Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote

Infobox Writer
name = Shelby Foote

caption =
birthdate = November 17 1916
birthplace = Greenville, Mississippi
deathdate = death date and age|2005|6|27|1916|11|17
deathplace = Memphis, Tennessee
occupation = Novelist, historian
genre =
movement =
notableworks = ""
influences = William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Tacitus, Thucydides, Charles Dickens, Walker Percy
influenced =
website =

Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. (November 17 1916 – June 27 2005) was an American novelist and a noted historian of the American Civil War, writing a massive, three-volume history of the war entitled "". 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 career 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."Citation | last =Carter | first =William C. | year =1989| title =Conversations with Shelby Foote| place =Jackson, MS | publisher =University Press of Mississippi | isbn =0-87805-385-9]

Early life

Foote was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the son of Lillian (née Rosenstock) and Shelby Dade Foote, whose father, a planter, had gambled away most of his fortune and assets. Foote's maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, but Foote was raised in his father's and maternal grandmother's Episcopalian religion. [ [ Shelby Foote] ] As Foote's father advanced through the executive ranks of Armour and Company, the young family lived in Greenville, Jackson, Vicksburg, Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. Foote's father died in Mobile when Foote was five years old, and he and his mother moved back to Greenville. Foote was an only child, and his mother never remarried.Citation | last =Chapman | first . Stuart | year =2003 | title =Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life | place Jackson, MS | publisher =University Press of Mississippi | isbn =1-57806-359-0] When Foote was 15 years old, Walker Percy and his brothers LeRoy and Phin moved to Greenville to live with family following the death of their mother. Foote began a lifelong fraternal and literary relationship with Walker, both of whom had great influence on each other's writing.

Foote edited "The Pica," the student newspaper of Greenville High School, and he 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 he 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 and 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 company was deployed to Northern Ireland in 1943. In 1944, he was charged with falsifying a government document relating to check-in of a motor pool vehicle he had borrowed to visit a girlfriend in Belfast. He was court-martialed and dismissed from the army. He returned to the United States and took a job with the Associated Press in New York City. Foote enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in January, 1945, and was discharged in November, 1945, having never seen combat. After the war, Foote returned to Greenville and took a job with a local radio station, but he 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.


Foote's first novel, "Tournament", was published in 1949. It was inspired by his planter grandfather, who 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.


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 Keys 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 word 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 individual volumes include "Fort Sumter to Perryville" (1958), "Fredericksburg to Meridian" (1963), and "Red River to Appomattox" (1974).

Foote supported himself during the twenty years he worked on the narrative with Guggenheim Fellowships (1955-1957), Ford Foundation grants, and loans from Walker Percy.

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, "You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family."

The work received generally favorable reviews, though scholars criticized Foote for not including footnotes and for neglecting subjects such as economics and politics of the Civil War era.

Later life

After finishing "September, September", Foote resumed work on "Two Keys 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 Keys" 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. ["The Civil War," Geoffrey Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns. 1990. "Interview with Shelby Foote."] 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. [Foote is still listed [ on the board's web page.] ] (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.

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." Fact|date=February 2007

Foote died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis on June 27 2005, aged 88. He was interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. His grave is beside the family plot of General Forrest.


# 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



*"Tournament" (1949)
*"Follow Me Down" (1950) (paperback ISBN 0-679-73617-4)
*"Love in a Dry Season" (1951)(paperback ISBN 0-679-73618-2)
*"" (1952) (paperback ISBN 0-679-73542-9)
*"Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative" (1954) (paperback ISBN 0-679-73616-6)
*"September, September" (1978) (paperback ISBN 0-679-73543-7)


"" series:
*"The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville". New York : Random House, 1958 (paperback ISBN 0-394-74623-6)
*"The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian". New York: Random House, 1963 (paperback ISBN 0-394-74621-X)
*"The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 3: Red River to Appomattox". New York: Random House, 1974 (paperback ISBN 0-394-74622-8)

Titles excerpted from the narrative:
*"Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863"
*"The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863": Note: 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.

: 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)

* 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. Originally published in hardback, this volume is now in the Modern Library's paperback classics, ISBN 0679783202.


External links

* [,Shelby.html Shelby Foote Papers Inventory] , , in the Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
* [ 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.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Shelby Foote — (* 17. November 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi; † 27. Juni 2005 in Memphis, Tennessee) war ein bekannter US amerikanischer Romancier und Historiker. Sein dreibändiges Werk über den Sezessionskrieg gilt sowohl stilistisch als auch inhaltlich als… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Foote — may refer to: *Adam Foote Canadian ice hockey player *Andrew Hull Foote admiral in the United States Navy *Arthur Foote American composer *Arthur De Wint Foote American engineer *Buddy Foote American blogger *David Foote Pro soccer player late 80 …   Wikipedia

  • Foote — ist der Familienname folgender Personen: Adam Foote (* 1971), kanadischer Eishockeyspieler Alexander Foote (* 1905), britisch/sowjetischer Doppelagent im Zweiten Weltkrieg Andrew Hull Foote (1806−1863), US amerikanischer Admiral Arthur Foote… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Shelby — may refer to:Place namesIn the United States of America: *Shelby, Indiana *Shelby, Iowa *Shelby Charter Township, Michigan, in Macomb County *Shelby Township, Michigan, in Oceana County **Shelby, Oceana County, Michigan, a village *Shelby,… …   Wikipedia

  • Foote — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Foote est le patronyme de: Adam Foote, joueur canadien de hockey sur glace ; Andrew Hull Foote, amiral de l United States Navy ; George William… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Foote, Shelby — ▪ 2006       American novelist and historian (b. Nov. 17, 1916, Greenville, Miss. d. June 27, 2005, Memphis, Tenn.), wrote a masterly history of the American Civil War and appeared as a narrator and commentator on a landmark documentary about the …   Universalium

  • Foote — I. biographical name Andrew Hull 1806 1863 American admiral II. biographical name Samuel 1720 1777 English actor & playwright III. biographical name Shelby 1916 American historian & novelist …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Foote — /foot/, n. 1. Andrew Hull, 1806 63, U.S. naval officer. 2. Arthur William, 1853 1937, U.S. organist. 3. Shelby, born 1916, U.S. novelist and historian. * * * …   Universalium

  • Foote — /foot/, n. 1. Andrew Hull, 1806 63, U.S. naval officer. 2. Arthur William, 1853 1937, U.S. organist. 3. Shelby, born 1916, U.S. novelist and historian …   Useful english dictionary

  • Nathan Bedford Forrest — For the World War II General, see Nathan Bedford Forrest III. Nathan Bedford Forrest Born July 13, 1821(1821 07 13) Chapel …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.