Shelby Foote

American novelist and historian Shelby Foote (born 1916) is best known for his three-volume history of the Civil War. Envisioned as a one-volume work, Foote's effort grew into a monumental project that took two decades to complete.

Shelby Foote was born November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi, to Shelby Dade Foote, a business executive, and Lillian (Rosenstock) Foote. His father came from a long line of illustrious Mississippians. One of his ancestors, Isaac Shelby, was a frontier leader during the American Revolution and the first governor of Kentucky. His great-grandfather, Captain Hezekiah William Foote, fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh and went on to become a judge. His grandfather, Huger Lee Foote, was a Washington County planter who gambled away what would have been a substantial inheritance. His son, Shelby's father, was employed as an executive with Armour and Company. He died in 1922, when his son was almost six years old. There were no other children. His mother never remarried.


Restless Youth

In a September 11, 1994, Booknotes television interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, Foote claimed that he was frequently in trouble during his childhood. As editor of his high school paper, for example, he dedicated himself to "giving the principal a hard time." According to Foote, the principal retaliated by urging the University of North Carolina to reject his application. This was in 1935-when there were few students-and the university relented. Although he enjoyed studying English and history and writing short stories and poetry for the campus literary magazine, he ignored mathematics and other courses that bored him. Foote left college in 1937 without earning a degree. Between 1935 and 1939, he worked on an intermittent basis for Hodding Carter's Delta Star, which became the Delta Democrat-Times. Carter often chided Foote for writing fiction instead of tending to his newspaper responsibilities.

In October 1939, Foote joined the Mississippi National Guard and, with the mobilization of his unit the following year, became a sergeant in the regular United States Army. After the United States entered World War II, he was sent to Europe, where he served as a battery commander of field artillery, rising to the rank of captain. His army career ended abruptly, however, when he was dismissed by court-martial in Ireland after traveling two miles beyond the official limit to see his girlfriend. In 1944 he married his Irish girlfriend, Tess Lavery. He returned to the United States and worked on a local desk of the Associated Press for about six months before joining the Marine Corps. He was in the Corps for a year as an enlisted man assigned to combat intelligence, but the war ended before he was shipped overseas.

Kindred Souls

Foote did not begin writing about the Civil War until 1954, when he was about 37 years old. His fascination with the subject began when he was growing up in Greenville, Mississippi. One of his best friends was Walker Percy, who became a novelist and essayist. Walker's uncle and guardian, William Alexander Percy, had a profound influence on the boys. "He was the greatest teacher I have ever known, because he thought about books and talked about them in a way that made you want to read them," Foote said in a July 6, 1982 interview in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger. In 1931, Percy began his writing career as gossip columnist for the Greenville (Mississippi) High School Pica. His first item was about the "desperate affair" of his best friend, "G.H.S.'s own playboy, Shelby Foote." The friendship survived Percy's adolescent wisecracks and Foote's later criticism of Percy for his religiosity. It survived, in fact, for six decades. Their correspondence is contained in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy.

Following his discharge from the Marine Corps in November of 1945, Foote worked as a construction worker, as a copywriter for a radio station in Memphis, Tennessee, and as a reporter for the Delta-Times Democrat. In 1946, Foote sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and he returned with renewed vigor to the novel he had begun while still in the army. One publisher after another rejected it. After being rewritten, he eventually sold it to Dial Press. Published as Tournament in 1949, the novel is a character study of a Delta planter who gambles away the family fortune (much as his own grandfather had done). It was greeted by critics as a promising first novel.

In his second novel, Follow Me Down (1950), Foote used multiple points of view to unfold the story of a fanatically religious Mississippi farmer who murders a teenage girl for whom he has abandoned his wife and family. Critics acknowledged Foote's talents but criticized the repetition of events as seen through the eyes of eight characters.


Civil War Studies

In Shiloh (1952), his first historical novel, Foote described the chaos of this 1862 Civil War battle through the eyes of several soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy. Foote's Jordan County was published in 1954. It consists of seven stories taking place in reverse chronological order from 1950 to 1797.

In December 1953, Foote left Greenville to settle in Memphis, Tennessee. There he began researching and writing a history of the Civil War. The project began with an invitation from Bennett Cerf of Random House to prepare a brief history of the Civil War. "I didn't think a summary would hold my interest, but I told Mr. Cerf I was willing to go whole hog and do a three-part thing on it," he said in a 1990 interview with People magazine. "There was silence for about a week, and then he wrote back and said to go ahead. I thought it would take me about three years, but it took me 20." He spent a decade on the 1,100-page third volume alone.

