This literary biography thoroughly investigates how Horton Foote's life and worldview have shaped his works for stage, television, and film.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Nine
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Young Man from Atlanta and Academy Awards for the screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and the original screenplay Tender Mercies, as well as the recipient of an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Trip to Bountiful and the William Inge Lifetime Achievement Award, Horton Foote is one of America's most respected writers for stage and screen. The deep compassion he shows for his characters, the moral vision that infuses his social commentary, and the kindness and humanity that Foote himself radiates have also made him one of our most revered artists—the father-figure who understands our longings for home, for human connections, and for certainty in a world largely bereft of these.
This literary biography thoroughly investigates how Horton Foote's life and worldview have shaped his works for stage, television, and film. Tracing the whole trajectory of Foote's career from his small-town Texas upbringing to the present day, Charles Watson demonstrates that Foote has created a fully imagined mythical world from the materials supplied by his own and his family's and friends' lives in Wharton, Texas, in the early twentieth century. Devoting attention to each of Foote's major works in turn, he shows how this world took shape in Foote's writing for the New York stage, Golden Age television, Hollywood films, and in his nine-play masterpiece, The Orphan's Home Cycle. Throughout, Watson's focus on Foote as a master playwright and his extensive use of the dramatist's unpublished correspondence make this literary biography required reading for all who admire the work of Horton Foote.
- 1 Foote and Wharton, Texas
- 2 Formative Years and the Call of Acting
- 3 Finding a Vocation: From Acting to Writing
- 4 Texas Playwright on Broadway and Tennessee Williams
- 5 Return to Broadway: The Chase
- 6 The Golden Age of Television
- 7 The Trip to Bountiful: Three Versions
- 8 Christian Science
- 9 People and Themes
- 10 Country Music: The Traveling Lady, Baby, the Rain Must Fall, and Tender Mercies
- 11 Adaptations of Harper Lee, Faulkner, O'Connor, and Steinbeck
- 12 The Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 1
- 13 The Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 2
- 14 One-Acts of the 1980s: Disintegrating Homes and Displaced Persons
- 15 Greek Tragedy and Full-Length Plays across the Hudson
- 16 Amazing Climax: The Young Man from Atlanta
- Conclusion: The Achievement of Horton Foote
- Selected Bibliography
What distinguishes Horton Foote from other playwrights of his time? It is the deep compassion that shapes his many plays. He is not a social protester like Arthur Miller, a constant experimenter with dramatic techniques like Eugene O'Neill, nor a psychological investigator like Tennessee Williams. Rather it is his sensitivity to the troubled men and women who live in Southeast Texas that gives his work unity. Foote's most precious resource comes from his personal experience in Wharton, where he absorbed into art the sensibility of his kindred. He has said that more than one-half of his plays have begun with tales told by his father, Albert Horton Foote, Jr.
While working at the haberdashery run by his father, Foote observed his father's compassion. On Saturday evenings over fried oysters, the elder Foote would recount to his son the hardships of his customers and would be moved to tears. The memory of his admired father marked the son indelibly. It permeates his playwriting, develops his art, and shapes his writing.
Wharton is still a small town in Southeast Texas, as it was when Horton Foote was born there in 1916. The future playwright assimilated its life before leaving at age sixteen to begin his work in the theatre, first as an actor and later as a playwright. Foote saw and heard all about this place. He absorbed its history, beginning before the Civil War when his great-great-grandfather Albert Clinton Horton arrived to claim many acres of rich farmland.
Few American dramatists have recorded the changing life of their hometown with such single-minded devotion as Horton Foote. Marion Castleberry has aptly spoken of Foote's "compassionate depiction" of a small town in the series of plays about Wharton. Born and reared there, this loyal son has never long been physically absent and, more importantly, never spiritually absent.
Even during his professional career in New York City, Foote's thoughts returned to the people of this community, which, though small, was dense in dramatic life. Like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter as well as other writers of the Southern Literary Renascence, Foote moves surely from the local to the universal human topics familiar to all.
