Shelby Foote.

Bringing out the dead.
July 1 2005 4:01 PM

Shelby Foote

The Homer of the Old South?

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This scene has tremendous pathos, and the postcript is the kind of quietly devastating flourish one might come across in Chekhov. Foote's epic history is filled with thousands of such small moments. They make the Southern obituarists' claim that Foote's opus is the Iliad of our nation seem not quite as outlandish.

Early last summer, I went to see Foote at his home in Memphis, Tenn. Although he said he felt "intimations of Alzheimer's" he was remarkably sharp. He said he'd finished with writing books. "I've done that," he told me. "I'm just fiddling around now. I'm 87 years old, for God's sake. I never expected to live past 65. I'm living what Keats called a 'posthumous existence.' " Foote had not lost his keen sense of historical perspective. The Abu Ghraib scandal had recently broke, and he was surprised that Bush had stood by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the failures of postwar planning in Iraq. "Lincoln went through six leaders of the Army before he got to Grant, whom he trusted enough to leave alone. All the others always had to look back over their shoulders. And Lincoln had to. They had wrong strategies and wrong notions of war."

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Foote mentioned that he had been reading Tacitus over and over. "Tacitus writes about high-placed scoundrels. He's so damned good. He said that he wrote so that people would be ashamed of bad things and proud of good things." Foote borrowed a quote from Tacitus in his final volume of The Civil War. That afternoon in Memphis, he was reminded of it: "A German, watching the Roman legions passing through the area beyond the Rhine, tearing it all up, says, 'They make a wilderness and call it peace.' I think we're doing some of that ourselves now."    

Field Maloney, who comes from a hard-cider-making family, is writing a book about wine in America. He likes to drink beer.

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