'Blessed Assurance' succeeds as a soaring new biography of playwright Horton Foote

Horton Foote's life and work were so closely intertwined, this biography demonstrates, that it's hard to know where Horton Foote, the man, ends and where Horton Foote, the writer, begins.

Blessed Assurance: The Life and Art of Horton Foote, by Marion Castleberry, Mercer University Press, 600 pp.

The characters in the work of playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote might appear as troubled as the rest of us. In his widely acclaimed play, "The Trip to Bountiful," Carrie Watts is a senescent widow with a yen to lay eyes on the town which nurtured her as a child, while in his most famous film, "Tender Mercies," Mac Sledge is a country-western singer whose gifts have been brought low by alcoholism and domestic strife.

Yet Foote’s characters seldom wallow in their pain. In Blessed Assurance, his soaring new biography of the writer, Marion Castleberry argues that the “strongest and most courageous” of his characters – including Carrie Watts and Mac Sledge – “recognize their need for intimacy, forgiveness, and final sacrifice to life’s divine mystery.” In other words, they approach life with grit and spirit, which is among the reasons why we never pity a Foote protagonist. A professor at Baylor University, Castleberry goes on to identify Foote’s “commitment to such Christian verities as compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance, and love for one’s neighbor” as the quality that renders him distinct from fellow 20th-century dramatists, a case he makes powerfully in his sensitive, comprehensive interpretations of Foote’s writings.

In chapters vividly recreating the writer’s youth in Wharton, Tex.– and the background of his family – Castleberry shows that Foote had plenty of role models to choose from in the courage department. For example, in deciding to marry his father, Albert, his mother, Hallie, contravened the views of her parents; her father suspended any interaction with her for a full year after the nuptials. “Hallie’s willingness to defy her parents in order to achieve individuation and realize her dream of love and companionship became one of the central themes in Foote’s dramatic canon,” Castleberry writes. This legacy, Foote recalled in 1980, left him with an appreciation for those who “face life and ... don’t ask for quarters.”

This credo is fully in evidence in Foote’s "The Orphans’ Home Cycle," which re-imagines incidents from his relatives’ lives (including the elopement of his parents) in nine brilliant, autobiographically allusive plays. To read them – or to see the five that became films – is to know that Foote was telling the truth when he claimed, in an interview with Castleberry, “Over half my plays are based on stories that my father told me.” As a 12-year-old, Horace Robedaux (i.e., Foote’s father) withstands a series of blows that would make most grown men wither: death robs him of his father, and his mother marries a man who takes in his sister but not him, and the boy is forced to become the author of his own fate.

In "Lily Dale," Horace’s stepfather castigates him for accepting a few dollars from his mother during one of their infrequent visits: “You’re a grown man. Aren’t you ashamed to take money from your mama?” In his own resolute way, though, Horace takes the put-down to heart. By the time of "Courtship"  – the dazzling elopement play – Horace has established himself up as a salesman, and fancies marrying Elizabeth Vaughn (i.e., Foote’s mother) as a means of completing the jigsaw puzzle of his self-invented life. But Foote’s greatest admiration, Castleberry implies, is not for Horace but for Elizabeth, who, out of love alone, decides to join her husband “in his quest to create his own family and home.” They succeed, though not without struggle: in "1918," the twin fears of World War I and an influenza epidemic slow the Robedauxs in their tracks, and the latter claims the life of their first-born daughter. Foote permits Elizabeth the most complicated and equivocal of emotions, even as he steers the character toward a happy ending: when Elizabeth becomes pregnant with a second child, she tells a friend, “I don’t want this baby. I want my other baby back.”

Castleberry considers "The Orphans’ Home Cycle" to be Foote’s masterpiece, but no part of his career is given short shrift. We learn of Foote’s foray into 1950s television ("The Trip to Bountiful" first had life on NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse), as well as his first flush of success as a screenwriter, highlighted by his Academy Award-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird." Castleberry does not undervalue Foote’s contributions to the project – referring to scenes in which characters listen to each other in secret, Castleberry writes, “Horton admitted that childhood memories of intentional eavesdropping played an important part in the adaptation.” Even more important, perhaps, was the casting idea kicked in by Foote’s wife, Lillian, for the role of Boo Radley: she put forward Robert Duvall, who previously appeared in a production of Foote’s "The Midnight Caller."

No less careful attention is paid to Foote’s personal life, including his belief in Christian Science (a faith he came to at the urging of his mother, and which, Castleberry argues, has a subtle influence on his work) and his nearly 50-year marriage to Lillian, whose untimely death in 1992 was seen by a bereft Foote as the permanent closing to one chapter in his life. “If you find your real mate and if you’ve had a happy marriage, I think you’d better say, ‘Thanks a lot and that’s it,’” Foote said – a comment typical of his fortitude.

In fact, by the conclusion of this breathtakingly authoritative biography, we no longer know where Horton Foote, the man, ends and Horton Foote, the writer, begins – the values of the former so closely inform the values of the latter. In 2009, when Matthew Modine was about to play Atticus Finch in a stage production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" which was derived in part from Foote’s screenplay, the actor revealed the person in whom he found inspiration for the part – and it was not Gregory Peck: “Horton was strong and stoic, and was always on high moral ground, with his goodness, his sense of humor, and his sense of duty and responsibility to family.”

Peter Tonguette’s criticism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and many other publications.

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