Since Foote is a playwright of Texas, it is instructive to specify just what part of the gigantic state he derives from. Though the region is sometimes called Gulf Coast Texas, this designation is misleading for Wharton and its mythic equivalent, "Harrison." All descriptions of it by Foote resemble the southern plantation society of cotton. It is more accurate, at least for the time covered by Foote—that is, from 1900 to 1950—to call it Southeast Texas, as Foote does in "Wharton—Then and Now," a biographical lecture (1989). Foote's home country is not the port cities of the Gulf Coast, like Houston and Galveston. As in East Texas, Foote's are farming people, with their gaze on land, practicing the social customs of the Lower South.
Foote's ancestors, led by the Hortons, came from Alabama and Georgia. Foote is a typical Texan in that his home region bleeds into others and is hard to locate. His Texas does not embrace West Texas (the cowboy country) or the border, next to Mexico.
T. R. Fehrenbach concludes that the planter society made the strongest mark on Texas life by its customs, social codes, and way of life. The main immigrant streams coming into Texas, he says, were from Tennessee and Alabama. He sees the Mexico-Texas conflict as essentially a culture clash; the two peoples were incompatible. Texans conquered; they did not just settle the land.
By 1850 in Texas the Lower South planters were challenging the Upper South hegemony. Significantly, upper southerners were localized in one part of Texas, and lower southerners in another. They were separated by a line running roughly from Texarkana in the northeastern corner to San Antonio.
By 1860, blacks formed a majority in eighteen counties of East and Southeast Texas. They even exceeded "80 percent in plantation dominated Wharton County." This is another reason to compare Wharton County's society to that of the eastern South of Faulkner and O'Connor, who write of Mississippians and Georgians.
Often Foote speaks of himself as a chronicler or historian. Answering one questionnaire, he said that if he could choose any other profession besides a dramatist's, it would be a historian's. Not surprisingly, Wharton is also quite conscious of its own history, having erected and stocked the Wharton County Historical Museum. Foote states that he is writing "a moral and social history" of Wharton. More specifically, he says that in writing the Orphans' Home Cycle, he is trying "to arrive at a social and moral history of a town and a place and an era." In all his plays, he is careful to name the time of a particular play, thus placing it clearly in history.
Foote concentrates on change and loss, which he considers inevitable. He recounts the transition from the Old South to the New South. Wharton began as an agricultural community, dominated by the landed aristocracy, who owned large plantations even though they lived in houses in town. Depleted by the Civil War, the aristocratic society declined and by 1925 was definitively supplanted by the commercial middle class. The New South arrived later in Texas than in Henry Grady's Georgia and Lillian Hellman's Alabama. Decisive change came to this tiny town with the discovery of oil and the metropolitan expansion of Houston, only fifty-five miles away. Foote learned this history not from books but above all from tales told by relatives. As Foote has remarked, "I have heard tales of the beginnings of Wharton from the earliest years of my life."
Foote's family history, as well as much of Wharton County's, begins with the life of his colorful great-great-grandfather, Albert Clinton Horton, who was the first lieutenant governor of the state of Texas. Born in Georgia in 1798, Horton moved to Alabama in 1823, where he was elected to the state senate from Greensboro in 1832. Heeding the call for settlers in the Texas territory, he migrated there in 1834, settling on a plantation of 2,200 acres.
The next era of Wharton's history is very important in Foote's plays. Extending from 1865 to 1925, it may be designated the postwar-Victorian period, when many of Foote's closest relatives were born, grew up, and died. They are the models for leading characters in plays set around 1900 and up to the 1950s, like The Trip to Bountiful, since these elderly persons lived their formative years in that period. In his plays Foote alters the real models, like his grandfather Albert Foote, making him more sympathetic. Sometimes the playwright makes the character worse than the model, like his father's sister Lily Dale. These changes seem to reflect Foote's personal feelings toward the persons portrayed.
