Shelby Foote Dies; Novelist And Historian Of Civil War

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shelby Foote, 88, the novelist and historian whose three-volume study of the Civil War and appearances on the PBS series "The Civil War" brought him national celebrity, died June 27 at Baptist Hospital in Memphis, his city of residence. He had had a heart attack after a recent pulmonary embolism.

Mr. Foote was a college dropout, a court-martialed Army veteran of World War II, a testy and provocative personality and an acclaimed novelist.

He was called William Faulkner's heir apparent for his early fictional work, often grim and gothic tales from his native Mississippi that focused on farmers, gamblers and assorted ne'er-do-wells.

"The Civil War: A Narrative," released between 1958 and 1974, was written with a literate flair, a mournful lyricism that underscored the human agony of battle, defeat and victory. He received darts for the books' perceived failings as an academic undertaking; he didn't bother with footnotes and touched only vaguely on larger themes of the war's origin and ramifications.

Mr. Foote answered his critics by saying: "My hope was that if I wrote well enough about what you would have seen with your own eyes, you yourself would see how those things, the politics and economics, entered in. I quite deliberately left those things out. My job was to put it all in perspective, to give it shape. Look at Flaubert: He didn't criticize Emma Bovary as a terrible woman; he didn't judge her; he just put down what happened."

Honey-voiced, sporting a full beard and drawing from a seemingly endless well of war anecdotes, he became a star of Ken Burns's 11-hour public television documentary, which aired in 1990. Described as gregarious, he nevertheless disliked the torrent of sudden interest in his life. He told People magazine, "What I do requires steady work and isolation from all this hoorah."

Mr. Foote wrote relentlessly for hours at a time with an old-fashioned dipped pen. When he finished a project, he always rewarded himself by rereading Marcel Proust, whose "Remembrance of Things Past," he noted, had 1,250,000 words.

He proudly added that his Civil War volumes numbered 1,655,000 words.

Shelby Dade Foote Jr. was born Nov. 17, 1916, in Greenville, Miss. He inherited colorful ancestors, including frontiersmen, gamblers who squandered fortunes and soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.

His father, a supervisor for Armour Meats, died during a medical procedure, and he was raised by his mother. As a child, Mr. Foote was often lonely and took to reading everything from Tarzan to Tom Swift. He found Charles Dickens's "David Copperfield" a particular delight. Drawn to English classes, he was otherwise a proudly lackluster student at the University of North Carolina, saying that seeking good grades was like bowing to authority.

He said the peak of his college career was a surprise visit he made to Faulkner with his close friend, the future novelist Walker Percy. Pulling up to Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss., Percy was too shy to enter the house, but Foote knocked on the door, stayed several hours and apparently never bothered to tell Faulkner of his friend in the car.

A much-admired collection of his correspondence with Percy appeared in 1997.

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