Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. (November 17, 1916 – June 27, 2005) was an American novelist and a noted historian of the American Civil War, who wrote The Civil War: A Narrative, a massive, three-volume history of the war. With geographic and cultural roots in the Mississippi Delta, Foote's life and writing paralleled the radical shift from the agrarian planter system of the Old South to the Civil Rights era of the New South. Foote was relatively unknown to the general public for most of his life until his appearance in Ken Burns's PBS documentary The Civil War in 1990, where he introduced a generation of Americans to a war that he believed was "central to all our lives."
Early life[edit | edit source]
Foote was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the son of Shelby Dade Foote and his wife Lillian Rosenstock. Foote's paternal grandfather, a planter, had gambled away most of his fortune and assets. His maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna. Foote was raised in his father's and maternal grandmother's Episcopal religion. As his father advanced through the executive ranks of Armour and Company, the family lived in Greenville, Jackson, Vicksburg, Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. Foote's father died in Mobile when Foote was five years old; he and his mother moved back to Greenville. Foote was an only child, and his mother never remarried. When Foote was 15 years old, Walker Percy and his brothers LeRoy and Phinize Percy moved to Greenville to live with their uncle - attorney, poet, and novelist William Alexander Percy - after the death of their parents. Foote began a lifelong fraternal and literary relationship with Walker; each had great influence the other's writing.
Foote edited The Pica, the student newspaper of Greenville High School, and frequently used the paper to lampoon the school's principal. In 1935, Foote applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hoping to join with the older Percy boys, but was denied admission because of an unfavorable recommendation from his high school principal. He presented himself for admission anyway, and as result of a battery of admissions tests, he was accepted. In 1936 he was initiated in the Alpha Delta chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Interested more in the process of learning than in earning an actual degree, Foote was not a model student. He often skipped class to explore the library, and once he even spent the night among the shelves. He also began contributing pieces of fiction to Carolina Magazine, UNC's award-winning literary journal. Foote returned to Greenville in 1937, where he worked in construction and for a local newspaper. Around this time, he began to work on his first novel.
In 1940 Foote joined the Mississippi National Guard and was commissioned as captain of artillery. After being transferred from one stateside base to another, his battalion was deployed to Northern Ireland in 1943. The following year, Foote was charged with falsifying a government document relating to the check-in of a motor pool vehicle he had borrowed to visit a girlfriend in Belfast - later his first wife — who lived two miles beyond the official military limits. He was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army. He came back to the United States and took a job with the Associated Press in New York City. In January 1945, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, but was discharged as a private in November 1945, never having seen combat. During his training with the Marines, he recalled a fellow Marine asking him "you used to be a[n] Army captain, didn't you?" When Foote said yes, the fellow replied, "You ought to make a pretty good Marine private."
Foote returned to Greenville and took a job with a local radio station, but spent most of his time writing. He sent a section from his first novel to the Saturday Evening Post. "Flood Burial" was published in 1946, and when Foote received a $750 check from the Post as payment, he quit his job to write full time.
Novelist[edit | edit source]
Foote's first novel, Tournament, was published in 1949. It was inspired by his planter grandfather, who had died two years before Foote's birth. For his next novel, Follow Me Down, (1950) Foote drew heavily from the proceedings of a Greenville murder trial he attended in 1941 for both the plot and characters.
Love in a Dry Season was his attempt to deal with the "so-called upper classes of the Mississippi Delta" around the time of the Great Depression. Foote often expressed great affection for this novel, which was published in 1951. In Shiloh (1952) Foote foreshadows his use of historical narrative as he tells the story of the bloodiest battle in American history to that point from the first-person perspective of seven different characters.
Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, was published in 1954 and is a collection of novellas, short stories, and sketches from Foote's mythical Mississippi county. September, September (1978) is the story of three white Southerners who plot and kidnap the 8-year-old son of a wealthy African-American, told against the backdrop of Memphis in September, 1957.
Although he was not one of America's best-known fiction writers, Foote was admired by his peers—among them the aforementioned Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and his literary hero William Faulkner, who once told a University of Virginia class that Foote "shows promise, if he'll just stop trying to write Faulkner, and will write some Shelby Foote." Foote's fiction was recommended by both The New Yorker and critics from the New York Times book magazine.
