Associated Press / 29 June 2005
Civil War historian Shelby Foote dies
By Woody Baird
Memphis, Tenn. – With his pointy gray beard, soft Southern accent and gentlemanly carriage, Shelby Foote seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph.
It was that style, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, that turned him into a national celebrity after he lent his observations on the conflict for Ken Burns’ 1990 “Civil War” series.
“We had planned to film 30 or 40 historians. Shelby Foote was in it 89 times or something like that. The next closest was seven or eight times,” Burns said.
Foote, who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War and six novels before the Burns documentary, was remembered Tuesday as a gifted storyteller. He died Monday night at 88.
“He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians. And he had a gift for character, for the apt quotation, for the dramatic event, for the story behind the story,” said James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. “He could also write a crackling good narrative of a campaign or a battle.”
Though a native Southerner, Foote did not favor the South in his history or novels and was not counted among those Southern historians who regard the Civil War as the great Lost Cause.
He publicly criticized segregationist politicians and abruptly abandoned a move to the Alabama coast in the 1960s because of the racist attitudes he found there.
“He was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, a friend and fellow Mississippi native.
Early in his career, Foote took up the habit of writing by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal than using a typewriter.
Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a “jackleg reporter” for the crusading editor Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, Foote got to know William Faulkner.
Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in World War II, though he never saw combat.
After the war, he went back to Greenville to write commercials for a radio station. “Then I sold my first story to the Saturday Evening Post. I quit my job and haven’t had another one since,” he said.
His first novel, “Tournament,” was started before the war and published in 1949. Then came “Follow Me Down” in 1950, “Love in a Dry Season” in 1951, “Shiloh” in 1952 and “Jordan County” in 1954.
That same year, Random House asked him to write a single-volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three-volume, 3,000-page project finally finished in 1974.
In 1999, the Modern Library ranked that work, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” as No. 15 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.
“Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that’s your goal,” Foote once said.
His final novel, “September, September,” published in 1978, tells the story of an ignorant white couple who kidnap the son of a rich black businessman in the 1950s. It became the basis for a TV move starring fellow Memphis resident Cybill Shepherd.
After Burns’ 11-hour PBS series, Foote would say that being a celebrity made him uneasy, and he worried it might detract from the seriousness of his work.
“This Civil War stuff is driving me crazy. I thought I had my discharge,” he told the AP in 1990. “People keep wanting me to come somewhere and speak and I enjoy it. But I disapprove of it.”
In addition to his wife, Gwyn, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. A graveside service is planned in Memphis on Thursday.
A couple of people have asked me how it went…so in case anyone else is curious, here’s a little bit about last Saturday’s gathering.
Saturday was a typically gorgeous June day in SoCal: sunny, just warm enough to notice the heat. My friend Darin, with whom I was staying in Santa Paula, drove me up to campus. We listened to an NPR report on George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead – an entirely silly piece of fluff, but it did make Darin wonder why we didn’t bring Romero to campus to talk about the Catholicity of zombie movies…
Movies (and television) have a hold on the conference, its name notwithstanding. Past conferences have featured screenwriters. Our keynote speaker this year was Steve McEveety, producer of, among other things, The Passion of the Christ. (He wasn’t taking scripts.) We had a panel on film from a Catholic perspective which included me, Jim Bemis, and Robert Brennan – Brennan writes for the Register, but his career has been in television. (After the film panel came the panel on getting your book published – I was on that one, too – and we must have lost half our audience in the break between sessions.)
The bulk of the conference was held in the library – a semicircle of chairs oriented sideways in the long entrance hall under the magnificent ceiling that was donated to the College back when I was a student. Attendance was good – over 80 this year, an interesting mix of young and old and even a few folks in the middle…
More to come.
Shelby Foote, RIP. “The singing of the bone saws,” a frequent refrain in his Civil War trilogy, was poetry. What I most remember of the letters that passed between Percy and Foote was the shared longing to sit in one another’s presence – friendship needs a life lived in common, or at least, decently regular visits.
(The birthday was yesterday. Ate sushi, saw Batman Begins. Good job, even if the action sequences dragged on. Nice to see the elements they brought in from Batman: Year One. The comic was still a good deal better, especially in its parallel stories of Gordon and Batman, and in its lack of a superbaddie full of talk about purging civilization. Liked Christian Bale. Thought Katie Holmes looked like she was wincing around the mouth every time she got emotional.)
This came to me in the shower: Thirty-two. Even though I feel like an old man – longtime married, house, kids, job, heart condition, etc. – there’s still eons of time (provided I get the standard 75 years) in which to fail.
How’s that for pessimism? And that’s after a lovely, lovely weekend spent with various friends and colleagues… The sky? Falling.
…called People of the Book – all about the nightmarish phantasmagoria that is Catholic Book Publishing. Go comment on the “Christian Chick Lit” thread, if you’ve a mind to. I don’t buy into the whole notion of baptizing the genre and making it fit for Christian readers, but I do wonder if there’s a market out there – young urban Catholic women interested in reading about women much like themselves… Plus, it seems like an area ripe for comedy. In this chapter, Patience goes to her local Catholic Singles Group. Hilarity ensues. (No, I’m not bagging on CSG’s per se…)
Below is a link to a Boston radio interview with Richard Ford in which he cites The Moviegoer as “the book that changed my life.”
Ford is the author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day (winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for fiction). He is eloquent and insightful in this lengthy interview, which includes radio listeners calling in.
Great stuff for Percy fans.
June 25 was the 24th anniversary of the purported apparitions of Our Lady in Medjugorje. For a fascinating report on Medjugorje, check out The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan. Sullivan is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who approached Medjugorje as a skeptic but was swayed by his firsthand experience and interviews with the seers who continue to receive visits from Mary.
Mary delivers a message to one of the seers each month on the 25th. Here is the English translation of today’s message:
Dear children! Today I thank you for every sacrifice that you have offered for my intentions. I call you, little children, to be my apostles of peace and love in your families and in the world. Pray that the Holy Spirit may enlighten and lead you on the way of holiness. I am with you and bless you all with my motherly blessing. Thank you for having responded to my call.
An archive of messages and further information is available at www.medjugorje.org.
An interview with Randall Sullivan is available on Godspy.
Your own, personal, Jesus
someone to hear your prayers,
someone who’s there
and you’re all alone,
flesh and bone,
by the telephone,
lift up the receiver,
i’ll make you a believer
Take second best,
put me to the test,
things on your chest,
you need to confess,
i will deliver,
you know i’m a forgiver
So tonight at Book Soup in LA, Jennifer Saginor will present and sign her memoir, Playground, the story of her childhood spent at the Playboy Mansion. (She was the daughter of a doctor who had his own quarters there.) But here’s the interesting part: Book Soup’s website gives the full title as Playground: A Childhood Lost and Found Inside the Playboy Mansion. Over at Amazon, the full title reads: Playground: A Childhood Lost Inside the Playboy Mansion.
Why the change? And once you’ve lost a childhood inside the Playboy Mansion, how on earth are you supposed to find it again?
That’s it for me for the week. I’m off to my alma mater, there to make a perfect fool of myself at the fifth annual Thomas Aquinas College Writer’s Conference! Toodles!
There are times, reading about the infinite perfections of God, about the beatitude and endless wonder of His visage, that the hope falters. Can this possibly be true? Isn’t it just the fondest wish of the human heart? Anselm’s That-Than-Which-Nothing-Greater-Can-Be-Thought?