Shelby Foote, novelist and Civil War historian, dies at 88
June 28, 2005
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby Foote, a novelist and Civil War historian who rose to national prominence in a PBS-TV documentary series on the Civil War, died yesterday at the age of 88, his family announced today.
Foote, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, died Monday night at Baptist Hospital in Memphis, said Footes widow, Gwen.
A longtime resident of Memphis, Foote wrote six novels but is best remembered for his three-volume, 3,000-word history of the Civil War, The Civil War: A Narrative. Relying on a Southern storytellers touch, he presented that history in a flowing, narrative style. He spent 20 years writing it.
That work landed Foote a leading role on an 11-hour TV documentary on the Civil War, first shown on the Public Broadcast System in 1990. It was produced and directed by documentarian Ken Burns.
Other books by Foote include the historical novel Shiloh (1952), which relates the story about the important Civil War battle from multiple perspectives, both Union and Confederate, and Jordan County: A Chronicle (1954).That year, Random House invited him to write a one-volume history of the Civil War.
He accepted the job, but it grew into a three-volume work not finished until 1974.
Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, a small Delta town with a literary bent. Novelist Walker Percy — nephew of poet William Alexander Percy, who adopted Walker after the death of his parents — was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a “jackleg reporter” for Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, he would also get to know William Faulkner.
During World War II, he was an Army captain of artillery until he lost his commission for using a military vehicle without authorization to visit a female friend and was discharged from the Army. He joined the Marines and was still stateside when the war ended.
“The Marines had a great time with me,” he said. “They said if you used to be a captain, you might make a pretty good Marine.”
He tried journalism again after World War II, signing on briefly with The Associated Press in its New York bureau.
“I think journalism is a good experience, having to turn in copy against deadline and everything else, but I dont think one should stay in it too long if what he wants to be is a serious writer,” Foote said in a 1990 interview.
Early in his career, Foote took up the habit of writing by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. He kept bound volumes of his manuscripts, all written in a flowing hand, on a bookshelf in a homey bedroom-study overlooking a small garden at his Memphis residence.
Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal that using a typewriter, though he often prepared a typed copy of his days writing after it was finished.
He moved to Memphis in 1953. In 1956, he married Gwen Rainer, who survives him. Also surviving are Margaret Shelby Foote, the authors daughter with his previous wife, Peggy DeSommes; and photographer Huger Lee Foote, his son with Gwen Foote. Both live in Memphis.
Foote was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1963 and at the University of Memphis in 1968. He was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
There will be a graveside service at 10 a.m. Thursday (June 30) in Elmwood. Canale Funeral Directors has charge. Memorials may be made to a charity of the donors choice.
Article and links updated on 2 July 2005
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