Foote, Shelby Dade, Jr.

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Foote, Shelby Dade, Jr.

(b. 17 November, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi; d. 27 June 2005 in Memphis, Tennessee), novelist and author of the three-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative.

Foote was the only child of Shelby Dade Foote, a regional executive for the Armour meatpacking company, and Lillian (Rosenstock) Foote. He was born into a southern culture that even sixty years after the Civil War preserved that event as its cultural polestar. In Foote’s hometown of Greenville and throughout the South, the war continued to shape the present. Civil War veterans and their widows were still alive, but more significant was that the South’s lost-cause myth had memorialized war loss into a romantic way of life. Foote had a personal connection to the war. His paternal great-grandfather had served as a Confederate colonel, fighting in some of the war’s western battles, including the critical battle of Shiloh, in which a horse was shot out from under him.

When Foote was only five years old, his father died unexpectedly of septicemia. Foote later recognized his father’s death as the most important event of his life because it offered the young boy the freedom to carve out his own identity. Over the next few years, Foote and his mother moved from city to city, finally returning to Greenville, where his mother worked for decades as a legal secretary. Greenville residents came to know Foote as a mischievous, irreverent hellion. In one notable instance Foote, not realizing the gun held live ammunition, played Russian roulette with a neighbor’s dog and killed it.

In many ways public bravura served as a cover for Foote’s private, intellectual side, including his voracious reading. When he was a young man, Foote came under the tutelage of William Alexander Percy, a Greenville lawyer who was the town’s leading citizen and a poet. Percy had three young cousins whom Foote was asked to take under his wing when they visited Greenville after their father, a Birmingham lawyer, committed suicide. Percy adopted the boys after their mother’s untimely death.

Foote and the Percy boys hit it off immediately. Foote and Walker Percy in particular had common literary interests, and they became lifelong best friends. Foote’s frequent visits to the Percy household meant that he was privy to many of the inspirational tutorials William Alexander Percy gave on literature and music. Although Percy was more Victorian in his artistic and cultural sentiments, he encouraged Foote to read modern writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.

When he graduated from Greenville High School in 1935, Foote followed the Percy boys to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. At the university Foote excelled in classes that interested him, such as English and history, but he rarely attended others, spending most of his time in the school’s library. Deciding that the college experience was not for him, Foote left the university after only two years. He returned to Greenville in the summer of 1939 ready to begin his writing career. While he worked on his first novel, Tournament, about his grandfather’s loss of his plantation, Foote worked a series of jobs, including as copy editor for one of the local newspapers, the Delta Democrat Times. When Tournament was finished Foote sent the manuscript to the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house in New York. An editor there indicated that although it was interesting and potentially publishable, the novel should be put on hold while Foote honed his skills on a second novel.

Before Foote had the opportunity to work on anything else, World War II intervened. In 1940 Foote enlisted as a member of the Dixie Division of the Mississippi National Guard. The unit was mobilized later that year. The combat Foote longed for seemed imminent, but for three years most of the Dixie Division saw action while combat remained a distant echo for Foote. The U.S. Army singled him out for his artillery skills and leadership, and after being sent to Officer Candidate School, Foote was assigned stateside as an artillery instructor.

At the end of 1943 Foote was sent to the British Isles with the Fiftieth Field Artillery to be part of the D-Day expeditionary force. Foote’s antiauthority streak reared its ugly head, however, when Foote got on the wrong side of a West Point general. He was charged with falsifying government papers after visiting his girlfriend in Belfast, Ireland, and reporting the distance traveled was less than it actually was. In another time Foote may have been able to beat the charge, but because of the secrecy required for the largest invasion in history, he was branded subversive and dishonorably discharged by court-martial. By the end of the war Foote had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, but he never experienced combat.

After the war Foote returned home eager to make up for lost time with his writing. Although he had a new wife, Tess Lavery, the Irish woman whom he had been visiting in Belfast and whom he married in 1944, Foote began a monastic devotion to his writing that organized his life for decades. Foote and Lavery divorced on 8 March 1946. He married Marguerite Desommes de Maurigny Stinson, known as Peggy, on 30 August 1948, and the couple divorced in March 1952 after having one child. Foote married Gwyn Rainer on 5 September 1956. The couple had one child and stayed together until Foote’s death.

