Shelby Foote's War Story

From left: Courtesy of Franke Keating; Huger Foote
by Jon Meacham - April/May 2011

How a Memphis novelist’s history of the Civil War made history itself

It was supposed to be a brief assignment—eighteen months or so, tops. In 1954, with the centennial of the end of the Civil War approaching, Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, wrote the novelist Shelby Foote to propose a “short history” of the conflict. In midsummer the author traveled from his home in Memphis to meet with the publisher in New York, and the two came to terms. The target was 200,000 words; the advance, four hundred dollars. For Foote the plan was to get the book done fast and return to writing novels. “Fiction is hard work,” he recalled thinking; “history I figured, well, there’s not much to that.”

Foote was then thirty-seven. By the time he finished the third volume of his The Civil War: A Narrative, he would be fifty-six. In a notable case of literary understatement, Foote later observed, “It expanded as I wrote”—ultimately to just over 1,500,000 words, or, as Foote said, “a third of a million longer than Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, which took about the same length of time to write.” The war had come alive to him—he heard the hoofbeats and smelled the gunpowder and felt the anguish and the anxiety of Lincoln and Davis and the hundreds of thousands of unknown soldiers. “Don’t underrate it as a thing that can claim a man’s whole waking mind for years on end,” Foote wrote of the war.

Now, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war, Foote’s masterpiece is getting a new look from readers in search of the truth about a seemingly distant conflict so encrusted in myth. Written in longhand in his house in West Tennessee, The Civil War is a twentieth-century book about a nineteenth-century clash that resonates still in the twenty-first. “The further I go in my studies, the more amazed I am,” he told Walker Percy in 1956. “What a war! Everything we are or will be goes right back to that period. It decided once and for all which way we were going, and we’ve gone.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that there is “properly no history; only biography,” and to reread Foote is to see how the greatest historians are those who recognize that the past, like the present, is shaped by flawed, flesh-and-blood individuals, from presidents to foot soldiers. “The whole thing is wonderfully human.... In that furnace (the War) they were shown up, every one, for what they were.”

Born on Friday, November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi, Shelby Dade Foote, Jr., grew up in a relatively cosmopolitan atmosphere—or at least cosmopolitan by the standards of the early-century American South. Foote had Jewish ancestors in a time and place where Jews were broadly accepted in the social and cultural circles of certain Southern cities. Greenville was one of them (Foote later remarked that there were more Jews in the Greenville Country Club than there were Baptists). His father was the son of a lost Delta fortune, and one suspects that Foote’s tragic view of the world likely came in part from the saga of the Foote clan.

Shelby Jr.’s great-great-great-grandfather had bad luck back in Virginia, losing valuable tobacco land in Prince William County, and later generations gambled away the family’s sprawling Mississippi Delta plantations. Loss, then, was something young Shelby understood in his bones: It was an intrinsic element of his ancestry, the central fact of his paternal history.

His forebears fought for the Confederacy and engaged in the grim politics of Reconstruction Mississippi, but the defining influence in Foote’s youth—and thus in his life—came less from tales of Southern sentimentality and more from talk of literature, art, and philosophy in the house of William Alexander Percy, scion of a Delta dynasty and uncle of Walker. Will Percy was a planter-poet who took Walker and his brothers LeRoy and Phin in after their mother’s death, and Mr. Will, as he was known, asked young Shelby to come over to help entertain his young kinsmen when they arrived from Athens, Georgia.

The Percy salon fundamentally shaped Foote, who decided to become a novelist. His early books, particularly 1951’s Love in a Dry Season, were good but achieved little commercial success. He also had an expensive tendency to go through wives, creating obligations for alimony and child support. On the occasion of his third marriage, Foote wrote,“I cannot function outside the married state, no matter how much I’m galled inside it. (Nothing special about that. I think it’s true of most people: women as well as men.)”