Shelby Foote

Major Works

Shelby Foote talks to Robert McCarty. Photo courtesy of Frances McCarty.

Shelby Foote talks to Robert McCarty. Photo courtesy of Frances McCarty.

  • September September (1978)
  • The Civil War (1974) three volumes
    • The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville.
      The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian.
    • The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 3: Red River to Appomattox
  • Three Novels (1964)
  • Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954)
  • Tournament (1949)
  • Shiloh (1948-1952)
  • Follow Me Down (1948-1952)
  • Love in a Dry Season (1948-1952)
  • Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign
  • Jordan County: A Landscape in the Round (play)

Shelby Foote: A Biography

by Dana Lance (SHS)

Dana Lance, SHS Researcher

Dana Lance, SHS Researcher

Born during the Jazz age when money was abundant, and growing up during the Great Depression when money was scarce, Shelby Foote experienced many changes that greatly influenced his ideas and writings. There was definitely much to write about, having lived in the heart of the South where cotton plantations thrived, where the depression hit hard, and where the prospect and excitement of war was always in the air. Shelby Foote’s ancestors also created exciting elements for his fiction and influenced his work. The details of Foote’s family background, although looked at with a clear perspective which is different from the sentimental, often gossipy, geneologizing common among most good southern families, is directly related to Foote’s work. Not only do they appear as elements for his fiction, they also “exemplify what he sees as the classic Delta aristocracy, providing the grounding of Foote’s treatment of the Civil War” (White 14).

The Foote family can be traced back several generations starting with Shelby Foote’s great grandfather Hezekiah William Foote, who settled, not in the Delta, but in Noxubee County near Macon. Hezekiah did very well for himself. He studied law, became a clerk of the Circuit Court, and prospered as a planter. By 1861 he owned one hundred slaves and cultivated over one thousand acres. Although he opposed secession very much, he was loyal to the Confederacy and served as an officer at Shiloh and other battles. After the war, he moved to Columbus where he became a Circuit Court Judge. However, he retired soon after as a protest to the new reconstruction policies. Over the next few years he was a prominent leader in ending the reconstruction in Mississippi. His wife, Mary Dade Foote, died in the year 1855 after giving birth to Shelby Foote’s grandfather, Hugar Lee Foote. Hezekiah was remarried a total of three times, and through one of his wives gained inheritance to a very large plantation in Washington County. Soon after acquiring this land, he enlarged it by buying two other adjacent plantations on the shores of Lake Washington in Washington County (White 13). Hugar Lee, Shelby’s grandfather was put  in charge of one of his father’s plantations when he was only twenty-four. He also did well for himself, prospering as a merchant in Macon, as Sheriff of Sharkey County, and as a State Senator in the years 1887 and 1889. Hugar was married to Kate Shelby, the novelist’s grandmother, who gave birth to Shelby Dade Foote, the novelist’s father. At some point, Hugar and his family moved to Mount Holly, one of his father’s other plantations. It is this large estate, containing almost thirty rooms, that is the setting for Shelby Foote’s fiction.

Mount Holly was sold in 1908, and Hugar and his prosperous family moved to Greenville where they lost almost all of their fortune. It is in Greenville that Shelby Dade Foote grew up, married, and fathered Shelby Foote, Junior, the Mississippi novelist and historian (White 14).

Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi.  However, his early childhood memories are spread thinly through a series of towns including Jackson, Vicksburg, Pensacola, and Mobile (White 15). The reason for this transient behavior was his father’s job. Foote says that his father “never had any intentions of doing anything with his life, so far as I know, until he married my mother and lost all of his money” (Carter 152). Therefore Morris Rosenstock, Foote’s maternal grandfather, used his influence to secure Shelby, Senior, a job with Armour and Company. The corporation moved the family around a lot, but Shelby, Senior, did well and was soon promoted to Southern Regional Superintendent and stationed in Mobile. However, before the family could unpack their belongings, Shelby, Senior, died of blood poisoning (Phillips 4). Foote’s father was buried in the family cemetery,  which was established many generations earlier near Rollingfork, and is the place Shelby Foote eventually expects to lie (White 14).

Six-year-old Foote and his mother returned to Greenville , Mississippi, to live. Shelby began school in the year 1922 and his mother Lillian opened a gift shop. She used what little profits there were to purchase a headstone for the family plot. She also studied shorthand, and in the year 1925 accepted a job with Armour and Company and moved back to Pensacola where Shelby attended public schools, completing the fourth through the seventh grade. However, due to the illness of Mrs. Foote’s father, Shelby and his mother moved back to Greenville in the year 1929 where Foote entered Greenville High School (Phillips 5). During his high school years Foote began to think of himself as a writer. Shelby was a year behind his original class because he chose to follow his own interests rather than those assigned by  the principals and teaches. “On several occasions he was expelled for pranks and what the staff considered to be insubordination” (Phillips 8). In addition, Foote’s love for reading was much stronger than his desire for academic knowledge, and at times distracted him from his schoolwork. Shelby spent his summers playing golf and swimming at the local country club. It was there in the year 1931 that he met the Percy boys, who later became his closest and most lasting friends (Phillips 6).

