Thursday, November 17, 2016

Birthday: "I'm a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That's the reason it took me 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War."


Shelby Dade Foote, Jr. (1916-2005)

An only child, Foote grew up where he was born: Greenville, Mississippi. His father died when the boy was five; his mother never remarried. At fifteen he became best friends to the boy Walker Percy, who, orphaned, had moved to Greenville with his brother to live with an uncle. Percy and Foote remained fast friends for sixty years.

Foote spent two years at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1930s, then went home and worked construction when there was any, and some for the local newspaper. In 1940 he joined the Mississippi National Guard, rising to captain of artillery.

When the war came his unit was shipped from place to place, the last place being Northern Ireland. There he doctored the paperwork to cover borrowing a military vehicle to visit his girlfriend, who lived in a off-limits area. Caught out, Foote was court-martialed and kicked out of the Army. He married the girl, put her into a navy convoy to go live with his mother, and went to work for the Associated Press in New York. The wife divorced him and married the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki.

Foote joined the Marines, as a private, in early 1945, and was discharged late in the year. He sold a short story to The Saturday Evening Post in 1946, and with the money set up to be a writer.

He had a lot on his mind: novels poured out in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952 and 1954. The last- Shiloh- was an attempt to portray the battle from multiple characters’ viewpoints, and won good reviews. William Faulkner, teaching at the University of Virginia, commented that Foote had the makings of a great writer if he’d just stop writing William Faulkner and start writing Shelby Foote.

Foot embarked on his version of the Great American Novel, and- like most such endeavors- promptly got bogged down. He slammed away at it for years before announcing, in 1981, he’ given it up. He never really stopped tinkering with Two Gates to the City, which was never published.

Not famous, but critically praised, Foote came to the notice of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, who hired him to write a one-volume, 200,000-word history of the Civil War for the 1961-65 centennial. Foote signed the contract, plotted out his project, and determined it could not be done in under a million words, in three volumes, over nine years. Cerf said yes, and twenty years later, in 1974, the final version of Foote’ civil war trilogy was published. All those years he got by on modest royalties from his novels, two Guggenheim fellowships, Ford Foundation grants, and loans from Walker Percy, by then himself a successful novelist.

The books sold well, but it was not until more than a decade later that Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, vaulted Foote and his history into the best-seller lists. After an initial interview at his Memphis home, Foote proved so compelling a screen personality he ended up accounting for 90 segments in the series- one hour out of the eleven. A paperback version of the trilogy was selling a thousand copies a day when the series debuted on public television in September 1990; the series sold over 400,000 copies and made Foote, then 74, a millionaire.

Foote spent the rest of his life being Shelby Foote, celebrity historian. He narrated another PBS series, The 1840 Carolina Village, gave and gave lots of interviews. In 2001, at 85, he spent three hours with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb for a marathon Book Notes interview. Honors piled up: a UNC honorary degree; a fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and a valedictory appearance in Ken Burns’s series, Baseball, recalling his meeting with Babe Ruth.

He considered United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be two authentic geniuses of the war. When he stated this opinion in conversation with one of General Forrest's granddaughters, she replied after a pause, "You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family."

When he died in 2005, Shelby Foote was buried in a plot next to General Forrest, over whose grave an equestrian statue was erected after city fathers bargained to have him interred there rather than where he’d specified. In 2015 the city fathers of Memphis disinterred Forrest and his wife and put the statue up for sale, as part of the post-Charleston church shooting reaction to the glorification of the slaveholding South. If only Foote had lived to comment on that.

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