Presence separates Shelby Foote from any other historian or novelist. Already a respected writer, Foote’s three-volume work on the Civil War, and his guest appearances in its documentary, put Foote into a class all his own. His attention to detail and ability to personalize history captivated both readers and viewers. Ken Burns, who undertook PBS’s documentary on the Civil War says, “[Foote] didn’t give away the story…[he] put people in the moment.”
Foote was born on November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi, to Shelby and Lillian Foote during World War I. A frontier leader, the first governor of Kentucky, a great-grandfather who fought for the Confederacy in Shiloh, and a grandfather who was a planter and gambled a fortune away, make up Foote’s ancestry, predisposing him for a love of America’s history. An only child whose father died when he was six, Foote led a solitary childhood, developing a love of reading. He edited one of the best high school newspapers in the United States and became close friends with Walker Percy until the day he died. Speaking of Percy, Foote said, “we were each other’s closest friends…I knew what he was thinking; he knew what I was thinking.”
Foote followed Percy to college, entering the University of North Carolina in 1935, where he wrote short stories and poems for the campus literary magazine. While there he made a surprise visit to one of his literary heroes, William Faulkner, who later called Foote a novelist “that shows promise.” After two years in college Foote decided to join the army. When asked why, Foote said, “Southerners are known for joining in whatever military action is going on, partly because they don’t want anything that big going on in the world without being part of it. I had been two years at college, and I had had enough of that.” He served as a battery captain of field artillery in Europe and wrote the draft of his first novel, Tournament. Foote was later court-martialed and dismissed from the army after making an unofficial visit to an Irish girlfriend, who became his first wife. After his dismissal, Foote took a job as a journalist for the Associated Press in New York City, later saying that “journalism offered a great grounding in fast writing, but I don’t think one should stay too long if what he wants to be is a serious writer.” This career did not last long before Foote was recruited by the Marine Corps, where he served until the war ended in 1945.
Four years later, Foote published Tournament, inspired by his grandfather, sequentially followed by Follow Me Down and Love in a Dry Season. After his third publication, Foote moved to Memphis where he wrote his best-known novel, Shiloh, which focused on the Civil War in Tennessee, telling the story from the perspective of many different characters, effortlessly combining fiction with fact. Shortly after publishing his fifth novel, Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, in 1954, Foote was approached by Random House to write a short history of the Civil War. Foote accepted the project, admitting, “I was never a trained historian” and realized that it would not be possible for him to write only one volume as originally planned. The result, a three-volume work titled The Civil War: A Narrative, took him 20 years to write. Foote notes, “The American Civil War is a wonderful example of good coming out of evil, of strength coming out of suffering. The American Civil War is where this country became this country.”
During the years it took to write this massive historical work, Foote supported himself by Guggenheim Fellowships, Ford Foundation grants, and loans from Walker Percy. Although he was criticized for not including footnotes, the overall work was characterized by Burke Davis as “a stunning book full of color, life, character, and a new atmosphere of the Civil War…eloquent proof that a historian should be a writer above all else.” After writing his historical account, Foote returned to fiction, publishing his last novel, September, September, a thrilling tale about the kidnapping of a black child in Memphis as a result of the integration of the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Although the work was well received and brought Foote a moderate amount of fame, it was not until Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, where Foote made 89 appearances, that America truly fell in love with him. C. Stuart Chapman notes in his introduction to Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life, that the “series broke all PBS viewership records…[The] soft-spoken, punctilious man had charmed a nation.” Burns said, “He made the war real for us.” Although appreciative of the public’s adoration, Foote did not enjoy the intrusion on his private life, telling People Magazine, “What I do requires steady work and isolation from all this hoorah.”
Amazingly, Foote wrote the 3,000 pages of The Civil War: A Narrative, by hand. In an interview for the Academy of Achievement, Foote said, “I don’t want anything to do with anything mechanical between me and the paper…I use an old-fashioned dip pen.” He also said, “I’m a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That’s the reason it took me 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War.” For these words Foote earned numerous awards: The National Book Award for History, the Dos Passos Prize, the 1999 Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Southern Letters, and the St. Louis Literary Award. He also received numerous honorary degrees, including a doctorate from the University of North Carolina in 1992, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize when The Civil War: A Narrative was first released.
Foote meant to write a big novel entitled Two Keys to the City. He had actually started it before he wrote The Civil War: A Narrative, and worked on it off and on during the years after the trilogy. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Foote admitted, “I always intended to finish this big novel…but…Nobody 82 years old got any business writing a novel. I never read a good one written by anybody that age.” He maintained this decision until the end of his life when he died of a heart attack in Memphis at the age of 88.
Foote was an admirable storyteller whose ability to relate history appealed to the nation. His natural charisma transformed an ordinary documentary into one of inspiration to viewers. He was able to explain certain characteristics in ways that made sense to his audience. For example, asked why the same battle of the Civil War has two names, Foote answered, “Northerners are usually from cities, so rivers and streams are noteworthy; whereas Southerners are usually rural, so they find towns noteworthy.” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott described Foote as “a treasure for our country, a writer who seeks the truth and writes the truth.” In 2003 he was awarded the Helmerich Award, which recognizes authors who have written a notable body of work and made a prominent contribution to the field of literature and letters. Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative has also been listed as No. 15 on the Modern Library’s list of the twentieth century’s best 100 works of non-fiction in the English language. For his contribution to history, James McPherson said Foote will always be remembered as having “a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities…for character…the dramatic event…[and] for the story behind the story.”
Tournament (novel), 1949
Love in a Dry Season (novel), 1949
Shiloh (novel), 1952
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (nonfiction), 1958
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (nonfiction), 1963
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox (nonfiction), 1974
September, September (novel), 1978
Novelist Alice Randall’s essay for Chapter 16 on Shelby Foote:
Chapter 16 profile of Shelby Foote by Hampton Sides:
Chapter 16‘s Clay Risen on Shelby Foote’s The Civil War:
Shelby Foote’s obituary in Slate magazine:
The New York Times remembers Shelby Foote:
The Academy of Achievement interviews Foote:
Interview with Shelby Foote in the Paris Review:
Shelby Foote’s page in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
Shelby Foote’s profile at the University of Mississippi’s The Mississippi Writers Page: