Archives for June 2005

Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote

Associated Press / 29 June 2005

Civil War historian Shelby Foote dies

By Woody Baird

Memphis, Tenn. – With his pointy gray beard, soft Southern accent and gentlemanly carriage, Shelby Foote seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph.

It was that style, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, that turned him into a national celebrity after he lent his observations on the conflict for Ken Burns’ 1990 “Civil War” series.

“We had planned to film 30 or 40 historians. Shelby Foote was in it 89 times or something like that. The next closest was seven or eight times,” Burns said.

Foote, who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War and six novels before the Burns documentary, was remembered Tuesday as a gifted storyteller. He died Monday night at 88.

“He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians. And he had a gift for character, for the apt quotation, for the dramatic event, for the story behind the story,” said James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. “He could also write a crackling good narrative of a campaign or a battle.”

Though a native Southerner, Foote did not favor the South in his history or novels and was not counted among those Southern historians who regard the Civil War as the great Lost Cause.

He publicly criticized segregationist politicians and abruptly abandoned a move to the Alabama coast in the 1960s because of the racist attitudes he found there.

“He was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, a friend and fellow Mississippi native.

Early in his career, Foote took up the habit of writing by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal than using a typewriter.

Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a “jackleg reporter” for the crusading editor Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, Foote got to know William Faulkner.

Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in World War II, though he never saw combat.

After the war, he went back to Greenville to write commercials for a radio station. “Then I sold my first story to the Saturday Evening Post. I quit my job and haven’t had another one since,” he said.

His first novel, “Tournament,” was started before the war and published in 1949. Then came “Follow Me Down” in 1950, “Love in a Dry Season” in 1951, “Shiloh” in 1952 and “Jordan County” in 1954.

That same year, Random House asked him to write a single-volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three-volume, 3,000-page project finally finished in 1974.

In 1999, the Modern Library ranked that work, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” as No. 15 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.

“Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that’s your goal,” Foote once said.

His final novel, “September, September,” published in 1978, tells the story of an ignorant white couple who kidnap the son of a rich black businessman in the 1950s. It became the basis for a TV move starring fellow Memphis resident Cybill Shepherd.

After Burns’ 11-hour PBS series, Foote would say that being a celebrity made him uneasy, and he worried it might detract from the seriousness of his work.

“This Civil War stuff is driving me crazy. I thought I had my discharge,” he told the AP in 1990. “People keep wanting me to come somewhere and speak and I enjoy it. But I disapprove of it.”

In addition to his wife, Gwyn, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. A graveside service is planned in Memphis on Thursday.

The Fifth Annual Thomas Aquinas College Catholic Writer’s Conference, Part 1

A couple of people have asked me how it went…so in case anyone else is curious, here’s a little bit about last Saturday’s gathering.

Saturday was a typically gorgeous June day in SoCal: sunny, just warm enough to notice the heat. My friend Darin, with whom I was staying in Santa Paula, drove me up to campus. We listened to an NPR report on George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead – an entirely silly piece of fluff, but it did make Darin wonder why we didn’t bring Romero to campus to talk about the Catholicity of zombie movies…

Movies (and television) have a hold on the conference, its name notwithstanding. Past conferences have featured screenwriters. Our keynote speaker this year was Steve McEveety, producer of, among other things, The Passion of the Christ. (He wasn’t taking scripts.) We had a panel on film from a Catholic perspective which included me, Jim Bemis, and Robert Brennan – Brennan writes for the Register, but his career has been in television. (After the film panel came the panel on getting your book published – I was on that one, too – and we must have lost half our audience in the break between sessions.)

The bulk of the conference was held in the library – a semicircle of chairs oriented sideways in the long entrance hall under the magnificent ceiling that was donated to the College back when I was a student. Attendance was good – over 80 this year, an interesting mix of young and old and even a few folks in the middle…

More to come.

Yesterday’s Obituaries

Shelby Foote, RIP. “The singing of the bone saws,” a frequent refrain in his Civil War trilogy, was poetry. What I most remember of the letters that passed between Percy and Foote was the shared longing to sit in one another’s presence – friendship needs a life lived in common, or at least, decently regular visits.

Thoughts on Turning Thirty-Two

(The birthday was yesterday. Ate sushi, saw Batman Begins. Good job, even if the action sequences dragged on. Nice to see the elements they brought in from Batman: Year One. The comic was still a good deal better, especially in its parallel stories of Gordon and Batman, and in its lack of a superbaddie full of talk about purging civilization. Liked Christian Bale. Thought Katie Holmes looked like she was wincing around the mouth every time she got emotional.)

