Sunday, September 23, 2007



Shelby Foote's trilogy of the American Civil War has been called America's Iliad and Odyssey, and in some ways it is an apt comparison.

The Trojan War certainly held a comparable place for ancient Greeks as America's Civil War holds for contemporary Americans. I've always wondered why this should be so.

I think there are several major reasons. First, the anvil of the Civil War is where America's rise to world power is hammered out. Lincoln, in the long-term view, is less the Patriarch who frees slaves than he is the successful Corporate Lawyer who forges the nation into a feared industrial and military power. The Civil War is revolutionary for America's status, just as the Great War marked the beginning of the decline for Great Britain.

Second, in a country that has never really quite experienced the horrors of war in the modern era (American deaths for example in World War Two were a little more than half of one-percent of the fifty million lives total, and losses in the First War were almost insignificant out of total losses), the Civil War stands as America's time of great sacrifice and bloodshed.

There is also the myth and color around the nature of the Old South, stuff about gentlemen, honor, and manliness. Southerners certainly accepted this dreamy view, at least the small number with money, while the other dirt-poor farmers were bound to them through dread of Blacks and the feared effects of slavery's end. Northerners, too, came to accept the colorful myths, and many still do. Southern culture of course was based on slavery, and it was a brutal culture in many aspects, but America has never really come to grips with slavery in its history, and the myths are appealing.

Mr. Foote collected some wonderful, colorful anecdotes about the daring deeds or marvelous escapes of leading characters in his long narrative. The telling of these tales does remind one of Homer's various intense scenes with leading characters preparing for or engaging in combat. These come like delightful arias in a long opera.

Certainly, Mr. Foote has captured the great panorama of the Civil War, at least in its military aspects. Some might think the three-thousand pages of narrative a bit excessive, but fans of the Civil War and those who like a good yarn that lasts and lasts will greatly enjoy the books.

Comparisons with Homer may be taken too far. Homer was a poet. Shelby Foote's prose are sturdy and workman-like.

Mr. Foote does not deal with all political, social, and economic dimensions of the Civil War, but then that isn't his job, just as it wasn't Homer's.

This raises a possible philosophical criticism of the work. To a certain extent, with the work's color and sweep and bold deeds, Mr. Foote could be charged somewhat with helping to perpetuate the myths of the Old South, but this is not a point I would want to insist on because those who want to fully understand the Civil War must read other books. This one does just what it sets out to do.