Shelby Dade Foote, Jr., established himself as a novelist during the 1950’s, winning accolades from writers like William Faulkner. However, The Civil War, a Narrative, his landmark, three-part history of the American Civil War, has come to define him. Foote was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1916, to Shelby Dade Foote, Sr., and Lillian Rosenstock Foote. Partly the source for Foote’s fascination with the Civil War, his paternal great-grandfather was a cavalry commander at the battle of Shiloh. Although both parents’ families were at one time prestigious, Foote’s paternal grandfather gambled away his fortune, while his maternal grandfather’s finances were destroyed by the depression of the early 1920’s. With the aid of his father-in-law, Shelby Foote, Sr., gained employment with Armour and Company; while Shelby Foote, Jr., was very young his family relocated to Pensacola, Florida, and then Mobile, Alabama. After Foote’s father died of septicemia from a routine operation, Foote’s mother returned to Greenville with five-year-old Shelby, her only child. Although Foote’s mother moved them back to Pensacola briefly for employment with Armour and Company, Foote always considered Greenville his home, and by 1929 they were permanently located in the small Mississippi Delta town.
Growing up in Greenville, Foote befriended future novelist Walker Percy and his two younger brothers. The Percy boys had also lost their father, and in 1931 their mother died as well. Foote’s friendship with Walker Percy would be lifelong, and the two would spur each other’s intellectual and artistic growth. Furthermore, Foote’s constant companionship with the Percy brothers would place him within the direct influence of lawyer and writer William Alexander (Will) Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee (1941). Will Percy adopted his three younger cousins after the death of their mother; they and young Foote were influenced by Percy’s love of language, literature, and the arts.
In 1935, Foote followed Walker Percy to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The university did not accept Foote, but in a characteristic move, he argued his way into admittance. As a student, Foote was blackballed from pledging Percy’s prestigious Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity because of his part-Jewish background, an experience that influenced his progressive attitudes toward race and issues like integration, as reflected in novels like September, September. Foote was a poor student, attending only those classes he enjoyed, but he did begin his career as a writer while in Chapel Hill by contributing several stories to Carolina Magazine.
By 1937, he had returned to Greenville without a degree and begun working for the Delta Star as well as on his first novel, Tournament, a fictionalized account of his grandfather’s life. Tournament was rejected by editors, and by late 1939 Foote had joined the Mississippi National Guard in anticipation of World War II. His unit was mobilized in 1940, and he became an officer; he was eventually promoted to captain. While stationed in Northern Ireland in 1944, he earned the enmity of a superior officer who court-martialed him for a minor violation of a commonly ignored rule. Bitter at his dismissal, Foote returned to the United States and worked for a short while for the Associated Press (AP) news service as a writer. He married Tess Lavery in late 1944, then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps by January of 1945. The war ended before Foote saw combat.
Foote was divorced from his first wife by March, 1946, and his 1947 marriage to Marguerite Desommes lasted only four years, although he and his second wife had a daughter, Margaret, in 1948. After moving to Memphis, Foote married Gwyn Shea in 1956. As tempestuous as his private life was during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, however, his writing life flourished.
He first revised Tournament, which was published by Dial Press in 1949. He wrote his Civil War novel Shiloh after Tournament, but the book did not see publication until 1952. His second and third novels, Follow Me Down and Love in a Dry Season, share with Shiloh the setting of fictional Jordan County, Mississippi, and often present their stories through multiple points of view; both traits show the great influence of Foote’s literary hero, William Faulkner. Unable to progress on his planned fictional epic “Two Gates to the City,” Foote published excerpted, reworked sections as Jordan County in 1954.
Intrigued by Foote’s obvious knowledge of Civil War history, Random House editor Bennett Cerf approached Foote about writing a short narrative of the war. Foote was interested but asserted that such a history would have to be momentous, not brief. Before long, Random House had agreed, and Foote began his magnum opus, The Civil War, a Narrative. Bringing a novelist’s literary style to a rendering of Civil War history, Foote constructed his epic trilogy in the style of Homer’s The Iliad (c. 800
Although Foote’s trilogy was well received and sold well, he still toiled in relative obscurity until documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used him in 1990 as his primary commentator in his miniseries The Civil War. The great success of the series gave Foote a newfound and extensive popularity. He returned to working on his mammoth work about the Mississippi Delta, “Two Gates to the City.” Additionally, the correspondence between Foote and Walker Percy was published.
Although Foote primarily regards himself as a novelist, his The Civil War, a Narrative trilogy is the work that separates him from his contemporaries. By bringing his novelist’s gifts to writing a mammoth narrative history, Foote established the benchmark for the popular histories that follow.