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Historian and fiction writer Shelby Foote is highly regarded for both his expansive, three-volume historical work The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-1973) and for his novels and short stories concerning the heritage of the American South. Although frequently considered a regional writer whose works evoke the traditions and the consciousness of the American South, Foote has been praised for the universality of his vivid settings and characterizations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Shaped by Loss and the Civil War
Born in Greenville, Mississippi, on November 17, 1916, Foote was the son of Shelby Dade and Lillian (Rosenstock) Foote. His father was a business executive with Armour and Company, and his father’s family had been distinguished citizens of Mississippi for generations. As a young boy, Foote moved frequently throughout the region with his parents because of his father’s job. After his father died suddenly of septicemia in the early 1920s, Foote returned with his mother to live in Greenville, where she worked as a legal secretary.
During his childhood, Foote met the writer William Alexander Percy, and became close friends with Walker Percy, his nephew and ward. He learned much about books and learning from William Percy, and became fascinated with the American Civil War early in life. indeed, Greenville, like the rest of the South, continued to be shaped in the present by the war. The South’s lost-cause myth had memorialized war into a romantic way of life.
Beginning a Career
Foote spent his teenage years and early adulthood living through the Great Depression. After the stock market crash of October 1929, millions of Americans lost their savings, could not find jobs, and were hard pressed to survive. The Great Depression lasted for the whole of the 1930s, though conditions for some improved because of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that, for example, provided temporary jobs for millions through public works programs.
Foote was the editor of his high school newspaper during the early 1930s, but he dedicated his time to making his principal’s life difficult. Foote later claimed the principal retaliated by urging the University of North Carolina to reject his application. However, the Great Depression was in full force and there were fewer students able to afford a college education, so the school ultimately relented.
in 1935, Foote entered the University of North Carolina, where he wrote his first stories for the school’s literary journal, Carolina Magazine. He spent most of his time at Carolina focusing on English and history courses, but he ignored classes, such as mathematics, that bored him. Foote dropped out of college in 1937 to write his first novel. While he completed the book, it was rejected by publishers, in part for being too derivative of James Joyce.
Military Service in World War II
Foote joined the Mississippi National Guard in 1939. When his unit was mobilized the following year, he became a sergeant in the U.S. Army and was sent to Northern Ireland. He remained in the service for much of World War II.
After leaving his military base without permission to meet his Irish girlfriend in Belfast, Foote was court-martialed and discharged from the army in 1944. That year, he married that girlfriend, Tess Lavery. This was the first of his several marriages. Upon his discharge, Foote went back to the United States and worked briefly as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York City. In 1945, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Foote served in the Marines only a few months as World War II reached its conclusion. Following his release from the service later in 1945, he returned to the South where he continued to write while holding such jobs as radio station copy writer, construction worker, and reporter for the Delta-Times Democrat. In 1946, Foote published his first short story in a professional publication. Drawing upon the draft of his unpublished novel, ”Flood Burial” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.
Published First Novels
The sale of the story compelled Foote to work on his novel, and he soon found success. His first three novels—Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1951), and Love in a Dry Season (1951)— were linked to portray a small area of Mississippi, the fictional Jordan County and its fictional community of Bristol, which was modeled on Foote’s hometown. Tournament was created out of portions of his unfinished first novel, and focused on the transformation of Hugh Bart from successful landowner to destitute gambler following the sale of his plantation—a situation that mirrored the experiences of Foote’s own grandfather. Follow Me Down was based on an actual murder trial and is often considered his best novel. Love in a Dry Season was set in the 1920s to World War II-era South, and focused on the area’s changing fortunes in that time period.
Recognized as a rising young novelist, Foote then turned to historical fiction with Shiloh (1952). This novel focuses on a major and especially bloody Civil War battle, and was his first popular success. The battle was recreated through monologues of six soldiers from both of the contending armies. Foote’s next work, Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954) presents the same fictional area of Mississippi as his first three novels in seven connected short stories and novellas. That same year, he was asked to write a brief history of the Civil War, a task that ultimately resulted in his best-known work. By this time, Foote had left Greenville to live in Memphis, Tennessee.
Decades Spent on The Civil War: A Narrative
In the late 1950s, Foote began writing The Civil War: A Narrative, the work that earned him the most amount of critical praise. A nonfiction history of the Civil War, the three volumes that form The Civil War: A Narrative include: Fort Sumpter to Perryville (1958), Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), and Red River to Appomattox (1973). While many critics have considered the series a masterpiece, some academics criticized the books for their lack of foot-notes and other scholarly conventions.
To produce the first two volumes, Foote wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week. Following the publication of the first two volumes, he accepted a series of temporary appointments at various foundations, colleges, and universities. For example, he was a Ford Foundation fellow in 1963 and 1964, and was a lecturer at the University of Virginia in 1963. At the same time, Foote was the playwright in residence at the Arena Theater in Washington, D.C., where he adapted his novel Jordan County for the stage. It was produced in 1964. From 1966 to 1967, he was writer-in-residence at the University of Memphis, then held the same position at Hollins College in 1968.
Affected by the Civil Rights Movement
Despite the critical acclaim and professional recognition he received, Foote found the 1960s challenging. The civil rights movement reached its apex as African Americans fought for their basic rights and against segregation, especially in the South. While Foote supported the display of Confederate symbols, which brought charges of his advocacy of white supremacy, his views on race relations were progressive as he supported full racial integration. Yet he dismissed many advocates of civil rights, especially northern white activists and agitators who came to the South to affect change but knew nothing of Southern history or the intricate balance of Southern race relations. While the race tumult of the 1960s intensified, Foote toiled to complete the last volume of The Civil War, which took longer to complete than the other two volumes combined.
