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A Writer Who Spent His Life Listening

Texas’ greatest storyteller, Horton Foote, died March 4. He was a literary genius unmatched in Texas (and there have been many contenders: Katherine Ann Porter, Larry McMurtry, Elmer Kelton and William Sidney Porter, also known as O. Henry). The footlights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor.

 

Twentieth-century history is incomplete without his plays and films of small-town Texas. Many writers have tried to depict ordinary people and their ordinary lives. Only Foote could touch the heart with stories about hardships and change—especially the change death brings. He rendered tremendously resilient characters facing life’s realities.

 

Actor Robert Duvall, who made his screen debut in Horton Foote’s screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said that “Horton was the great American voice. His work was native to his own region, but it was also universal.”

 

Frank Rich, political columnist for The New York Times and former theater critic, once called Foote “one of America’s living literary wonders. A major American dramatist whose epic body of work recalls Chekhov in its quotidian comedy and heartbreak, and Faulkner in its ability to make his own corner of America stand for the whole.”

 

Wilborn Hampton’s obituary for Foote in The New York Times shared the following with us: “In a body of work for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and two Oscars, Mr. Foote was known as a writer’s writer, an author who never abandoned his vision or altered his simple, homespun style even when Broadway and Hollywood temporarily turned their backs on him.”

 

Mr. Foote, in a 1986 interview in The New York Times Magazine, said: “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on. What makes the difference in people? What is it? I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and don’t ask quarters.”

 

Another source wrote: “He often seemed to resemble a character from one of his own plays. Always courteous and courtly, he spoke with a slow Texas drawl. He enjoyed good food and wine but would usually opt for barbecue and iced tea or fried chicken with a Dr Pepper when he was home in Texas. He was a jovial man with a wry humor, and his white hair and robust frame gave him the appearance of a Southern senator or one’s favorite uncle, the one who always had a story.”

 

He kept his home in Wharton, Texas, outside Houston, even after he could have villas and mansions anywhere. He was born there where his father was a haberdasher and his mother a piano teacher. He would have been 93 on Saturday, March 14.

 

When Horton Foote left home as a teenager, he never really left. Wilborn Hampton says it better than I could: “Although he boarded a train for Dallas at the age of 16 to pursue a career as an actor, Mr. Foote never really left home. From his first efforts as a playwright, he returned again and again to set his plays and films amid the pecan groves and Victorian houses with large front porches on the tree-lined streets of Wharton. His inspiration came from the people he knew and the stories he heard growing up there.”

 

And as Foote once told David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor: “One thing I was given in life is a deep desire to listen. I’ve spent my life listening.”

 

Britt Towery lives in San Angelo, Texas, and blogs at www.britt-towery.blogspot.com.