Foote has spoken of "the aristocratic way of life" that he saw the last of as a child. He saw it pass away, heard it mourned, and finally accepted it as gone. This aristocratic era shaped manners, the outward expression of moral beliefs that is described in Foote's plays. It was a fabled time. Foote, like Katherine Anne Porter, looks back continually to this period, with the aim of regarding it truly. Unlike Porter, Foote presents a fuller gallery, because he describes carefully contemporary Texans, such as those oil-rich heirs of the 1980s in Dividing the Estate (first performed in 1989).
After the end of slavery, agriculture passed through lean years, but Wharton County, with its long growing season, resumed intense farming by 1900. Cotton was the primary crop. The economic prosperity of the town of Wharton depended heavily on the success if the cotton crop, as manifested in the selling price of the product itself. In El Campo, another town in Wharton County, cotton was the main moneymaking crop, and because land was cheap in the 1890s, many newcomers became cotton farmers. Foote remarked that on his return from New York City, he always asked: "How's the crop?" Besides King Cotton, the land produced sugarcane, rice, corn, watermelons, and other crops. Rice, first planted in 1900, eventually became the principal product, making Wharton County its leading producer in Texas. Filling out the diversity was the cattle business. Pierce Ranch, begun by cattle-raising pioneer Abel Head Pierce, was a large operation. In 1909 the famous Brahman cattle from India were imported and in time became one of the most numerous breeds because of their tolerance of the Gulf Coast weather.
If agriculture flourished, the same cannot be said for industry. The only industry took the form of agriculturally based operations. Cotton gins were started in all settlements of the county, such as Glen Flora and Egypt. In 1909 a rice mill was built in El Campo, southwest of Wharton. The lack of industry differentiates Wharton from the New South of the early 1900s, when slogans like "Where agriculture and industry meet" had visible meaning for the thriving towns of the Carolina Piedmont. The impact of industry was felt less in Wharton than in the Atlantic South.
The railroad was a harbinger of the new industrial age. Until 1881, no railroad passed through the town. After its arrival the growth in population proceeded apace. In that year, the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway laid a line from Richmond to Victoria, with a station in Wharton and many stops along the way. The Southern Pacific Railway, after buying many smaller lines in Texas, had a depot in Wharton by 1905. Railroad employees were envied in Wharton, not least because they received coveted free passes on the trains. The railroad line permitted Whartonians to reach Houston easily.
Foote's mother, "Hal" (Hallie Brooks), reported to her future husband on August 10, 1914, that she had gone to "the picture show" and visited her Houston aunts, but she also complained that her suitor was not being allowed to call on her anymore. With determination this independent young woman underlined how she felt about the man with whom she would elope: "I love you."
An integral part of social life was the pleasure taken in songs, rendered by traveling singers and musical citizens. Popular songs in Foote's plays are often appropriate for the particular moment in the text, like the end of World War I in 1918. Traveling entertainers gave musical programs at the Ford Opera House and later at the Norton Opera House, a two-story brick building on the corner of Milam Street and Richmond Road. Foote's father loved the popular songs of his youth and would sing them for his own pleasure and the enjoyment of others in a musical voice. In The Widow Claire (1982), the character Horace sings "Mighty Lak' a Rose" and "Waltz Me around Again, Willie." On the square near the Norton Opera House was also the Queen Theatre, which was showing silent movies accompanied by local musicians around 1920. In 1929 this theatre switched to "talking pictures," a momentous advancement in entertainment for Whartonians. Foote considered this innovation as the beginning of a new era in Talking Pictures (1987), set in 1929.
Related to the social life of Wharton were the institutions providing the educational fiber of its citizenry. The educational side of the county was adequate but not distinguished. Public education began in 1880 when Mrs. Amanda Watts, a widow, received state money for the school she conducted in her home. Choosing the well-respected name of Watts, Foote called the endearing widow of The Trip to Bountiful Mrs. Carrie Watts.
In 1898 a red brick schoolhouse was built, and in 1920 a three-story high school was completed on Rusk Street. No institution of postsecondary education existed until the Wharton County Junior College opened in 1946. In Foote's plays, higher education is conspicuous by its absence.
