MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Novelist and historian Shelby Foote, whose Southern storyteller’s touch inspired millions to read his multivolume work on the Civil War, has died. He was 88.
Foote died Monday night, his widow, Gwyn, said Tuesday.
Foote, a Mississippi native and longtime Memphis resident, wrote six novels but is best remembered for his three-volume, 3,000-page history of the Civil War and his appearance on the PBS series “The Civil War.”
He worked on the book for 20 years, using a flowing, narrative style that enabled readers to enjoy it like a historical novel.
“I can’t conceive of writing it any other way,” Foote once said. “Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that’s your goal.”
That work landed Foote a leading role on Ken Burns’ 11-hour Civil War documentary, first shown on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1990.
“He was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, a friend and fellow Mississippi native.
Foote’s soft drawl and gentlemanly manner on the Burns film made him an instant celebrity, a role with which he was unaccustomed and, apparently, somewhat uncomfortable.
One volume became three
Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in World War II, though he never saw combat.
Foote’s first novel, “Tournament,” was started before the war and published in 1949. Then came “Follow Me Down” in 1950, “Love in a Dry Season” in 1951, “Shiloh” in 1952 and “Jordan County” in 1954.
That same year, Random House asked him to write a one-volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three-volume project finally finished in 1974.
In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative” as No. 15 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.
Reading, he said, was as much a part of his work as writing.
After finishing his sixth novel, “September, September,” in 1978, he took off three years to read.
Though hardly a recluse, Foote had long been known around Memphis as having little interest in parties and public gatherings. And he was often outspoken about his likes and dislikes.
“Most people, if the truth be told, are gigantic bores,” he once said. “There’s no need to subject yourself to that kind of thing.”
Writing with a dipped pen
Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy 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 don’t 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.
Though facing a busy city street, the two-story house was almost hidden from view by trees and shrubs.
“If I were a wealthy man, I’d have someone on that gate,” he said.
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 day’s writing after it was finished.
Married three times, Foote has a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. He and Gwyn married in 1956, three years after he moved to Memphis.
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