What I must do is all that concerns me

#Trust 30 Prompt: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1954, Bennett Cerf asked southern novelist Shelby Foote to undertake a short history of the Civil War in anticipation of its centennial. Foote passionately set himself to the task, which became a three-volume “long” history, which Foote did not complete until 1973. In the trilogy, Foote chose to focus on the battles and stories of the soldiers. At the time, this unorthodox approach offended the sensibilities of the so-called experts, who wanted a more comprehensive picture of the war that included political, economic, and social realities. If Foote persisted with his novelization, they wagged, his approach will at best cause misunderstanding and at worst (for him) result in a grand failure.

Foote persevered and the result is his magisterial The Civil War: A Narrative. Foote (1916-2005) was a master storyteller, and these books have served as a portal for many to discover the richness of an American tragedy and enter it through the stories of real people. Upon tasting Foote’s passionate prose many a Civil War buff has gone on to mine the great treasure of literature about the conflict, of which Foote’s arguably remains the greatest.

Foote may not have preserved all of the accurate historical detail of the war. Historians recover new information all the time that alter Foote’s perception of the war, and revision is beyond the reach of the author now. But what concerned Foote was the burning desire to tell the story. The story was what absorbed him; it was his job, his calling, to tell it. How courageous he was to endure the withering criticism because he knew his duty, and did not allow those who thought they knew his duty better than he did to deter him.

[I was inspired by an article by Jon Meacham that appeared in the April/May 2011 issue of Garden & Gun, pages 35-38.]