Bursting onto the literary
scene in the 1940s and 1950s with novels that simultaneously praised
and criticized his Southern homeland, Shelby Foote soon caught the
eye of some of the culture’s leading literary lights. When
asked in 1958 about “superior books [and] superior writing”
among contemporary writers, Nobel laureate William
Faulkner cited Foote as a novelist “that shows promise.”(1)
Veering off from his early successes, Foote soon took his career
in a radical, new direction: between 1954 and 1974, he composed
the three-volume, 1.2 million-word The Civil War: A Narrative,
the work for which he is now best known. In spite of these achievements,
Foote remained relatively unknown before his role in Ken Burns’
The Civil War, a Public Broadcasting
Service documentary series first broadcast in 1990 which made
him a cultural icon. Since that event, Foote has become widely viewed
as an authority on the Civil War, and more generally, as a representative
of an era and region whose place continues to be central to our
country’s understanding of itself.
Shelby Dade Foote, Jr., was born
in Greenville, Mississippi, on November 17, 1916, the only child
of Shelby Dade Foote, Sr., and Lillian Rosenstock Foote. Both sides
of the family represented a prestige and status that had made them
leading Mississippi Delta families in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. Yet, by the time of Foote’s birth, or soon
after, the families’ kingdoms of numerous plantations and gins had
turned into hollow duchies: Huger (Hugh) Lee Foote lost his fortune
through gambling, while Morris Rosenstock would fall victim to the
1921-22 Depression. As Shelby Jr. later said of his grandfathers,
“Though they were both extremely rich in the course of their lifetimes,
they barely had the money at their deaths to pay for the shovel
that buried them.”(2)
Shelby Jr.’s fixation of the family’s
losses would later become a theme in his work, but in the meantime,
this vacuum forced his father to become part of an emerging Southern
middle class. Working for Armour Meats, the Chicago meat-packing
giant, Shelby Sr. quickly climbed up the corporate ladder, moving
his family from Jackson, Mississippi, to Vicksburg, Mississippi,
and then to Pensacola, Florida. Finally, in 1922, the Footes relocated
to Mobile, Alabama, where Foote would serve as supervisor for all
regional Armour Meats operations. Just weeks after their arrival,
though, Shelby Sr. died of septicemia; a simple operation to remove
a wart from his nose had gone awry after Foote failed to tell the
surgeon that days before he had had an invasive measure done on
With her husband dead, Lillian
Foote carted her five-year-old son back to Greenville, which he
would, except for a two-year return to Pensacola, call home for
the next three decades. In Greenville, Foote received the intellectual
tools necessary for his future career. Attending one of the best
high schools in the region, let alone the state, Foote enjoyed a
high school career most notable for Foote’s editorship of the school’s
esteemed newspaper, The Pica. Less formally, Foote came under
the tutelage of William
Alexander Percy, a lawyer by trade, but everything else by choice:
a poet, philosopher, and civic leader. Percy was, according to Jay
Tolson, “a magnificent composite of types ... [p]art solitary penseroso,
part Romantic artist, part chivalric knight.”(3)
Through Percy, Foote befriended Percy’s cousins, including Foote’s
lifelong friend, novelist Walker
Percy. At Percy’s house, Foote would also meet literati including
Sherwood Anderson and Langston Hughes. Moreover, Percy would spawn
an autodidacticism in Foote that would lead to Foote’s reading of
James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and William Faulkner.
Foote’s extensive reading continued
at the University of North Carolina, where he matriculated in 1935.
Foote was not long for UNC: he found the university setting stuffy
and uncompromisingly conformist. With the exception of English and
history classes, Foote rarely attended classes, spending most of
his time sequestered away in the school’s library, a nine-story
repository that seemed like some brave new world for the starry-eyed
Foote. “I was absolutely amazed at the Carolina library ... and
that excited me a lot.”(4)
UNC and its Carolina Magazine did provide Foote with the
opportunity to continue his literary work; monthly, Foote wrote
short stories and book reviews for the nationally-recognized magazine.
Foote returned home in 1937, where
he undertook a series of jobs, including writing for Hodding Carter’s
Delta Star, while he prepared to write his first novel, Tournament.