Historian[edit | edit source]
Foote moved to Memphis in 1952. Upon completion of Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, he resumed work on what he thought would be his magnum opus, Two Gates to the City, an epic work he'd had in mind for years and in outline form since the spring of 1951. He had trouble making progress and felt he was plunging toward crisis with the "dark, horrible novel." Unexpectedly, he received a letter from Bennett Cerf of Random House asking him to write a short history of the Civil War to appear for the conflict's centennial. According to Foote, Cerf contacted him based on the factual accuracy and rich detail he found in Shiloh, but Walker Percy's wife Bunt recalled that Walker had contacted Random House to approach Foote. Regardless, though Foote had no formal training as a historian, Cerf offered him a contract for a work of approximately 200,000 words.
Foote worked for several weeks on an outline and decided that his plan couldn't be done to Cerf's specifications. He requested that the project be expanded to three volumes of 500,000 to 600,000 words each, and he estimated that the entire project would be done in nine years.
Upon approval for the new plan, Foote commenced to write the comprehensive three volume, 3000-page history, together entitled The Civil War: A Narrative. The individual volumes are Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958), Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), and Red River to Appomattox (1974).
Foote labored to maintain his objectivity in the narrative despite his Southern upbringing. He deliberately avoided Lost Cause mythologizing in his work. He gained immense respect for such disparate figures as Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, Patrick Cleburne, and Edwin Stanton. He grew to despise such figures as Phil Sheridan and Joe Johnston. He considered United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be two authentic geniuses of the war. He stated this opinion once in conversation with one of General Forrest's granddaughters. She replied, after a pause, "You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family."
Later life[edit | edit source]
After finishing September, September, Foote resumed work on Two Gates to the City, the novel he had set aside in 1954 to write the Civil War trilogy. The work still gave him trouble and he set it aside once more, in the summer of 1978, to write "Echoes of Shiloh", an article for National Geographic Magazine. By 1981, he had given up on Two Gates altogether, though he told interviewers for years afterward that he continued to work on it.
In the late 1980s, Ken Burns had assembled a group of consultants to interview for his Civil War documentary. Foote was not in this initial group, though Burns had Foote's trilogy on his reading list. A phone call from Robert Penn Warren prompted Burns to contact Foote. Burns and crew traveled to Memphis in 1986 to film an interview with Foote in the anteroom of his study. In November 1986, Foote figured prominently at a meeting of dozens of consultants gathered to critique Burns' script. Burns interviewed Foote on-camera in Memphis and Vicksburg in 1987. In 1987, he became a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
When Burns' documentary aired in September, 1990, Foote appeared in almost ninety segments, about one hour of the eleven-hour series. Foote's drawl, erudition, and quirk of speaking as if the war were still going on made him a favorite. He was described as "the toast of Public TV," "the media's newest darling," and "prime time's newest star," and the result was a burst of book sales. In one week at the end of September, 1990, each volume of the paperback The Civil War: A Narrative sold 1,000 copies per day. By the middle of 1991, Random House sold 400,000 copies of the trilogy. Foote later told Burns, "Ken, you've made me a millionaire."
Foote's commentary in the Burns film made many substantive comments about battles, generals, and issues. He also explained a puzzling question on nomenclature: why does the same battle often have two names? Foote's answer: Northerners are usually from cities, so rivers and streams are noteworthy; whereas Southerners are usually rural, so they find towns noteworthy. Some examples:
- First and Second Battle of Bull Run/First and Second Manassas;
- Battle of Antietam (Creek)/Sharpsburg.
Foote professed to be a reluctant celebrity. When The Civil War was first broadcast, his telephone number was publicly listed and he received many phone calls from people who had seen him on television. Foote never unlisted his number, and the volume of calls increased each time the series re-aired. Many Memphis natives were known to pay Foote a visit at his East Parkway residence in Midtown Memphis. In 1992, Foote received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina.
In the early 1990s, Foote was interviewed by journalist Tony Horwitz for the project on American memory of the Civil War which Horwitz eventually published as Confederates In The Attic (1998). Foote was also a member of The Modern Library's editorial board for the re-launch of the series in the mid 1990s. (This series published two books excerpted from his Civil War narrative. Foote also contributed a long introduction to their edition of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage giving a narrative biography of the author.)
