There’s something to be said for attempting to read Foote’s Civil War at the same time as Proust. I don’t know that I would have otherwise noticed quirks of structure in Foote’s work that, rather than seeming “Faulknerian” or “Classical,” are somehow, in a way I’m not yet ready to explain how, “Proustian.” (Pause for a moment and examine just what this reading has done to my sentence structure. And that’s when I’m trying to use normal syntax.) Reviews, including those slapped on the back of my edition, compare Foote to either Thucydides or the Iliad; Walker Percy, in their correspondence, insisted upon the latter — I think it was the National Review that latched onto the former. Yet it was Foote who spent roughly forty years admonishing Percy, “Read Proust!” The Classics rarely show up in their correspondence; Faulkner, while an idol of sorts, is not the same object of worship as Proust. Foote was a man who claimed to have read Recherche some six or seven times during his life — who rewarded himself upon finishing the manuscript of the final volume of his Narrative by opening that work for the first time in a decade. It was, he insisted, the greatest achievement in all of literature.
I bring this up as a way of trying to get at the value of Foote’s work. This value — and I think most will agree — lies not in its quality as a work of history, at least in the modern or contemporary senses. There are no notes; just a partial bibliography. His telling of Gettysburg is masterful — but over the course of these 200 or so pages, barely two are given to the Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, or the fight at the far left of Little Round Top, while the long slow summer morning-turned-afternoon building up to and culminating in Pickett’s charge unfolds with all the languid spaciousness of, well, one of Proust’s luncheon conversations. One doesn’t read it for the details, though they are sometimes there, or for the “how,” though this, too, is sometimes there, or even for the “why,” which Foote doesn’t presume to answer (at least not yet, at least not fully). It is frequently recommended because it is “beautiful” or “masteful” in its storytelling or structure — you know, the “novelist’s touch” or something like that. Foote himself was frustrated by this. It simply isn’t enough to indicate that a work has true value.
This is, in part, a result of the obvious goal of the work: to create a “narrative” out of the Civil War; to find, a century after the fact, a pattern to the war — both in its larger, political scope, and on a smaller, intra-battle, inter-personal scope. Such a project and imposition of order is an inherently literary, as opposed to historical, project. The problem — of which Foote himself was well aware — is how his work can claim to be both a work of history and a work of literature. Those who reached for the Classics did so as an attempt to answer this problem, and were correct in at least one regard: Foote’s Narrative is not history, but historia — a kind of inquiry.
And, as I approach (finally!) the concluding pages of Proust, I have realized: the reason the Foote’s characters and their descriptions began to feel, over time, less Homeric and more Proustian is because his historia is not that of Herodotus or Thucydides, but of Proust. It must be modified, of course, for the fact that it cannot be philosophy-in-life — but Foote’s narrator, while not a character, has a personality. He begins with a sort of childish excitement and marvels in feats of victory-against-the-odds, but the attitude transforms as the war progresses. By the time Lee orders Pickett’s men on their march, the attitude is thinly-veiled disgust. And this narrating personality is narrating not for the sake of telling a story, or because Foote was under contract to tell the story, but in an attempt to understand the essence of the story.
(A few notes/caveats: I’ve finished neither work; I may finish one or the other and conclude that this is all horribly wrong. Second, God help whoever wants to make this argument in a more rigorous form — so many pages of text, so many words to deal with! Finally, I may or may not read the comments to this post — I’m very close to the end of Proust, and while Rufus has been very good about not telling me what comes next, if I’ve made it this far, I’m not sure I want to risk it…)