Shelby Foote

(1916–2005) Historian and Novelist

Novelist and author of the acclaimed three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 17 November 1916. Foote’s paternal great-grandfather was a Confederate cavalry colonel who saw action at Shiloh and assembled a family fortune by acquiring plantations in Noxubee County and the Mississippi Delta. His grandfather, Hugh, built on this legacy, at one time owning five Delta plantations, but he gambled away his fortune after moving to Greenville in 1910. In July 1915 Hugh’s son, Shelby Dade Foote, married Lillian Rosenstock, the daughter of a prominent Jewish planter who had arrived in the Delta in the late 1870s. Although her father had hoped that she would marry a Jewish suitor and was angered by her choice, he arranged for his son-in-law to obtain a job with Chicago-based Armour Meats. Shelby Foote Sr. worked assiduously, with promotions taking him to Jackson, Vicksburg, Pensacola, and Mobile. When the couple’s only child, named Shelby after his father, was five, Shelby Sr. died of a bacterial infection. Suddenly widowed, Lillian accepted an offer from her sister and brother-in-law to live with them in Greenville. Her father was unable to help her financially, having lost his own fortune in cotton speculation, so Lillian was forced to work outside the home.

Greenville was unusual by Mississippi standards, with a diverse ethnic and religious population. Young Shelby attended local public schools, reputedly the best in the state, and was doted on by his mother. He struggled to fit in, refusing to accept prevailing standards in either behavior or dress. Some Greenville residents disapproved of his antics and found him enigmatic and headstrong. William Alexander Percy, scion of the Delta’s most influential family, was not among them. Lillian was a secretary in a law office that adjoined Percy’s, and he requested that the young Foote show some teenage Percy cousins around town when they came for a summertime visit in 1930.

Percy’s request transformed Foote’s life, bringing him into contact with Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizy Percy, whose father had recently committed suicide. When their mother died in an automobile accident in 1932, William Alexander Percy adopted his young cousins. Foote reveled in their friendship, finding in them the siblings he lacked, and he soon spent enormous time at the Percy home. As time elapsed he gravitated increasingly to Walker, and the two future novelists developed a lifelong friendship. An added boon was Foote’s access to Will Percy, whose home was the artistic and cultural center of the Delta. The young Foote eagerly took advantage of the large family library, devouring the works of Shakespeare and other authors, including James Joyce, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust. He later remarked on the importance of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in his formation as a writer.

Foote first tried writing in high school, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. The Pica was no ordinary school publication. It was a sophisticated endeavor that included poems, essays, stories, book reviews, and wide-ranging editorials. Following his 1935 graduation, Foote followed Walker and LeRoy Percy to the University of North Carolina but remained in Chapel Hill for just two years. Although he was awed by the immense campus library and wrote for the school’s literary publication, he became increasingly apathetic and reclusive. He attended class sporadically and spent most of his time writing. When he departed in 1937, he undoubtedly intended to become a full-time writer.

For his first novel, Foote drew on the figure of his grandfather, Hugh, who became the protagonist of Tournament. Foote labored on the manuscript for months and sent it to Alfred A. Knopf’s New York publishing house. The editors there liked it but cautioned that they did not think it would sell well. Disappointed, Foote stored the manuscript away. In 1940 Foote joined the Mississippi National Guard in an artillery unit, eventually serving on active duty with the US Army and receiving an officer’s commission. Foote craved combat, as did many other southern males. Stationed in Northern Ireland in late 1943 and seemingly destined to participate in the invasion of Europe, a run-in with a superior officer resulted in his abrupt discharge. Stunned, Foote joined the Marine Corps but did not see combat before the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