Foote was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.  Also in 1994, Foote joined Protect Historic America and was instrumental in opposing a Disney theme park near battlefield sites in Virginia. Along the way, Burns asked him to return for his upcoming documentary Baseball, and he appeared up to 10th Inning, where he gave an account of his meeting the legendary Babe Ruth.
In one of his last television projects, Foote narrated the three-part series The 1840 Carolina Village, produced by award-winning PBS and Travel Channel producer C. Vincent Shortt in 1997. "Working with Shelby was a genuinely illuminating and humbling experience", said Shortt. "He was the kind of academician who could weave a Civil War story into a discussion about fried green tomatoes -- and do so without an ounce of presumption or arrogance. He was a treasure."
On September 2, 2001 Shelby Foote was the focus of the C-Span Television program In-Depth. In a 3 hour interview, conducted by C-Span founder Brian Lamb, Foote shows off the library of his home, working room, writing desk and details the writing of his books as well as taking on-air calls. The program can be viewed online here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/165823-1
Foote died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis on June 27, 2005, aged 88. He had had a heart attack after a recent pulmonary embolism. He was interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. His grave is beside the family plot of General Forrest.
Marriages[edit | edit source]
- Tess Lavery of Belfast, 1944–1946
- Marguerite "Peggy" Desommes of Memphis, 1948-1952—one daughter, Margaret, born 1949
- Gwyn Rainer of Memphis, 1956 until his death—one son, Huger, born 1961
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
Fiction[edit | edit source]
- Tournament (1949)
- Follow Me Down (1950)
- Love in a Dry Season (1951)
- Shiloh: A Novel (1952)
- Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954)
- September, September (1978)
Non-fiction[edit | edit source]
The Civil War: A Narrative[edit | edit source]
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 3: Red River to Appomattox
Titles excerpted from the The Civil War: A Narrative[edit | edit source]
- Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863
- The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863
These two books published by the Modern Library are excerpted from the three-volume narrative. The former was a whole chapter in the second volume, and the latter excerpted from the second volume where some material was interspersed with other events. Both were also presented as unabridged audio books read by the author. The footnote on p. 95 of Beleaguered City is original. It follows the words "Porter fortified a nearby Indian mound" which appear on p. 210 of the Civil War narrative volume II. "My father was born in a house later built on this mound, and was buried alongside his father in a cemetery less than a quarter mile away. I expect to join them there in the not-too-distant future.... This, I promise, is not only the first but also the last footnote in this work. - S.F." (the ellipsis is in the original).
Other[edit | edit source]
- Foote edited a modern edition of Chickamauga: And Other Civil War Stories, an anthology of Civil War stories by various authors.
- Foote contributed a lengthy introduction to the 1993 Modern Library edition of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (which was published along with "The Veteran", a short story that features the hero of the larger work at the end of his life). In this introduction, Foote recounts the biography of Crane in the same narrative style as Foote's Civil War work.
References[edit | edit source]
- Carter, William C. (1989), Conversations with Shelby Foote, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 0-87805-385-9
- Shelby Foote
- Chapman, Stuart (2003), Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1-57806-359-0
- The Civil War, Geoffrey Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns. 1990. "Interview with Shelby Foote."
- Foote is still listed on the board's web page.
- "Shelby Foote Dies; Novelist And Historian Of Civil War," Washington Post, June 29, 2005
- Susanna Henighan Potter, Moon Tennessee, 44 (Moon Handbooks, Avalon Travel Publishing, 2009) ISBN 1598801147
[edit | edit source]
- Shelby Foote Papers Inventory, , in the Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
- Write TV Public Television Interview with Shelby Foote
- PBS Civil War
- American Enterprise interview with Bill Kauffman
- Ole Miss biography and obituary
- Fellowship of Southern Writers biography
- Reprint of a letter from Foote to William Faulkner, Meridian, Issue 17, University of Virginia
- Confederate flag debate from The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, May, 2000
- The Windsor Connection of Shelby Foote and cousin Horton
- Shelby Foote Collection (MUM00187) owned by the University of Mississippi.
- Booknotes interview with Foote on Stars in Their Courses, September 11, 1994.
- Shelby Foote on William Faulkner, American Writers II video, C-SPAN, May 2, 2002
- In Depth: Shelby Foote on C-Span, September 2, 2001. 3 Hour interview with on-air calls.