The trilogy was widely praised for enticing the reader into the sectional conflict with its vivid imagery and strong characterization. Some academics, however, deprecate The Civil War as the work of a college dropout. They found its absence of footnotes appalling and pointed out that Foote had ignored the causes of the war and had provided only a sketchy political, diplomatic, or economic background. He was also criticized for relying too heavily on secondary sources. He does, however, claim to have based his research on no fewer than 350 books on the Civil War, all of which are in his personal library. He claims to have read each and everyone. The first volume, The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville, was published by Random House in 1958. Other volumes in the trilogy include Fredericksburg to Meridian, published in 1963, and Red River to Appomattox, published in 1974.


Return to Fiction

After devoting 20 years of his life to the four-year Civil War, Foote returned to fiction with September, September (1978), in which a group of whites plot to kidnap a black child for ransom. The drama takes place in a 30-day period in 1957 and is played against the background of white resistance to racial integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. Adapted for television, September, September was retitled Memphis.

Civil War Documentary

In 1985, Foote received a call from Ken Burns, a documentary-film maker whom he admired for his treatment of the life of the former governor of Louisiana and senator Huey Long. Burns invited Foote to be part of the Civil War documentary he was preparing for the Public Broadcasting Service. Upon meeting Foote, Burns was soon moved to make him "the presiding spirit" of the documentary. "He provides the painful recollection of the South's loss without any of the old animosity and the old excuses," Burns said in an October 15, 1990, People magazine interview. Fourteen million Americans discovered Shelby Foote in the fall of 1990, when he appeared as the principal guide through the hugely successful 11-hour PBS Civil War series. The appearance turned him into a video folk hero, and he has been in much demand for public appearances ever since. For a man who had always jealously guarded his privacy, the sudden attention was disruptive. Foote told People magazine: "I'm looking forward to when my fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame are over. What I do requires steady work and isolation from all this hoorah." Foote told Margaret Carlin of the Scripts-Howard News Service: "I've got to have quiet time, because I'm slow…. I compose with a dip pen-the kind that used to be in the post office. I studied German, so I write in that kind of Gothic script. Using that kind of pen slows me down so I can get my thoughts right. Then I type the manuscript on big 10-by-14-inch yellow sheets, making changes as I go."


A Sin As Great As Slavery

Foote believes that the conflict that ended in 1865 still has a bearing on our lives. "It was the last great romantic war and the first horrendous modern war," he told People magazine. "It fascinates us because it is still the central event of our history. So many of the questions that still plague us, particularly concerning race relations and the power of central government, can be better understood if we see how they arose and how we attempted to solve them." In the August 1996 issue of Smithsonian Magazine Foote is quoted as saying: "Right now I'm thinking a good deal about emancipation. One of our sins was slavery. Another was emancipation. It's a paradox. In theory, emancipation was one of the glories of our democracy-and it was. But the way it was done led to tragedy. Turning four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then, in 1877, for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it."

Foote told the Lexington Herald-Leader in a 1997 interview: "I learned to love my country, in two ways. I began to learn the geography of the South-the mountains, the rivers, the valleys. The other thing was the incredible heroism on both sides. It's hard to believe men were as brave as those men were. Somehow sense of honor was stronger than fear. God knows, they felt fear. I would really like it to be stressed that my work helped me to love my country. I hope my work does that for other people, learning both our virtues and our vices."


Further Reading on Shelby Foote

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 45, Gale, 1991.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, First Series, 1978, Volume 17: Twentieth-Century American Historians, 1983.

Phillips, Robert L., Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Tolson, Jay, editor, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, Center for Documentary Studies, 1997.

Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1990; May 12, 1994.

Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS), July 6, 1982.

Commonweal, January 9, 1959.

People, October 15, 1990, p. 60.

Smithsonian Magazine, August, 1996.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter 1998.

C-SPAN Booknotes transcript, (March 15, 1998).

"Historian loves his nation, and his nation loves him," Herald-Leader, (March 24, 1998).

"Meet The Modern Library Board/Shelby Foote," (March 24, 1998).