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* Writer News:
Shelby Foote dies at 88
(28 June 2005)
 
* Book Info:
Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life
(March 2003)
The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy
(May 1998)
The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy
(November 1996)
 

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Shelby Foote
Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote

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 a tooth.

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, 1916-1946.”(6) 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 1998
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 Campaign. This site allows you to watch the video or read the transcript from the conversation.


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 Library board 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):

U.S. Civil War Center

The U.S. Civil War Center

Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System

The Civil War

Publications

Fiction:

  • 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.

History:

  • 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.

Letters:

  • 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.

Bibliography

Biographical:

  • Chapman, C. Stuart. Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Selected Criticism:

  • 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 Foote’s 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): 83-92.
  • 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 1975): 35-50.
  • ---. “‘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): 379-403.
  • Williams, Wirt. “Shelby Foote’s Civil War: The Novelist as Humanistic Historian.” Mississippi Quarterly 24 (Fall 1971): 429-36.

Internet Resources

Author Resources:

  • Shelby Foote. Brief article and photo.
  • Booknotes: 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 Campaign.

Article Notes:

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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