Churches became more firmly established in this era. Always predominant, the Baptists welcomed their first resident minister in 1875. After the Presbyterian church was destroyed by the 1909 hurricane, it was rebuilt in 1912. Other denominations that were strong in Wharton were Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian. Methodists did not play cards or dance. Foote's mother, Hallie Brooks Foote, was the pianist and later the organist for the Methodist church. The playwright's familiarity with the songs she sang and accompanied, such as "Peace Be to This Congregation" in 1918 (1979), testify to the importance of church life and the liking for hymns among the people. Other faiths represented were a Jewish congregation and the Church of Christ. The first Catholic parish in the county was organized at El Campo in 1989.
No one can miss the many funerals and trips to the cemetery in Foote's plays. The first references to the City Cemetery date from 1866. This large, very flat area occupied a site between Alabama and Dennis Streets in the center of the town. Until 1918, most Whartonians attended funeral services. In this close-knit community there were no strangers who passed away unnoticed. Caring for graves was a well-observed custom, acted out repeatedly in Foote's dramas, as in 1918, when the heroine, Elizabeth, visits the grave of her infant daughter, who died in the influenza epidemic.
From the beginning of settlement of the area, blacks have made up a large portion of the county population. The county census of 1847 recorded 1,315 blacks and 413 whites. Because of the paucity of white children available to play with, "Governor" Horton brought back a white boy from New York City to entertain his son Robert John Horton, the great-grandfather of Foote. In 1891 the black population reached 6,122, and the Wharton County Scholastic Census of 1904 recorded 2,832 black students and 1,806 whites. The Negro School System was established in 1896, and in 1920 a high school was constructed on Rusk Street.
In the postwar era of Wharton, a racial crisis provoked a method to ensure white governance. Because blacks or their white allies gained state and county offices during Reconstruction and held them thereafter, the White Man's Union emerged from the Democratic Party in 1889. Most white males became members, and soon black officeholders vanished. This association, to which some of Foote's kin belonged, was still in operation up to 1954.
A painful chapter in the history of Wharton County for Foote has been the treatment of black convicts. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Texas counties established convict farms to reduce expenses. In many ways they seemed a continuation of slavery. There were complaints of whippings and inadequate nourishment. In Wharton County, a large convict farm was established on the Pierce Ranch. For many years convicts held there could work off fines at the rate of $7.50 a month. A building with bars on the windows could still be seen many years after; Foote showed such a building to a newspaper reporter. He recalled seeing convict gangs working the fields. When only twelve years old, his father worked as the store clerk on a prison plantation. One of the barracks still stands not far from Foote's home in Wharton, "a chilling barn—a dungeon with rusty bars on the windows," he says.
The notorious reputation of Texas violence can be detected during the early 1900s. There was at least one killing on the courthouse square every Saturday night. As a consequence, the county has honored its sheriffs. At the historical museum a large display portrays the former sheriffs. While attempting an arrest, Sheriff Hamilton Bass Dickson, the most honored in a long line, was killed by a desperado in 1894. The funeral was said to have drawn the largest gathering in the annals of the county. Only six months afterward, an imposing monument of white marble was placed on the courthouse grounds and remains there today.
The practice of whipping, an effort to curtail violent behavior, is especially striking. During slavery times and for many decades afterward, whipping was a popular means of punishment. It was common in schools until abolished in 1914.
The next era is easy to define: commercial times. The Old Wharton period ends in the late 1920s after the death of Foote's Victorian grandfather and the coming of modern business. Previously, members of the landed class, deriving their wealth from the plantation economy, set the character and manners of the community. Now businessmen, reflecting middle-class values with a stress on social conformity and money standards, assumed the direction of all major affairs. The New Wharton lost much if not all of its southern character, conforming to the American pattern. Thus, Wharton steadily adopted the manners of middle America.
