Growing up in the small town of Wharton, Texas, in the early decades of the twentieth century, prominent American playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote (1916–2009) wanted to become an actor from an early age.
Albert Horton Foote, Jr.—or Little Horton, as he was often called—was the third generation on his mother’s side to live in Wharton. His grandfather, Thomas Brooks, bought a large plantation in Wharton and built a comfortable house where he and his wife raised three sons and three daughters. Horton’s parents—Albert Horton Foote, Sr. (or Big Horton) and Harriet Foote (or Hallie)—eloped in 1915. The author was born the following March. Although the elopement caused a rift between Hallie and her parents, the arrival of her son moved Thomas Brooks to build a house for the young family.
The residents of Wharton, like those of many Southern towns, were largely untroubled by the presence of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and black disenfranchisement. But Foote’s family, especially his father, did not subscribe to these racist practices and values. In fact, Big Horton was disgusted by what he heard at a Klan meeting that he was pressured to attend.
Big Horton’s unusual views were present early. His parents’ unhappy marriage imploded thanks to his father’s drinking, so his mother left home, taking his sister. Big Horton lived with his grandparents and then an aunt and uncle. Later on he lived with an African-American couple.
Foote’s father’s family had been in Wharton for four generations, dating back to a time when the town was essentially a cluster of houses. Much of the history from this side of the family Foote learned from his father’s Aunt Laura, known as Loula, a gifted storyteller with a flair for the dramatic who seasoned her tales with strong doses of opinion. An artistic streak ran in this family; Loula and her sisters were all musical.
Foote’s maternal grandfather lost his father at age five and moved to Wharton after graduating from Texas A&M University. He became a prosperous businessman and community leader, married his secretary, and had eight children. For reasons unknown, he never wanted any of his daughters to marry, which is why the narrator’s parents had to elope. Big Horton and Harriet’s marriage lasted more than fifty years, and they enjoyed a closeness evident in their nightly conversations on the porch, when Big Horton would talk of current town events and memories of the town while his wife would listen and agree.
As a child, Little Horton had good friendships with many African Americans in town. He shares memories of Stant, who worked in his father’s store, Eliza, who cooked for his grandmother, as well as Eliza’s brother, Walter, and Idella, who took over for Eliza.
This region of Texas knew both prosperity and hardship. The Aldridges and Boltons lost everything when their men were convicted of fraud. But Little Horton’s grandfather, Thomas Brooks, prospered magnificently, owning an abundance of farmland he leased out. Riding around with his grandfather, Foote saw firsthand how some towns had dwindled down to nearly nothing; whatever needs they once met had disappeared. His paternal grandfather, a moody man with little ambition, failed to succeed as well.
Music was a large part of Foote’s childhood. His mother was the local Methodist church’s pianist, and his father collected sheet music to popular songs. After supper, she would play and he would sing. Foote also recalls hearing blues and “race music”—the music from the African-American part of town—drift into his home. His paternal aunt, Lily Dale, fancied herself a classical composer, although she never enjoyed commercial success.
Foote encountered another part of his family’s legacy during a hike. He met an African-American man who had been born a slave on his grandfather’s plantation. It was the first time the suffering of slaves became real to him. He recalls that fifty years later he read letters written by...
(The entire section is 1,267 words.)