This came to me in the shower: Thirty-two. Even though I feel like an old man – longtime married, house, kids, job, heart condition, etc. – there’s still eons of time (provided I get the standard 75 years) in which to fail.

How’s that for pessimism? And that’s after a lovely, lovely weekend spent with various friends and colleagues… The sky? Falling.

Get Thee to a Bloggery…

…called People of the Book – all about the nightmarish phantasmagoria that is Catholic Book Publishing. Go comment on the “Christian Chick Lit” thread, if you’ve a mind to. I don’t buy into the whole notion of baptizing the genre and making it fit for Christian readers, but I do wonder if there’s a market out there – young urban Catholic women interested in reading about women much like themselves… Plus, it seems like an area ripe for comedy. In this chapter, Patience goes to her local Catholic Singles Group. Hilarity ensues. (No, I’m not bagging on CSG’s per se…)

Richard Ford on The Moviegoer

Below is a link to a Boston radio interview with Richard Ford in which he cites The Moviegoer as “the book that changed my life.”

WBUR Boston: The Connection

Ford is the author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day (winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for fiction). He is eloquent and insightful in this lengthy interview, which includes radio listeners calling in.

Great stuff for Percy fans.


June 25 was the 24th anniversary of the purported apparitions of Our Lady in Medjugorje. For a fascinating report on Medjugorje, check out The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan. Sullivan is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who approached Medjugorje as a skeptic but was swayed by his firsthand experience and interviews with the seers who continue to receive visits from Mary.

Mary delivers a message to one of the seers each month on the 25th. Here is the English translation of today’s message:

Dear children! Today I thank you for every sacrifice that you have offered for my intentions. I call you, little children, to be my apostles of peace and love in your families and in the world. Pray that the Holy Spirit may enlighten and lead you on the way of holiness. I am with you and bless you all with my motherly blessing. Thank you for having responded to my call.

An archive of messages and further information is available at

An interview with Randall Sullivan is available on Godspy.

Your Own, Personal, Jesus

Your own, personal, Jesus
someone to hear your prayers,
someone who’s there

Feeling unknown
and you’re all alone,
flesh and bone,
by the telephone,
lift up the receiver,
i’ll make you a believer

Take second best,
put me to the test,
things on your chest,
you need to confess,
i will deliver,
you know i’m a forgiver

[Depeche Mode]

Lost and/or Found?

So tonight at Book Soup in LA, Jennifer Saginor will present and sign her memoir, Playground, the story of her childhood spent at the Playboy Mansion. (She was the daughter of a doctor who had his own quarters there.) But here’s the interesting part: Book Soup’s website gives the full title as Playground: A Childhood Lost and Found Inside the Playboy Mansion. Over at Amazon, the full title reads: Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion.

Why the change? And once you’ve lost a childhood inside the Playboy Mansion, how on earth are you supposed to find it again?

That’s it for me for the week. I’m off to my alma mater, there to make a perfect fool of myself at the fifth annual Thomas Aquinas College Writer’s Conference! Toodles!

Hope is a Virtue

There are times, reading about the infinite perfections of God, about the beatitude and endless wonder of His visage, that the hope falters. Can this possibly be true? Isn’t it just the fondest wish of the human heart? Anselm’s That-Than-Which-Nothing-Greater-Can-Be-Thought?

The King of the Lake

A loose corner of corrugated tin roofing squeaked and crinkled in the breeze. From his supine position on the front porch of the Rattlesnake Lake Resort, Merle opened one eye and spotted the source of the noise. He’d asked Johnny to nail down that corner back in April. Now, in late July and the resort going to weeds and dust, Merle was resigned to the general falling apart of the place and the fecklessness of his brother.

It was a hot day, and approaching noon, but the porch was in the shade of a grove of quaking aspens and the breeze off the lake felt cool as it washed over Merle’s face. He propped himself up on one elbow and looked up at the translucent, paper-like pouch of the nest a hummingbird had constructed directly on top of an opaque orange bulb, part of a string of Christmas lights left up from the previous winter – another job Johnny had neglected back in the spring. Merle watched the mother hummingbird flit from the nest and out of view around the corner of the office and back again a short while later.

It was a customarily slow day at the lake. No, it was even slower than was customary, even for a Wednesday. Johnny was off at a bass fishing tournament in Idaho, and Lesley, Johnny’s girlfriend, was visiting her mother in Seattle. Normally Arnold would have been by to chew the fat but even he was absent, laid up with food poisoning so bad they had to put him in the hospital in Spokane and hook him up to an I.V. One or two boats were on the lake – just locals though. No one had come by the office for a rental or to buy some maggots or just to shoot the breeze. Merle lay his head back down on the pillow and closed his eyes again. He thought about the other day when Arnold had offered to construct a bench for him so he wouldn’t have to lie around on the floor all the time.

