plimpton on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Plimpton's interview was sad -- the kid doing the questioning had all the rhythm of an average attorney doing a dry deposition. I want to like George because of his unabashed elitism, not in spite of it. But in this interview he come off sounding far too impressed with George. Snuggling up to Papa seems to fall for him into the same category as hanging around the Lions or getting in the ring with the champ, when it's really just hero worship.

Not all interviewees were as compelling as Foote, but then not all tackled anything so delicate as an attempt to explain the benefits of Jim Crow to both blacks and whites, while simultaneously conceding that it was all horribly, horribly wrong -- but only in retrospect. I don't know him from the Burns series but read about 2/3 of his Civil War trilogy and one or two others. It seems you would be hard-pressed to find a black person who would say there were good aspects of the race-divided South, as the inverse of Foote's apologia is, "Well, they thought we were animals but that meant they were nice to us most of the time. So it wasn't all bad."

But as Foote would say, in fiction there is truth, but not always fact. He is appropriately complex, and the world misses him -- and many men of that era. We have great need for slow circumspection, even for its own sake and whatever its conclusions. Even if they are wrong, at least we arrive there with plenty of warning and with time to prepare.

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