Three years later, Foote finished his thinly veiled account about
the rise and fall of his grandfather. When he sent the manuscript
to Knopf, an editor claimed that while good, the novel should be
placed “in cold storage”(5)
while he worked on his next novel. War intervened, and Foote, in
a move that was part ethical imperative and part Byronic romanticism,
joined the Mississippi National Guard. Over the next few years,
Foote would serve as an artillery instructor at Camp Shelby, near
Hattiesburg, Mississippi. By 1943, Captain Foote was attached to
Battery A of the 50th Field Artillery, 5th
Infantry Division, a division that spent time in the British Isles
before participating in D-Day. That day of long-wished-for glory,
however, would never come because Foote, in a situation that soon
spiraled out of control, defended one of his men against a superior
officer. Foote ultimately was court-martialled and discharged. Too
embarrassed to go home, he returned to New York City, where after
a brief employment with the Associated Press, Foote enlisted with
the Marines; the end of the war found him in San Diego, constructing
rubber boats for an invasion of Japan that was no longer necessary.
Dejected, Foote returned to Greenville
with his new Irish wife, Tess Lavery, whom he had met in Northern
Ireland. Yet the only woman the monomaniacal Foote was concerned
with was his muse. Working only minimum hours writing advertising
spots for WJPR, as well as doing some work for the Star,
Foote spent most of his waking hours on his own stories. First mining
Tournament, Foote put together “Flood Burial,” which was
accepted by The Saturday Evening Post, soon thereafter, the
Post accepted another story, “Tell Them Good-by.” Buoyed
by this success, Foote pushed forward on a new novel, Shiloh,
which through seven monologues of Southern and Northern soldiers,
provides an account of the two-day April 1862 battle. Though Dial
Press editors considered Shiloh too experimental and hence
unmarketable, they willingly agreed to finance Foote’s revision
of Tournament, which would be published in 1949; in subsequent
years, Dial published Follow Me, Down (1950), an exploration
of the economic and psychological oppression of poor whites; Love
in a Dry Season (1951), which demystifies Southern aristocracy,
rendering it as mere gamesmanship; and finally, on the 90th
anniversary battle of the Battle of Shiloh, Foote’s Shiloh
(1952). On the heels of these successes, Foote was ready to write
the “big job” that he had planned for almost a decade; in Two
Gates to the City, he later told Walker Percy, he had planned
“to put into it everything I ever saw or heard down in the Delta,
It nearly got him. Thrusting him face-to-face with the injustices
tearing asunder his native region in the 1950s Foote sunk into the
worst period of his life. For two years, the formerly industrious
Foote struggled to write, too frequently fleeing Greenville amidst
his bouts of drinking and womanizing.
Still seeking relief two years
later, Foote set out for Memphis, 150 miles upriver, where he settled
into a small cottage in the middle of a black neighborhood overlooking
the Mississippi River. Out of the “big book,” Foote salvaged seven
incongrous pieces for Jordan County (1954). More importantly,
he had now steered himself onto his magnum opus, The Civil
War: A Narrative. On the strength of Shiloh, Random House
asked Foote for a short Civil War history. Foote soon realized that
the project would require much more time and energy. Random House
agreed, and using the money from his 1955 Guggenheim Fellowship
(Foote would also win Guggenheims in 1956 and 1959), Foote set out
to write the trilogy’s first volume, Fort Sumter to Perryville,
a 400,000-word account, which was published in 1958. By 1963, Foote
finished the second volume, Fredericksburg to Meridian.
The 1960s were a difficult time
for Foote. Desiring time away from his work, and seeking to avail
themselves of the aura of Camelot, Foote and his third wife, the
former Gwen Rapier, that same year moved to Washington where Foote
would serve as Writer-in-Residence for the Arena Theater. (Ironically,
weeks after they arrived, John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.) The
next year he began Volume 3, Red River to Appomattox, but
he repeatedly found himself distracted by his anger at Southern
segregrationist leaders. In a 1963 letter, Foote told Percy, “I’m
beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved the South.
No, that's [sic] wrong: not hate despise. Mostly I
despise the leaders, the pussy-faced politicians, soft-talking instruments
of real evil.”(7)
Foote suffered through the final volume finally published
in 1974 a volume that would take the same amount of time
to write as had the first two volumes.
Three years after finishing The
Civil War, Foote published September, September (1977),
a novel that features white rednecks utilizing Orville Faubus’s
1957 tactics to kidnap a Memphis black boy. September, September
met with some success (ultimately it was transformed into Memphis,
a TV movie), but it didn’t spur more publishable work. For the next
decade, Foote toiled away at small projects. In fact, were it not
for Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War series, Foote would likely
have toiled the rest of his days in relative obscurity. But his
appearance in Burns’ series in segments that capitalized
on his mellifluous voice and anecdotal raconteurism transformed
Foote into a national celebrity. After the series, Foote’s fame
mushroomed exponentially. His books returned to print and sold tens
of thousands of copies. Moreover, each day’s mail brought fan letters,
invitations for speaking engagements, and interview requests. Articles
about Foote soon appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times,
and The Washington Post. Foote even gained literary accolades.