Foote spent as many as eight hours every day writing and rewriting what was a relatively small output: 500 to 600 words. In 1946 Foote enjoyed his first success when the Saturday Evening Post agreed to publish “Flood Burial,” a story pulled from the Tournament manuscript. That acceptance signaled to Foote that he had landed as a writer, and he immediately quit his job as an advertising copywriter at a Greenville radio station.

Over the next few years Foote had five novels published, including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down(1950), Love in a Dry Season (1951), Shiloh (1952), and Jordan County (1954), but they were only modestly popular. Shiloh received the most attention and sold better than any previous Foote novel.

With its deft combination of soldiers’ subjective experience and objective data on the battles themselves, Shiloh captured the attention of several people in the publishing world. Consequently, in 1954, when it was looking for someone to write a one-volume history of the Civil War, the publishing company Random House turned to Foote. After putting together his usual detailed outline, Foote found that the effort would require three volumes. He submitted another proposal, promising Random House that the volumes would be completed in nine years. Random House editor Bennett Cerf responded, “Go ahead, fine; much better that way.”

Foote began what became a twenty-year task. He traveled to battlefields at the time of year the battles had taken place, sometimes even sleeping on the battlefields. After these trips Foote returned to his Memphis study, which was full of notes, quotes, pictures, and Civil War memorabilia. Foote rendered the individual dramas that occurred in each battle. He created a narrative tapestry that was a military account of one of the most important events in U.S. history and at the same time a series of brilliant character studies.

Throughout the 1960s Foote earned money with fellowships and teaching jobs, such as those at the University of Virginia, Hollins College, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. When the third volume of The Civil War was published in 1974, eleven years after publication of the second volume, Foote received a number of literary awards, including the Fletcher Pratt Award in 1974.

After writing the novel September, September (1978) and failing again at writing what he thought was going to be his magnum opus, Two Gates to the City, Foote slipped into retirement until Ken and Ric Burns requested an interview with him for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary The Civil War (1990). In the mid-1980s the Burns brothers filmed several interviews with Foote, but they were not sure how they were going to fit Foote into the series. When they saw at a meeting that even the scholars were mesmerized by how Foote could “tell you everything about a particular situation, where everybody was, who was there, and who was sitting where on the fence,” the Burnses reorganized the series around Foote. Whereas other experts appeared as many as sixteen times in the series, Foote appeared more than eighty times.

Foote became the lasting face and voice of a program that reached 40 million people, a record for PBS. People were taken by Foote’s mellifluous southern accent and were captivated by the vivid anecdotes he told. Foote became a national icon, sought after by newspapers and television shows and by Americans who longed to know more about the Civil War. In a way that they never had before, Foote’s books leapt off the shelves. In the year after the series aired, 400,000 volumes of The Civil War were sold.

In the fifteen years that followed the television series, Foote enjoyed status and attention usually reserved for politicians and movie stars. He spoke to overflow crowds, and dozens of universities awarded him honorary doctorates. The man steeped in history and tradition, a writer who forsook word processors in favor of a dip pen, ironically became rich and famous because of a television series. Foote died in Memphis on 27 June 2005. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.

Foote was a writer whose interest in novel writing informed and drove his Civil War trilogy, for which he is best known. Foote characterized himself as a novelist, and his storytelling talent enabled him to create a great and compelling account of the Civil War. Foote’s work is in great part responsible for Americans’ renewed interest in the Civil War.

Most of Foote’s papers are housed at the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, but the papers related to the creation of September, September are at the University of Memphis. Foote’s correspondence with his lifelong best friend, the novelist Walker Percy, is captured in Jay Tolson, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (1997). William C. Carter, Conversations with Shelby Foote (1989); Robert Phillips, Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian (1992); and C. Stuart Chapman, Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life (2003), describe Foote’s life and work. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 29 June 2005).

Stuart Chapman