“Merle,” Arnold had said, “I had a brainstorm last night and I drew up plans for a bench I’m going to build you so you don’t have to be looking at people’s shins anymore.”

“No, no. I appreciate the thought Arn, but I’m a floor guy. I’ve tried tables and benches and cots, but I like it down here just fine.”

Arnold was visibly disappointed, but he’d let it go with an “awright, if that’s the way you like it” and a shrug. In days past, Merle used to water-ski behind Arnold’s boat, and he was one of the hottest dudes on the lake, skimming the surface and cutting wide arcs like an Olympic ice skater. But now his MS had progressed to the point where he could barely walk and he spent most of his time on the floor of the resort, greeting customers and making change from knee level.

Maybe I should let the old fart build me the damn bench, Merle thought. Maybe I could get him to do it like a waterbed bench, then it’d be just like I was out floating on the lake all day long. Merle pictured himself floating out on the surface of the lake. How refreshing on a hot day. Then he pictured himself diving down, his useless legs no longer hindering him, deep down to the coolest depths and where he would become the King of the Lake.

A loud clunk and a succession of lesser clunks interrupted Merle’s reveries. He opened his eyes, rolled over on his side and stretched his neck to see past the column of the porch to the lake some forty yards away. A swallow whistled and swept under the awning of the porch above him. Down at the dock, a young woman in a straw cowboy hat had just crashed her canoe into the line-up of aluminum rentals rowboats.

“Fuckin’ A,” she said loud enough for Merle to hear.

Merle had never seen the girl before. Where the hell did she come from? Wait, that’s Arn’s old canoe – faded green fiberglass thing he’s had leaning against the back of his trailer for twenty years. The wheels turned in Merle’s head and he recalled Arnold mentioning that his wife Gladys’s sister was going to be visiting from Dallas. So this pretty young thing, Merle surmised – forming a lakeside syllogism out of the canoe, the cowboy hat and the foul mouth – must be the daughter of Gladys’s sister, e.g. Arnold’s niece. (Some weeks later, Merle would misuse this same abbreviation, “e.g.” and be corrected by this same cowboy-hatted college girl: “I think you mean ‘i.e.’ Merle honey.”)

The girl struggled clumsily with her paddle, maneuvering the canoe backwards away from the rental boats and sidling up to the dock. She paused a moment as if to regain her sense of Texas dignity before reaching out to grab hold of the dock. The canoe tipped perilously, but she recovered her balance, adjusted her cowboy hat, and stepped awkwardly but gracefully (like a cat pretending not to notice a moment of spastic unsteadiness) onto the dock. She was pretty. There was no doubt about that. But there was also something rough around the edges about her. Or was it wet behind the ears? Merle couldn’t quite put his finger on the exact quality of innocence he sensed in her, but whatever it was it had a calming effect on him. He felt at ease and in control as she approached. He felt like his place on the floor was no disadvantage with this girl and might even afford him a peculiar advantage. This was a sensation new to the floor-bound Merle, who had once been quite a ladies’ man but had despaired of finding a woman since he lost the use of his lower extremities.

The girl was barefoot and barelegged, tanned dark brown, wore gray athletic shorts that didn’t quite do justice to her nice round derrière, and a yellow tank top that accentuated her sinewy upper half, had glossy black hair that glinted in the breezy sunlight, was only slightly over five feet tall even counting the cowboy hat, and had to pee.

“Excuse me, sir, but do y’all have a bathroom I could use?”

Nice shins, Merle thought. He’d become a secret connoisseur of shins.

The Moral Universe

I’ve got to go yammer on about movies in a few days, movies 1960 to present. I’m thinking about discussing the notion that interesting modern movies often involve the discovery of the moral universe, where the olde-timey ones simply existed within that universe. Thoughts from all you smart folks out there?

Bookmark, Etc.