The rise of commercial power in the United States, expressed by Calvin Coolidge's slogan "The business of America is business," eventually became visible in Wharton. Photographs from the 1930s show new or brick buildings occupied by various businesses, including the Brooks Building and the Queen Theatre. The Chamber of Commerce erected a large sign in 1935, declaring "Welcome to Wharton." Nearby were automobile companies and new filling stations; the Duck Inn Café offered good meals at the corner of Milam and Richmond Roads in 1938. The town's longest-running society column was written for the Wharton Journal by Nan Dean Bennett, one of Foote's cousins who became the wife of Dr. Bolton Outlar.
The new wealth acquired in the United States as a result of industrial expansion soared in Texas because of oil. After the oil boom began in Texas with the Spindletop gusher at Beaumont in 1901, oil was discovered in Boling Field, Wharton County, in 1925. Gulf Coast production more than doubled from 1935 to 1940, and by 1959 more than five million barrels were produced annually in Wharton County.
Though Foote has not written his plays in chronological order, the body of his works covers the history of Wharton County. The earliest references by characters reach back to the pre-Civil War era; numerous plays are set at the turn of the century; others occur in the modern commercial era, beginning around 1925 in Wharton; and some extend as late as the 1980s.
As small as Wharton remained, it felt the effect of urban growth in Texas, whose population was 60 percent urban by 1950. The town's enormous neighbor, Houston, was fast becoming a metropolis, made fabulously wealthy by the oil boom. By 1920, wealth poured into Houston. During this decade the city became the largest in Texas, rapidly becoming the center of the petroleum-chemistry industry in the nation, and maintained that rank. The youthful and ambitious of Wharton migrated to Houston in large numbers. The difficulty of changing from the rural atmosphere to the big city arises for displaced persons in Foote's plays about the 1920s.
For citizens of Wharton, like Foote and historian Annie Lee Williams, the transition from Old to New Wharton was traumatic. There is a strong sense of loss, which, though accepted, is deplored. In a lecture entitled "Wharton—Then and Now" and delivered in 1989, Foote notes that one-half of the stores on the square are now empty. Only one drugstore and one dry goods store owned by a merchant family of the 1930s remain. The second stories that housed the offices of lawyers, like those above his father's clothing store, are empty. There are no movie theatres; the hotels are closed. As the stores were air-conditioned, their fronts were "modernized" by tearing down the porch roofs, which shut out the scorching sun. "The stores have a strange, hybrid look, not of this time certainly, and no longer of the 1890s or early 1900s," Foote remarks.
More sorely missed from the era of Old Wharton are the stately mansions, built in the late Victorian style. By 1946 these large houses were gone. Foote remembers that when Richmond Road became part of the Houston highway, its "lovely old homes" were abandoned. It is now "littered with used car lots, drive-ins and filling stations." A superhighway now bypasses the town, leaving Richmond Road only an alternate route, with its "shoddy ugliness and waste of houses."
What's new in modern Wharton? Foote asks. He answers in the sardonic tone of Flannery O'Connor, who decried "the proliferation of supermarkets" in the modern South. There is a shopping center "of sorts" with a supermarket one block off the Houston highway. Besides this are the Gulf Coast Medical Center, a full-service facility, and a plastics factory owned by a Taiwanese. Wharton's population has grown to 10,000, and the town has its sufficient quota of motels and apartment complexes.
As the Victorian homes expressed the values of Old Wharton, like the sacredness of the family hearth, so the abandonment of these structures reflects the loss of those values and convictions. Foote's plays about life from the mid-1920s to the present record sad tales of marital infidelity, divorce, madness, the misery of spinsters, and family disintegration. What saves this picture from despair and preserves hope, which never vanishes in Foote's plays, is the endurance of strong individuals who adjust and adopt ways of living productively.
It is as important to know the layout of Wharton as it is to visualize Yoknapatawpha County, of which William Faulkner is "sole owner and proprietor." For all practical purposes the information for Wharton given below will provide the same information for "Harrison."
