Thursday, June 30, 2005
Shelby Foote, 1916-2005
Shelby Foote, Historian and Novelist, Dies at 88 : "Shelby Foote, the historian whose incisive, seasoned commentary - delivered in a drawl so mellifluous that one critic called it 'molasses over hominy' - evoked the Civil War for millions in the 11-hour PBS documentary in 1990, died on Monday at a Memphis hospital He was 88 and lived in Memphis.
Under the influence of William Alexander Percy, a local author and the uncle of young Shelby's best friend, Walker Percy, the boy took to books, discovering abiding favorites from Shakespeare to Dickens. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he wrote short stories and poems for the campus literary magazine before dropping out in 1937 without taking a degree. But he did find occasion, with Walker Percy, to visit William Faulkner in Oxford, Miss. The pair were cordially received.
...Writing in an ornate script with an old-style dip pen in his rambling magnolia-shaded house in Memphis, where the Footes had moved in 1953, he produced the 2,934-page, three-volume, 1.5 million-word military history, "The Civil War: A Narrative." At 500 to 600 words a day, with times out to visit battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles, it took him 20 years. The volumes appeared between 1958 and 1974.
Responding to the observation that it took him five times as long to write the war as its participants took to fight it, Mr. Foote pointed out that 'there were a good many more of them than there was of me.' Inspired by the works of Tacitus, Thucydides, Gibbon and, more surprising, Marcel Proust, Mr. Foote's own specially prized writer for prose style, psychological insight and the sweep of his vision, he created a history as written by a novelist, with due bows to a line that included Tolstoy, Stendhal and Stephen Crane.
Still, it remained for television to carry him to fame. In 1985 Ken Burns, planning his television documentary on the war, called on Mr. Foote, who had been recommended by his fellow Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, to be a paid consultant. The choice of an accomplished stylist steeped in Southern lore was made to order, and Mr. Foote readily established himself as the viewers' surrogate.
The series, a smash hit for public broadcasting, attracted an audience of 14 million over five nights and turned Mr. Foote into a prime-time star. His fans learned that he was a pipe smoker who loved Mozart and Vermeer and Proust (he said he had read "Remembrance of Things Past" from start to finish nine times) and drank bourbon outdoors and scotch indoors. His dog, Booker, an akita, dozed nearby as he wrote. At one point Mr. Foote was getting 20 calls a day from admirers who just wanted to have him over for dinner. He took a page from Ulysses S. Grant who, in reply to the remark 'You must get lots of mail,' said, 'Not nearly so much as I did when I answered it all.' Mr. Foote stopped writing back. "
SHELBY FOOTE'S BOOKS:
Love in a Dry Season (1951)
September, September (1978)
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958)
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963)
The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox (1974)
I am very proud of my boxed, well-worn set of the three volumes of his Civil War Narrative which I keep directly behind my desk -- at which I sometimes just stare at his books and remember that war the way Shelby Foote wrote it. I usually pull a volume out every winter and re-read some of my favorite parts of his writing and how he makes those famous legendary figures seem so human, so alive, so fallible yet simultaneously heroic. It is long but it is one of those things you should do if you care about the history of our United States and the most monumental episode in our history -- and I pray it will remain so. And if you are a Southerner, or if you wish to understand us, it is certainly required reading. May the great Shelby Foote rest in peace in his dear Southern soil.