Shelby Foote on Tacitus, Thucydides, Lincoln and the historian’s art


Shelby Foote is in my opinion the finest historian since Thucydides. Foote’s history of the American Civil War is unmatched in narrative coherence, grandeur, sweep and style.

“I believe the artists are out front and have a great deal to teach  historians about good writing and dramatic composition, which I consider the best history to be.”

“I think history has a plot, you don’t make it up, you discover it”.

“Some men’s deaths explain their life.”

Asked which side he would have fought for, he replied:

“I would have fought with my people, because they are my people”

It is Foote’s view that the American Civil War made the America we know, and not the Revolution. He read over 350 books on the American Civil War in order to write his narrative, and declined to go to original manuscripts and other sources. He said he enjoyed most of them. He wrote with a ‘dip pen’, such as you would see in the 19th century, dipping into an ink well after three or four words, and then he would type it out on a clean sheet of paper. He never needed to edit his writing.

I suggest that you start at minute 27 of this interview. There is much wisdom and great-souled learning in Shelby Foote. You are welcome to see all the interview, however Foote gets to the core of his artistic and historical views after this point.

It is a pleasure to listen to his gentle southern English, too. The interview was conducted in 1994.


Foote says of his art:

I am what is called a narrative historian. Narrative history is getting more popular all the time but it’s not a question of twisting the facts into a narrative. It’s not a question of anything like that. What it is, is discovering the plot that’s there just as the painter discovered the colors in shadows or Renoir discovered these children. I maintain that anything you can possibly learn about putting words together in a narrative form by writing novels is especially valuable to you when you write history. There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: If you have a character named Lincoln in a novel that’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want to. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray. So you’re working with facts that came out of documents, just like in a novel you are working with facts that came out of your head or most likely out of your memory. Once you have control of those facts, once you possess them, you can handle them exactly as a novelist handles his facts. No good novelist would be false to his facts, and certainly no historian is allowed to be false to his facts under any circumstances. I’ve never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn’t superior to distortion in every way. ”
— Shelby Foote seminar excerpt, New York State Writers Institute, March 20, 1997