Monday, August 9, 2010

A Few Too Many Details in Civil War Narrative

Shelby Foote’s sprawling 3-volume, 2500-page narrative of the Civil War seems to be the standard history. I have never seen it criticized (though I’m sure it has been), and WORLD editor Marvin Olasky bribed each of his sons to read it with valuable baseball cards.

I did not enjoy Vol. 1 (Fort Sumter to Perryville) near as much as I thought I would. As a result, it took me far longer to read it than I thought it would.

I’ve tried to analyze why. Foote’s writing style is pleasing. He is a novelist writing history in narrative fashion, which is better than typical text-book style. I love his long sentences, some of them containing more commas, semicolons, and dashes than any of my grammar teachers would ever allow. I enjoy his highlighting irony along the way; more than once a general or other officer utters a bold word only to be shot and killed the very next minute. The background bio on some of the combatants is also helpful.

So what was it that made the reading tedious at times? I think … let me put it this way. What does a 2500-page history of the Civil War have that an 800-page account doesn’t have? Details. Lots of details. I think it was the details that bogged me down, and particularly the details of battle. I enjoy the political details, the sweat and strategy of President Lincoln and of President Davis, for instance, but the pace of the battle narratives was too slow for my enjoyment.

When I was only 300 pages from the end, two factors did, however, increase my enjoyment of the last third of the book. One was a visit to Manassas a few weeks ago, and so the narrative of the Second Battle of Manassas (a.k.a. the Second Battle of Bull Run), came alive. The second factor was using a Civil War atlas from the library to see on a map the lines of battle as Foote described them.

Natural question: Do I plan to read Vol. 2? Answer: Not any time soon, if at all. I have a hankering at the moment to read Civil War biography, possibly even re-read some bios I’ve already read.

First line: "It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate."

Last line (a quotation from Lincoln’s address to Congress in December 1862): "The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."

My rating (out of 5): 3 ½

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