Foote’s friendship with the Percy boys fostered an ambiance favorable to the development of his own ambitions. Foote’s family was not literary on either side. He  does not know exactly where his writing ability came from, but he admits that his second family, the Percys, were a big literary influence. Shelby Foote is said to have spent as much time in the Percy home as he did in his own, maybe even more (White 15). Both Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (another Mississippi writer) began writing in high school (Howard). In the year 1935, Shelby Foote followed his good friend Percy to the University of North Carolina. While there, he contributed eight stories, some of which contain his Jordan County theme, to the Carolina Magazine (White 16). However, Foote returned to Greenville after only two years without a degree (Phillips 2). Upon his return, Foote wrote the primary draft of his first novel Tournament. He tried to publish it but was told that it was too experimental and should be held for more revision. He then joined the Mississippi National Guard as a protest to Hitler’s war. His writings were interrupted when the guard was mobilized in the year 1940. At the time, Foote was only an artillery sergeant, but soon he qualified for Officer Candidate School; and in 1942, Foote was commissioned and promoted to Captain. However, while at a base in Northern Ireland, Shelby was accused of insubordination because he was in Belfast without leave, visiting the Irish girl,Tess Lavery of Belfast, whom he later married. In 1944, Shelby Foote was court martialed and dismissed from the service. In 1946 he divorced Tess and in 1948 he married Marguerite “Peggy” Desommes of Memphis. Together they had one daughter, Margaret, who was born in 1949. Peggy and Foote divorced in 1952.

When Foote returned to the United States in 1944, he worked briefly for the Associated Press in New York. However, within a year he had a job with the Intelligence Branch and worked there until the following November. Foote then returned to Greenville where he held several jobs including doing construction work, serving as a radio copywriter, and serving as a reporter for the Delta Democrat- Times. In his spare time, Foote also resumed his writing. He pulled his novel Tournament, the first of his Jordan County series, out of the closet and began working with it as his primary literary concern (White 16-18).

“Flood Burial, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, was the first item that Foote sold. It was a story adapted from the novel. Later that year, another episode from the novel was published as a slim book entitled The Merchant of Bristol. The entire novel Tournament was finally published in the year 1949.  Late in the 1940’s Shelby Foote began writing letters to Walker Percy (they had been friends since they were in high school in Greenville, Mississippi), and their letter writing continued until Walker Percy died in 1990 (Tolson).

Foote was also interested in the impact of the great historical tournament, the Civil War, on Mississippi and the Delta. Shelby intended to write a trilogy about the three battles that affected Mississippi the most but produced only Shiloh, which was written in 1948 but was not published until 1952. While waiting for Shiloh to be published, Foote produced the second and third novels in the Jordan County series which were Follow Me Down and Love in a Dry Season. Two years later, in 1954, Foote published Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative , which was comprised of several interrelated stories centered around his well-known theme, Jordan County (White 16-18).

Foote then moved to Memphis and began a new era in both his personal life and his work. Upon moving to Memphis, Foote changed his writing style. He did not change the subject, but he used a new technique all together. He began writing a short history of the Civil War, which was originally planned to be only two hundred and fifty thousand words, but turned into three volumes with almost two million words. In this Civil War narrative, Foote uses all of his natural storytelling abilities and his clear prose style (White 17-18). The Civil War interested Shelby Foote because to him writing history is much like writing a novel, only more complicated” (Phillips 6). The writing of The Civil War took nearly twenty years and occupied almost all of Shelby’s time but won him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize (Abbott 503). Although almost all of Foote’s time during this twenty year period was occupied by The Civil War, Foote did affirm his intentions to resume writing fiction by reprinting Follow Me Down, Jordan County, and Love in a Dry Season in the one volume edition entitled Three Novels. Following the publication of the final volume of The Civil War in 1974, Foote returned his attention to Jordan County and in 1978 produced September September (White 18-19). Shelby Foote married for the third time in 1956, (Gwyn Rainer of Memphis) and they were married until his death. One son, Huger, was born in 1961. Foote and his new family lived in Memphis when he died. At the time of this writing, Foote was working on a major novel of Jordan County to be called Two Gates to the City (White 16-19).

Although Shelby Foote began his career writing novels, (he wrote five in five years), he is known primarily for his huge three-volume narrative history of the Civil War, which he began in the early 1950’s and finished in 1974.  When Ken Burns produced the documentary The Civil War, Foote’s national recognition was assured as Foote was the commentator in Ken Burns’s 11–hour PBS documentary.

Foote died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis on June 27, 2005, at age 88. He was interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. His grave is beside the family plot of General Forrest.

