Shelby Foote

Author profile by Meredith Edwards

Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. was an American historian and novelist. His most famous work is The Civil War: A Narrative, a three-volume history of the war published over the course of two decades. His history was characterized by a literary style, and included Shakespearean metaphors and colloquialisms. He understood facts to make up the skeleton of history, whereas truth was something that could only be found in sympathy, paradox, and irony. For Foote, more important than reporting the facts was telling the story of the Civil War as a human narrative. Despite having already published many novels and nonfiction books, he remained relatively unknown to the public until 1990, when he appeared in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The Civil War.

Foote was born in Greenville, Mississippi on November 17, 1916. His paternal grandfather was a planter, his maternal grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Vienna. During his early childhood, his family moved from Greenville to Jackson, Mississippi, Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. After his father died when he was five years old, he and his mother moved back to Greenville, Mississippi. Foote became friends with Walker Percy as a teenager when Percy and his two brothers moved to Greenville to live with their uncle after the death of their parents. They remained lifelong friends and devoted pen pals, each having a significant influence on the other’s writing. 

In high school, Foote served as editor of the student newspaper, The Pica. Though initially denied admission to UNC Chapel Hill because of an unfavorable review from his high school principal, he managed to gain admission anyway after passing a series of admissions tests. As an undergrad, he wrote short fiction pieces for Carolina Magazine, UNC’s award-winning literary journal. After two years at university (1935 – 1937), Foote returned to Greenville, where he found work in construction and as a contributor to the local newspaper. In 1940, he joined the Mississippi National Guard as a captain of artillery. Four years later, he was court-marshaled and dismissed from the Army after having been charged with falsifying a government document. After a short stint with the Marines in 1945, he left the military and returned once more to Greenville. He worked for a local radio station and wrote in his spare time. He quit his job at the radio station to begin writing full time after a section from his first novel, titled “Flood Burial,” was published in 1946 by the Saturday Evening Post.

Foote’s novels include Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950), Love in a Dry Season (1951), and September, September (1978). His three-volume series of the civil war, The Civil War: A Narrative, developed out of a contract offered to Foote by Bennett Cerf of Random House to write a short history of the war. After spending several weeks trying to create an outline attuned to Cerf’s vision, Foote decided that his project was too broad in scope to fit Cerf’s specifications (200,000 words) and would require three volumes of 500,000 to 600,000 words each. It would take Foote two decades to complete the project. The first volume, Fort Sumter to Perryville was published in 1958, the second, Fredericksburg to Meridian, in 1963, and the third, Red River to Appomattox, in 1974. Though his work was met with popular acclaim and generally favorably reviews from the public, historians criticized Foote for his lack of footnotes and for neglecting to adequately address the economic, intellectual, and political causes of the Civil War.  

Foote died of a heart attack on June 27, 2005, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 88 years old.

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