Though Walker Percy had nominated him two decades earlier for membership
in the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the Academy rejected
Foote), now he was courted for membership.
Foote died on June 27, 2005, in
Memphis. He was 88 years old.
Article first posted October
Updated 28 June 2005
Related Links & Info
Shelby Foote appeared
on the C-SPAN network’s
Booknotes program in
1994 to talk about his book Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg
site allows you to watch the video or read the transcript from
Foote appeared at the New York State Writers Institute in 1997. This
site details his appearance and includes audio of Foot talking
about his writing.
Shelby Foote served as a member on the famous (or infamous) Modern
who selected the 100 Best Novels written in the 20th Century. This
page includes a brief biography of Foote.
Civil War Links
The following web sites feature additional information on the U.S.
Civil War (1861-1865):
The U.S. Civil War Center
Civil War Soldiers &
The Civil War
- Tournament. New York: Dial Press, 1949.
- Follow Me, Down. New York: Dial Press, 1950.
- Love in a Dry Season. New York: Dial Press, 1951.
- Shiloh. New York: Dial Press, 1952.
- Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative. New York: Random House, 1954.
- Three Novels. Follow Me, Down, Jordan County, Love in a Dry Season. New York: Dial Press, 1964.
- September, September. New York: Random House, 1978.
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Random House, 1958.
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House, 1963.
- The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1974.
- Tolson, Jay, ed. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Introductions and Edited Works:
- Anton Chekhov: Early Short Stories, 1883-1888. Introduction by Shelby Foote. New York: Random House, 1998.
- The Night Before Chancellorsville and Other Civil War Stories. Introduction and edited by Shelby Foote. New York: Signet, 1957.
- The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. Introduction by Shelby Foote. New York: Random House, 1998.
- Tournament. Introduction. Birmingham, Alabama: Summa, 1987.
- Chapman, C. Stuart. Shelby Foote: A Writers Life. Jackson:
UP of Mississippi, 2003.
- Butler, Bonnie Bess Watson. “Isolation and Sterility as Themes in
the Four Related Novels of Shelby Foote,” Unpublished thesis,
Mississippi State University, 1968.
- Caldwell, Brenda Vaughn. “Character and Incident and the Exposure
of Stereotype in the Works of Shelby Foote.” Ph.D. dissertation,
Bowling Green State University, 1986.
- Carmignani, Paul. “Jordan County: Going Back to the Roots.”
Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (Autumn 1988): 93-100.
- Carter, William C., ed. Conversations with Shelby Foote. Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
- Cox, James M. “Shelby Footes Civil War.” Southern Review,
n.s. 21 (Apr. 1985): 329-50. Reprinted in Recovering Literature’s
Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge and London:
Louisiana State University Press, 1989: 191-214.
- Garrett, George. “Foote’s The Civil War: The Version
for Posterity?” Mississippi Quarterly 28 (Winter 1974-75):
- Howell, Elmo. “The Greenville Writers and the Mississippi Country
People.” Louisiana Studies 86 (Winter 1969): 348-60.
- Phillips, Robert. L., Jr. Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
- Shepherd, Allen. “Technique and theme in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh.”
Notes on Mississippi Writers 13 (1981): 45-63.
- Vauthier, Simone. “Fiction and Fictions in Shelby Foote’s Rain
Down Home.’” Notes on Mississippi Writers 8: (Fall
- ---. “‘Pillar of Fire’: The Civil War of Narratives.”
Delta 4 (May 1977): 71-81.
- ---. “The Symmetrical Design: The Structural Patterns of Love
in a Dry Season.” Mississippi Quarterly 24 (Fall 1971):
- Williams, Wirt. “Shelby Foote’s Civil War: The Novelist
as Humanistic Historian.” Mississippi Quarterly 24 (Fall
Foote. Brief article and photo.
Shelby Foote. Narrated slide show, transcripts, and other materials
related to Foote’s 1994 appearance on C-SPAN’s Booknotes
program regarding his book Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg
1. Faulkner in the University, ed. Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, (New York: Vintage, 1959) 50. Back to text
2. John Carr, “It’s Worth A Grown Man’s Time: An Interview with Shelby Foote,” Conversations with Shelby Foote, Ed. William C. Carter, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989) 38. Back to text
3. Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) 86. Back to text
4. Evans Harrington, “Interview with Shelby Foote,” Conversations with Shelby Foote, Ed. William C. Carter, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989) 80. Back to text
5. Helen White and Redding Sugg, “A Colloquium with Shelby Foote,” Conversations with Shelby Foote, Ed. William C. Carter, (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1989) 198. Back to text
6. SF to WP, September 12, 1978. Back to text
7. SF to WP, August 13, 1963. Back to text
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