Foote returned to work on Tournament and on some short stories, several of which were accepted for publication. Buoyed by this success, Foote began writing an account of the Battle of Shiloh as the first of what he projected would be three Civil War novels. The others would center on Brice’s Crossroads and Vicksburg. Random House rejected the Shiloh novel, though editors at the smaller Dial Press were interested but worried about its appeal. When they asked if he had any other works, Foote recounted the plot of Tournament, which he hurriedly polished and sent off. Dial accepted the book, and its 1949 publication marked a turning point in Foote’s literary career. Four more novels followed over the next five years: Follow Me Down (1950), Love in a Dry Season (1951), Shiloh (1952), and Jordan County (1954). Four of the five centered on the Delta, with fictional Jordan County and its county seat, Bristol, closely resembling Washington County and Greenville. Reviewers noted his growing maturity as a writer, and Foote believed that his literary apprenticeship was over. He set his sights on writing an ambitious novel that he tentatively called Two Gates to the City and believed might vault him into the first ranks of American writers.

However, in 1954 Random House president Bennett Cerf suggested that Foote pen a one-volume history of the Civil War. The publishing firm envisioned a two-hundred-thousand-word book, and Foote eagerly assented, calculating that he could finish it in eighteen months. After completing an outline, Foote recognized that doing justice to his subject would require far more than the allotted word limit, and he suggested a three-volume work instead. Random House agreed, and Foote spent the next twenty years on the project. From the outset he took various strands and wove them into a narrative based on a particular campaign or battle. He deplored the analytical method employed by academic historians and scorned their inability to make the events and personalities of the war come alive. He unashamedly employed a novelist’s techniques, maintaining that historians and novelists seek the same truth but that novelists can make the information breathe in a way that historians cannot. He eschewed footnotes and extensive bibliographies, considering them the province of pedantic historians.

The three parts of The Civil War: A Narrative appeared in 1958, 1963, and 1974, respectively. Many reviewers noted his dramatic flair, lively writing, and adroit balancing of the war’s operational theaters. Yet academic historians took issue with Foote’s approach and methodology. Several criticized his reliance on secondary sources. Frank Vandiver questioned Foote’s omission of economic factors, while others noted his emphasis on military events and wondered why slavery and political events were shortchanged. And the absence of footnotes came in for particular—and predictable—criticism. C. Vann Woodward’s review of the third volume noted that professional historians had essentially abdicated their role as storytellers, a void filled by writers such as Foote.

Foote conceded that if he had known that the work would consume the most productive two decades of his life, he would never have embarked on it. And although he feigned indifference, his failure to win the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize left him angry and embittered. Foote threw himself into a new novel, September September, about three white Mississippians who kidnap and attempt to ransom the child of a wealthy black Memphis resident. Foote set the novel in 1957, at the same time as the Little Rock crisis, and characteristically sought to accurately capture the milieu. Published in 1978, the novel garnered mixed reviews. He returned to Two Gates to the City but never managed to commit the work to paper. His inability to write the novel may have stemmed from his unwillingness to challenge his own conception of the South, which was ultimately based in the Civil War and the aristocratic environment of the Percy household. By the early 1980s he had given up on the novel.

With Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Foote became a popular icon. Burns’s eleven-hour series became the most-watched Public Broadcasting System program of all time, and Foote made nearly ninety on-camera appearances, far more than any other figure. He used his encyclopedic knowledge to tell anecdotes that humanized the conflict and its participants, both great and small, speaking in a mellow southern drawl and avuncular style that captivated the nation. Foote immediately found himself overwhelmed by letters, phone calls, and requests for interviews and appearances. He eventually wearied of the attention, but his participation in the documentary reaped him a financial whirlwind. His books, especially the Civil War trilogy, flew off the shelves.

After a long illness, Foote died in Memphis 27 June 2005. He was survived by his third wife, Gwyn, and two children.

Further Reading

  • William C. Carter, ed., Conversations with Shelby Foote (1989)
  • C. Stuart Chapman, Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life (2003)
  • Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998)
  • Robert L. Phillips Jr., Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian (1992), in The History of Southern Literature, ed. Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (1985)
  • Jay Tolson, ed., The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (1996)
  • C. Vann Woodward, New York Review of Books (6 March 1975)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Shelby Foote
  • Coverage 1916–2005
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date August 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018