November 17th – Shelby Foote

“Facts are just the bare bones out of which truth is made. “

Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote was born on November 17th, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi. His family moved a bit around the South, to Jackson, Vicksburg, Pensacola, and Mobile, with his father’s job. After his father died when he was six, he and his mother returned to Greenville. As a teenager, Foote formed a friendship with future writer Walker Percy that continued throughout their lives. After their parents’ death (from suicide), Percy had moved to Greenville with his brothers to live with William Alexander Percy, their cousin who was a poet and a planter (both from suicide). It was the Percy family that introduced Foote to literature. He followed Percy to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, although he returned home the following year. Later, although Walker Percy eventually won the National Book Award with his first novel, The Moviegoer, in 1962, Foote pursued writing fiction more earnestly early on, publishing while Percy attended medical school. 

In 1940 Foote joined the National Guard, and in 1943 was deployed to Ireland. He met his first wife, Teresa Laver, there, and was court-marshaled and dismissed from the army for falsifying documents to borrow a car to visit her. Foote returned to the states and got divorced in 1946 after less than two years of marriage. In 1945 he joined the Marines but was discharged within the year, not seeing combat. 

Returning to Greenville, he worked multiple jobs, including a local radio station, while working on his novel. A story, “Flood Burial,” was published in The Saturday Evening Post, and with that $750 check, he quit his jobs to write full time. 

In 1948 he married Marguerite “Peggy” Desommes, of Memphis, and they had a daughter, Margaret, born in 1949. They divorced in 1952. 

Initially rejected, his first novel, Tournament, inspired by his planter grandfather, was sold to Dial press after being rewritten. It was published in 1949. Many critics consider his next novel, Follow Me Down (1950), based on an actual murder trial, to be his best work. He followed with Love in a Dry Season (1951), a novel set in the South from 1920 until WWII. Then Shiloh (1952), based on the Civil War battle, was Foote’s first popular success. 

Foote wrote five novels in five years; all centered around his fictional Southern setting of Jordan County. His last book of this period, Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954), interwove stories within his setting.  

In 1954 Foote moved to Memphis. In 1956 Foote married Gwyn Rainer, and they remained married until his death. They had one son, Huger, born in 1961.

After his novel Shiloh (1952), Random House asked Foote to write a short Civil War history. He began writing the first volume using money from his 1955 Guggenheim Fellowship. It was published in 1958, followed by the second in 1963. The third took longer than the first two, mainly because of the many national distractions happening during the 1960s. It didn’t get published until 1974. Foote wrote all three volumes with an old-fashioned dip pen, ink, and a blotter. It is considered Foote’s masterpiece and is highly celebrated, regardless of criticism by academics for its lack of footnotes. In all, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–1974) contained 2,968-pages and 1.2 million words in its three volumes. 

First editions of The Civil War for sale on Biblio.com by Between the Covers- Rare Books, Inc.

Foote’s popularity grew tremendously after his inclusion in Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary on the Civil War, where he appeared in nearly 90 segments, one full hour of the eleven-hour series. However, his viewpoints expressed and his books do portray a lot of the Lost Cause mythology. 

His last major work, September, September (1978) was set in Memphis in 1957 when tensions ran high because of school integration. 

Foote died on June 27th, 2005, at the age of eight-eight, after a heart attack. 

Lesson from Foote

Foote was a novelist, with no degree in history (no college degree period) when Random House asked him to write what would become the narrative history of the Civil War. When destiny is offered, grab hold, dip your pen, and write.

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