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  • T. W. Emory

Some historians...

Some historians become so immersed in the period which they’ve made their field of study that they come across in print and discourse as if they actually lived at the time and personally knew the people whom they chronicle. To such an historian, his subject lives—for himself and for his readers. And actually listening to such an impassioned historian talk about his subject can be an entrancing experience. Oddly enough, this ties in with one definition of the word “racy.”

The most commonly known meaning for the word racy is risqué and suggestive. However, racy also means having the distinctive quality of something in its original or most characteristic form. Thus, the writings of an historian highly engrossed in his subject can be racy in this latter sense. To my mind, Shelby Foote was this kind of historian. I enjoyed seeing him interviewed in Ken Burn’s documentary on the U.S. Civil War several years ago. To listen to Shelby Foote talk when being interviewed, you’d think he lived during the Civil War and personally knew many of the participants. In watching him and listening to him speak, it became plain that Foote’s passion for his subject had led him to practically eat, sleep, and breathe the era and events of the war between the states—and not simply by making use of the works of other historians. His was a repeated firsthand exposure to primary sources. In addition to visiting museums and the sites where battles were fought, it is evident that Shelby Foote personally read and re-read such things as official records and correspondence, diaries, memoirs, personal letters and the like. These not only gave his own presentations a certain color and veracity, but helped him to come across authoritative and “racy.”

Anyway, I think the above helps me understand one of the reasons I periodically enjoy reading autobiographies, memoirs, essays, and other firsthand accounts and primary sources like plays composed during a given period—e.g. Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of Roman plays (comedies) just before the 1st century A.D. Still, I don’t pretend for a minute to have entered into the spirit of those distant times in the way Shelby Foote seemed to have done regarding the Civil War era. However, I do believe such reading has at least helped me a little bit in moving in that direction when it comes to time periods for which I’ve had a particular curiosity and interest.

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