“But today, with Carus, she’d seen something else. He was nearly as tall and as elegant as Ovid, and she knew the two had roamed the streets together, been gallants at the same parties, rivaled each other in poetry, exchanged sharp criticisms. She had watched Carus striding back and forth across the floor, in and out of the shadows. His sculpted face, his arrogant hands. She’d watched him shrug off something Ovid said, saw him laugh dryly, run a hand through his hair. Yet – though he posed and threw back his head in laughter; though his ambition burned ulcerous right through his cool surface; though, when Ovid looked away, Carus fixed him with a look of hungering envy – all the time, as he recited, dust was falling silently upon him. Soft gray dust, sifting from the sky. It settled upon his cropped dark hair, upon his lashes and the bone of his nose, upon his confident, purple-mantled shoulders. It settled upon his leather boots and clung to his arms and his long, shapely hands; it buried his knees and his thighs, and fixed him there, rising slowly up to his chest. As she stood in the garden, she saw him disappear. Not a word Carus wrote would be remembered.”
– from Jane Alison’s The Love Artist

Here’s the not-quite a propos thing, since Ovid’s tragedy is lost and his comedy has survived. Tragedy, to me, is more memorable. But comedy is more valuable. Does it become more dated more quickly; is it more tied up with the ever-changing times? I would say so. But if it is more fleeting, that just makes it more precious.

An Early Summer Morning’s Resolution

You thought you were reading a blog. Little did you know you were joining a support group.

Seriously, I’m laying this out in an attempt to increase accountability, even if it’s only to myself for having made it public. I have let too much slide, neglected too many things, failed in diligence toward too many things, wasted too much time (and I believe in wasting time). I’ve got too much to do to continue like this.

So. Resolved. Every morning, prayers from Magnificat, readings from Divine Intimacy. (Yes, my prayer life is among those things that have slid.) Then, on regular workdays, if the spirit moves me, blog. Every day, add one site link and one blog link. Every day, at least an hour on the new project. And every evening, time spent on backed up side stuff – correspondence, reading, other writing…

Let’s see how it goes.

Fatherhood as Salvific

Fatherhood is a ‘saving’ reality to the degree that a man fulfills his role as ‘savior’ of the mutable world of daily life, the one who redeems the humdrum and exalts the lowly. Because he is not related to his children with emotional or physiological ties of the same intensity as a mother’s, the father is in an extremely ambivalent position: either he can shirk his responsibilities as ruler and teacher of his children, or he can all the better live up to them precisely due to his distance from the hearth. His position is one of danger and promise. One might say that the very qualities which render a man fit to be a good ruler and teacher – his natural distance from much of what constitutes the bearing and rearing of children, his ability to look upon his own offspring as basically ‘other’ than himself (more present to him through their mother) – these and other male conditions open up the possibility of failure, even of treachery. “For reasons which I do not think have been fully elucidated, fatherhood nearly always presents the character of a more or less hazardous conquest, which is achieved step by step over difficult country full of ambushes” (Gabriel Marcel, “The Creative Vow as Essence of Fatherhood,” Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1951, p. 110). Fatherhood thus presents, in a twofold way, the paradox spoken by Christ: “He who would gain his life must lose it for my sake.” To bring life, that is, purposefulness and inner joy, to his family, a man must learn to lose himself. This is another way of saying that responsibility and suffering are inseparable in the living out of any love that deserves the name. “It behooves the man to place himself at life’s disposal and not to dispose of life for his own purposes” (Ibid. p. 114).

In losing himself for the sake of his wife and children, he wins back, over time and not without steady struggle, a self purified of egotism and false liberty. In this way, the Divine principle of creation, God’s love, is engrafted onto the family, or even better, becomes its lifeblood.

Peter A. Kwasnieswski
Fatherhood and the Being of the Home

Sopranos Season Five

Episode six saw the return of Father Phil, just in time to tell Carmella that her affair was sinful. He’s like Bridey in Brideshead Revisited – doctrine without heart. But Father Phil doesn’t even get the doctrine right, not all the way. “This man fulfills certain desires…” he begins. “But didn’t God give me the desire?” answers Carmella. If that doesn’t take you into the mystery of suffering, and that only after an affirmation of humanity’s bottomless need to love and be loved, then I think you’ve missed the boat, pastorally and otherwise.

So this is me, standing by the water cooler, what, about two years after everyone else has had this conversation?


I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard tell from them as knows that I’m supposed to be in this week’s National Catholic Register. If that piece brought you here, welcome! For EWTN, it was the shoes; for the Reigster, it’s the hat – an old favorite. Vanity of vanities..

Finished it.

The treehouse. Anchored one end of an old door to the tree, suspended the other from metal cables attached to a screw eye. Mounted four old metal table legs at the corners for posts and ran chicken wire for a guard rail. Staped the base of the rail to the platform. Primed and painted to hold off the rain – First and Second Sons helped there. Cut and mounted climbing blocks up the trunk, leading up to a gap between two branches – a natural protection against accidentally falling out of the entranceway. This is big for me precisely because it’s the sort of thing I’m not good at – “Dad, do you think maybe you could take lessons to be just a little better at being a carpenter?” – and it’s something First Son has been asking for for years. Happy Father’s Day.