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A Review of Love in a Dry Season

by Dana Lance (SHS)

Shelby Foote’s work is based mainly on his experiences and the history of his native hometown, Greenville, Mississippi. Discussion of this little metropolis in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta may not be  exciting biographical material for a literary study, but is definitely important in appreciating his work. By declaring himself first and last as a novelist, Foote writes detailed novels about the Delta (White preface). Love in a Dry Season is a perfect example of Foote’s typical writing style.

As the story opens, the reader learns the history of the three main families in a brief but detailed narrative. One is first introduced to the Barcrofts, a strange family of three that includes an overprotective, retired major, and two reclusive daughters, one of whom later becomes the target of a cruel and heartbreaking love affair. Next the reader is introduced to Jeff and Amy Carruthers, an unhappily married couple, together only because of their money and good social standing. Amy, the disloyal wife and flirt, also becomes passionately involved in the tangled love affair with Amanda Barcroft and their object of obsession, Harley Drew, concluding part one of the novel.

At first, one begins to think of Harley Drew as the protagonist of the story, the male hero. However, as the plot thickens in part two, the reader begins to see through Drew’s charming southern graces, noticing his true manipulative and selfish manners. The reader realizes that Drew’s true intention is to marry a woman for her money, not her love. Harley Drew abandons Amanda Barcroft, thinking that he sees better opportunities in the wealthy Amy Carruthers. However, he receives unexpected results, showing Foote’s inclination for a complicated, complex plot with many twists and turns. A theme of isolation and decline through the generations is carried throughout the novel by both the Barcrofts and the Carruthers. Ironically, another theme, war, is given many twists and is used as metaphor throughout the novel (White 38).

Love in a Dry Season is Shelby Foote’s third novel set on his famous fictional property called Jordan County. Between the years 1949 and 1954, Foote published five novels directly and indirectly concerned with this fictional land (White preface). While reading Love in a Dry Season, the reader begins to wonder what causes the characters’ strange behaviors and personalities. It has been said “that the details of Foote’s family background are all directly relevant to his work, appearing as elements in his fiction” (White 14). While reading the novel, the reader must wonder about the true identities of each character. Love in a Dry Season is an emotional novel, dealing with human failures, decline, and isolation. With the exception of a few sexual scenes which, in my opinion, are strictly there as attention getters, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and think that anyone would enjoy and learn from Shelby Foote’s clear-eyed perspective on life and the society brilliantly portrayed in his work.

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A Telephone Interview with Shelby Foote (1997)

by Dana Lance (SHS)

When did you become interested in writing?

“When I was fourteen or fifteen years old.”

Was there something in particular that got you interested in writing?

“Yes, It was reading. I loved to read.”

Who was your favorite author?

“I don’t know, but the book that I read that made the biggest impression on me was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.”

What kind of student were you in high school?

“I was about a B- or a C+. I liked school. I had a lot of free time and I enjoyed working on the school paper.”

Besides having your Jordan County theme, are any of your novels related?

“No, the Jordan County theme is probably all.”

Was there something in particular that inspired you to write Love in a Dry Season?

“I guess that I just made it up in my head. However, Follow Me Down was based on an actual murder case there in Greenville.”

How long does it usually take you to write one of your novels?

“Each novel takes about a year from the time it is started. I write about 100,000 words a year.”

What is your favorite work that you have done?

“I don’t know. It varies from day to day.”

What inspired you to switch from writing fiction to writing history?

“One day I got a letter from Random House asking me to write a short history of the Civil War. I said that I would, but when I started, I realized that I couldn’t do it. So I wrote them back telling them that I would write a long one, and twenty years later, I finished The Civil War.

Do you prefer to think of yourself as a novelist or as a historian?

“I prefer to think of myself as a writer who writes both fiction novels and history.”

Besides living in Mississippi, which parts of your life do you think had the greatest impact on your writing?

“Probably my time spent in the army and my work as a journalist.”

Do you base the characters in your novels on people that you know?

“Yes, but it usually takes two or three personalities to create one character. If I used only one, my work would be flat.”

Are you currently working on anything now?

“Yes, but it is nothing to talk about. I never talk about my current projects.”

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Related Websites

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  • Abbott, Dorothy. Mississippi Writers: An Anthology. Jackson, Ms: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
  • Carter, William. Conversations with Shelby Foote. Jackson, Ms: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
  • Howard, Edwin. “Literary Pals: Correspondence of Foote and Percy.” Memphis Business Journal 18 (1996): 25.
  • Lance, Dana. Personal Interview. December 3, 1997.
  • Phillips, Robert. Shelby Foote. Jackson, Ms: Mississippi Library Commission, 1997.
  • Phillips, Robert. Shelby Foote Novelist and Historian. Jackson, Ms: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
  • Tolson, Jay.  The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy.  New York:  The Center for Documentary Studies, 1997.
  • Waters, Harry. “Prime Time’s New Star.” Newsweek 8 Oct. 1990: 60.
  • White, Helen. Shelby Foote. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Excerpts from an interview with Shelby Foote

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