Returning to fiction in the late 1970s, Foote published the novel September, September (1978), about a kidnapping and ransom of an African American boy, the grandson of a wealthy black man, by three white men in Memphis. Using such historical events as the racial-integration crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the launching of Sputnik in 1957 as a backdrop for his story, Foote relates factual events of the period to his characters’ racial attitudes, creating a microcosm of American society in the 1950s. In 1981, Foote published another nonfiction work, The Novelist’s View of History.
While Foote was somewhat well known by the late 1980s, he gained a much wider audience when he appeared as a narrator and commentator in Ken Burns’s lauded eleven-hour television documentary, The Civil War (1990), which aired on PBS. Over 40 million people saw Foote act as one of the conducting spirits and guides of each episode, making him a public speaker much in demand. In the 1990s, Foote also produced new nonfiction works, including another Civil War book, Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign (1994), which provided an in-depth analysis of that dramatic battle. In addition, Foote wrote two novels, Child by Fever (1995) and Ride Out (1996). He also wrote introductions to several collections of short stories by Anton Chekhov, and edited one, Chekhov’s Longer Stories from the Last Decade (1999). The recipient of numerous accolades in the last years of his life, Foote died on June 27, 2005, in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of eighty-eight.
Works in Literary Context
While Foote is primarily known for his The Civil War: A Narrative trilogy, his interest in novel writing informed and drove his nonfiction works. Foote characterized himself as a novelist, and his ability as a storyteller enabled him to write compelling history. Though his depiction of the conflict in The Civil War is generally considered balanced, his novels are often concerned with Southern themes, including racial tensions and the various effects of the war on Southerners. To fully explore the South, Foote incorporated various literary techniques, including multiple points of view and the creation of a fictional region within the South in which a number of his stories were placed. As a writer, Foote was greatly influenced by such authors as his childhood mentor William Alexander Percy, as well as Tacitus, Stendhal, Leo Tolstoy, and Marcel Proust.
Multiple Points of View
In several of Foote’s novels, he incorporates multiple points of view to tell his story. Such a technique adds depth to the plot and greater understanding of the characters and their motivations. The first novel by Foote to incorporate this technique was Follow Me Down. The novel focuses on the story of a fanatically religious Mississippi farmer who murders a teenage girl for whom he has abandoned his wife and family. The use of multiple points of view allows eight characters—including the protagonist and minor characters—to comment in a limited first-person viewpoint on their reactions to the murder. A work of historical fiction, Shiloh recreates the well-known Civil War battle through the eyes of six soldiers from both sides. These narrators describe different aspects of the three-day confrontation. By adroit maneuvering, Foote brings the respective narratives into contact with each other.
Many of Foote’s novels as well as his collection Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative are focused around a fictional locale. This microcosm is centered on the delta country in Lake Jordan. This fictive area includes two counties (Issawamba, Jordan), the Solitaire Plantation, and the town of Bristol on the Mississippi River. Through cross reference, Foote links the episodes from one novel and story to another. For example, the novella Pillar of Fire in Jordan County relates the story of Isaac Jameson, the founder of the Solitaire Plantation and a patriarch of the delta. Tournament then supplies information about the man, Hugh Bart, who brought Solitaire back from devastation by war and reconstruction. Similar ties can be found in all the books centered around this area.
Works in Critical Context
Foote’s nonfiction The Civil War: A Narrative has been lauded by many critics as one of the most impressive studies of the conflict ever written, While some detractors have questioned the intellectual merit of the work, other commentators have focused on the comprehensiveness of his chronicle. While not as frequently studied by American critics as his historical work, Foote’s fiction is nevertheless praised as an impressive analysis of the American South. French critics in particular have written numerous studies of his fiction, and have compared the interlocking settings and characters in his fictional world of Jordan County to those of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
The Civil War: A Narrative
Generally, The Civil War is noted for its balanced treatment of all fronts of the American Civil War: northern, southern, eastern, and western. For critics, Foote’s mastery of such features as character, plot, setting, and narrative voice—traits of fiction not traditionally integrated into historical writing—distinguish The Civil War as a narrative history. Some detractors have derided The Civil War for ignoring important political, social, and economic factors. In the New York Times Book Review, Nash K. Burgerpraised The Civil War as ”a remarkable achievement, prodigiously researched, vigorous, detailed, absorbing.” Similarly, M. E. Bradford of the National Review noted, ”There is, of course, a majesty inherent in the subject.” Later in the review, Bradford wrote that ”the credit for recovering such majesty to the attention of our skeptical and unheroic age will hereafter . . . belong to Mr. Foote.”
Critics consider Shiloh a complex depiction of the multitudinous aspects of the Civil War. Commentators have also recognized Foote’s ability to create memorable characterizations of both fictional and historical figures of the battle. Of this book, published on the ninetieth anniversary of the battle, Thomas H. Landess wrote in the Mississippi Quarterly that the novel ”is unique as a twentieth century chronicle of war,” and one that ”pushes the action of the novel towards the level of pure epic.”
- Chapman, C. Stuart. Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Fife. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
- Phillips, Robert L., Jr. Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
- Tolson, Jay. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. Jackson, Miss.: Center for Documentary Studies, 1997.
- Bradford, M. E. Review of The Civil War. National Review (February 14, 1975).
- Burger, Nash K. Review of The Civil War. New York Times Book Review (March 6, 1975).
- Landess, Thomas H. ”Southern History and Manhood: Major Themes in the Works of Shelby Foote.” Mississippi Quarterly (Fall 1971): 321-347.
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