Shelby Foote (1916-2005)
- Tournament (1949)
- Shiloh (1948-1952)
- Follow Me Down (1948-1952)
- Love in a Dry Season (1948-1952)
- Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative (1954)
- Three Novels (1964)
- 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
- September September (1978)
- Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign
- Jordan County: A Landscape in the Round (play)
Photo above: Shelby Foote talks
to Robert McCarty. Photo courtesy of Frances McCarty.
: A Biography
By Dana Lance (SHS)
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
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
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
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
"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 the Foote was the commentator
in Ken Burns’s 11–hour PBS documentary.
2008 UPDATE: 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.
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
Interview with Shelby Foote
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
“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
Besides having your Jordan County theme, are any of your novels
“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
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
“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
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
“Yes, but it usually takes two or three personalities
to create one character. If I used only one, my work would
Are you currently working on anything now?
“Yes, but it is nothing to talk about. I never
talk about my current projects.”
Foote spoke at the University at Albany on March 20, 1997 as
part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting
Writers Series. The article by Paul Grondahl appeared in the
Fall 1997 issue of Albany, the University's magazine.
York State Writers Institute (1997) information about Foote.
this site, the New York Writers Institute portrays Shelby
Foote not only as a novelist, but also as a historian.
Shelby Foote is convincing in his role as commentator in
Ken Burns’s 11–hour PBS documentary The Civil War
because of his air of relaxed authority.
Foote Papers Inventory at the University of North Carolina.
Miss site has biography of Foote.
Commercial Appeal obituary for Shelby Foote.
Foote is interviewed by C-Span. You can read the transcript
has transcripts and video clips of several sessions with Shelby
RETURN TO TOP OF PAGE
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
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.