Clustered near the courthouse were four houses of the main families in Foote's plays. They were occupied by his closest relatives, to whom he gave fictional names as Thomas Wolfe did the Gants. In the Orphans' Home Cycle, the Thorntons (based on the Hortons) run and live in a boardinghouse. Nearby are the Robedaux, modeled after the Footes. On Richmond Road live the Vaughns (modeled after Foote's maternal grandparents, the Brookses). Behind their house is the home of Horace and Elizabeth Robedaux, based on Foote's parents. This modest house built in 1917 is Horton Foote's residence to this day. Nearby are large pecan trees, which provide the same natural setting today.
Though quite similar to many American towns, Wharton is distinctive, with its own provocative character, history, and society. To say that Old Wharton as seen in Foote's plays was ruled by the landed aristocracy is not entirely accurate. Most of the characters in his works are townspeople, not farmers. It is more correct to say that old-style businessmen with traditional beliefs—like the patriarch of the Orphans' Home Cycle, Mr. Vaughn (Tom Brooks)—ran the town until the late 1920s. They exemplified the best virtues of that age. Another exemplar of the old businessman is Horace Robedaux, based on Foote's father, who adores his wife and is scrupulously honest; he is a self-made man committed to hard work.
The southern past continued strong in Old Wharton. That lingering influence appears in the constant remembrances of the dead, seen graphically in the visits to the cemetery. Further, strong guilt continues about the treatment of blacks during the aftermath of slavery, particularly toward convicts.
The Victorian morality of Old Wharton is more exactly termed church-based morality. The moral standards of Old Wharton, seen clearly in Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn, are formed by the Methodist and Baptist churches. The shaping force of those leading Protestant denominations in Southeast Texas is determinative.
The prohibition movement in Texas gives evidence of the strict morality fostered by evangelical churches. As early as 1887, prohibition was strongly supported in the state. There were drives for local option to bar liquor sales, which made many Texas counties dry. The Democratic Party of Texas, supported by the Anti-Saloon League, called for submission of the prohibition question to a referendum, but the legislature of 1909 refused. Prohibition became the national law by 1919, but drinking was widely ignored in the country. Not so by Miriam A. ("Ma") Ferguson, governor of Texas in 1925-1927 and in 1933-1935. During the prohibition era and even afterward, no liquor was served at the gubernatorial mansion during her terms of office. Prohibition is a leading issue and a major goal of many characters in Foote's plays of the Orphans' Home Cycle, which take place form 1900 to 1925. The advocacy of prohibition and condemnation of drinking were part of the Progressive Movement, which supported governmental reform; it prevailed in Texas from 1900 to 1938. There is a sharp contrast, however, in the ways of Whartonians. The adherents of church morality believed in hard work. On the other side are those who adopt an unruly, amoral lifestyle, characterized by violations of the rules observed by the church group.
Although Foote is deeply attached to Wharton and indeed has great affection for it, one can detect an ambivalence in his feelings toward the town and some of its citizens. In his early plays like Wharton Dance, he is critical of gossip; in later ones, like Courtship, he criticizes the prejudice against dancing. In an interview, he denounced the destruction of "fine old Victorian houses," which were being "demolished for fast-food places."
Studying the relationship between the small rural town and the big city is another important likeness between the Mississippi novelist and the Texas dramatist. Faulkner uses his vantage point to indict generally the whole commercial and urban culture of America. Foote's attack concentrates on one big city, Houston, where the civic duty and self-made lives of Old Wharton have been supplanted by the mad scramble of the oil rich for luxurious commodities.
Foote heard its history, the heartbreaks and joys of its people, and saw firsthand the dramas of violence, and the revolt against Victorian and fundamentalist social customs. Formed by the generous, forgiving spirit of his father and the civic responsibility of his maternal grandfather, Foote is compassionate, giving him a unique relationship with his characters, even the hateful and foolish ones. No other American dramatist forgives his unsavory characters so sincerely and consistently. Horton Foote has the right credentials for a playwright of Texas.
“[This book] is highly accessible and fascinating, a real page-turner. . . . Without becoming at all simplistic, it explains an important artist in a believable, concrete, and usable way, one that will delight non-specialists but also deeply instruct specialists.”
John Herbert Roper, author of C. Vann Woodward: A Southern Historian and His Critics