When Southern novelist Shelby Foote set out to write a Civil War history for the conflict’s centennial, the plan had been to release a single, brief volume. Thirty years and 3,000 pages later, Foote finally finished his masterpiece, “The Civil War: A Narrative.”
For the war’s sesquicentennial, the classic three-volume history is being re-released Tuesday in a special box set featuring “American Homer,” a collection of new essays edited by Jon Meacham.
Meacham, who serves as executive editor and executive vice president at Random House, is a former editor of Newsweek and an impressive writer in his own right — his biography of Andrew Jackson, “American Lion,” won the Pulitzer Prize and several of his other books have been bestsellers.
Republishing Foote’s epic to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War was, as Meacham said, a “no-brainer.”
“Anybody who wants to understand the Civil War needs to read Shelby Foote,” Meacham said. “It seemed a terrific opportunity to put another edition of Foote out there. The reason for the ‘Homer’ volume was to try to get some perspectives on this man who really for a significant population of Americans has defined the war.”
Foote shot to fame in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. With his distinctive drawl, Foote became the voice of the war for many Americans. Sales of “The Civil War: A Narrative” exploded after his appearance in the PBS series.
In addition to an introduction written by Meacham, “American Homer” includes essays from scholars such as Annette Gordon-Reed and John M. McCardell Jr., as well as a collection of Foote’s letters.
Meacham read Foote’s first volume, “Fort Sumter to Perryville,” during high school and finished the series after watching Burns’ documentary. Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., near the battlefield of Missionary Ridge, Meacham said, gave him a sense that “the war was always quite real and tactile.”
“Foote’s the [Edward] Gibbon of the war, the Homer of the war,” he said. “I remember it being a wonderfully immersive narrative experience. ... As a writer and editor, I’ve always admired his capacity to re-create the smell and the feel and the fear of the human dimension of the war.”
Foote once wrote “every generation has to do its version of the war.” With the sesquicentennial under way, Meacham said the popular view of the war depends on the political battles of the present.
“Insofar as there are arguments about big government or federal control, that will always evoke the experience of the war,” he said. “I think while that is the practical reality of what happens, it’s too important for that. There’s a lot of polling out now about how people think slavery wasn’t really the cause, which is madness. It was a war about slavery and expiating the original sin of founding — slavery.”
The Civil War, it’s often said, is something the country never seems to stop fighting. For Meacham, this generation’s version of the war must avoid adapting the conflict to fit the current political climate.
“Nothing is achieved by trying to re-litigate or rewrite that history,” he said. “The thing to be careful of is whenever people seem to be deploying history in the service of a present cause, it’s always important to fact check them in the use of that history. I think that we’ll see more of that in the coming years.”
Reading the collection, Meacham said, gives those working on Capitol Hill an interesting take on the war and its meaning 150 years later. After all, the book starts in a very familiar setting — the Senate — during Jefferson Davis’ resignation.
“I think that for legislators and students of American politics, what you come away with in Foote’s portraits of the known and unknown figures of the war is the fundamental humanity and improbability of everything,” he said. “You can never predict what’s going to happen because you’re dealing with people. ... If I were a lawmaker reading it, I would come away with a great sense of humility in what we do.”
And, he noted, reading “The Civil War” offers readers — and especially lawmakers — an opportunity to reflect on the conflict Foote said “was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”
“I think the trilogy, which is not undertaken lightly, it repays the attention,” Meacham said. “An epic subject requires an epic treatment.”