Several of us at the Flyer had the privilege of knowing Shelby Foote, the world-class historian and novelist whose death, at age 88, Monday instantly deprived the Western world of one of its foremost living heritages. Foote's volumes on the American Civil War virtually define that epochal struggle. Suggesting Faulkner, or Foote's boyhood friend Walker Percy as much as Thucydides, these three mammoth, painstakingly researched volumes combine in their 3,000-odd pages the weight of authenticity with the ease of a good summer beach-read. Or several such reads, we should probably say. The books could easily come to dominate even an extended vacation. Pick them up, they are hard to put down. Open them, and they are almost impossible to close.
What gave Foote's work its readability was his genius at narrative. Unlike most historians, he first made his reputation as a novelist, with such works as Tournament and Follow Me Down. His 1952 novel, Shiloh, was a foreshadowing of the major historical work to come. He began what was to become his Civil War trilogy in the mid-1950s, writing each page by hand. He completed it almost exactly two decades later.
Foote's persona would prove to be as accessible as his written work. After documentarian Ken Burns involved Foote as an on-screen commentator for his prize-winning PBS series on the Civil War, the shy Memphian became an all-purpose celebrity an icon, rather. Johnny Carson, among other national taste-makers, publicly expressed his admiration.
On those occasions when Foote met his public, he would offer enriching insights, even on subjects beyond his work. During a mid-1970s appearance at the University of Memphis, he offered as a key to the understanding of significant historical personages the insight that almost all of them got where they did by defying some definable bully. On the same occasion, Foote commented on his World War II service in the Army. "It deepened my voice," Foote said. And his was a voice that went deep indeed.
The Court's Commands
At last, the Supreme Court has spoken. And spoken. Surely we are not the only ones to be doing a double take in the wake of the court's two consecutive decisions this week.
On Monday, the justices, by a 5-4 vote, seemed to offer a conditional approval for displays of the biblical Ten Commandments in public places so long as such displays had secular and historical, not religious, reference. Specifically permitted was a monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol depicting the Commandments among other exhibits related to the evolution of law-giving.
Then on Tuesday the court let stand without comment several other rulings that had been appealed from lower courts, the thrust of which was to keep overtly religious displays out of schools and courtrooms. Not just the Commandments but prayers invoking the name of Jesus were proscribed on official grounds and at official functions.
In general, we approve of the Court's attempts to thread this bothersome legal needle, though we would suggest an addition to the Commandments, meant specifically for the high court's nine justices themselves: Thou shalt not issue contradictory rulings that require additional litigation and further rulings in order to resolve the discrepancy. And, since that's on our say-so, not the Almighty's, we suggest that such a statement is eligible to be enshrined everywhere. �