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Shelby Foote, Giving Voice To a Land of Great Stories

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shelby Foote is gone, at 88.

Maybe now the Civil War can finally be over.

He had his own internal conflict. He wanted to be known as a novelist but will forever be remembered as the author of a sweetly written, three-volume narrative history of the Civil War and as a television star because of his bourbon-voiced contributions to Ken Burns's PBS series on the war. His novels were good: His Civil War history was everlasting.

He made the war interesting on TV because he looked and sounded like he had been there.

"Shelby loved to tell stories," his friend, Hodding Carter, recalled yesterday, adding that his personal stories didn't always square with the facts. In 1936, when Carter's father was hired to be editor of the Greenville, Miss., newspaper, "Shelby always claimed that he carried me in from the car."

Foote, who grew up in Greenville, worked for the newspaper. With his voice breaking, Carter said, "My dad loved him for years, the way you love your somewhat crazed youngest son."

Carter said: "Shelby was one of the truly wildasses of the Delta. That's hard to say because everybody from the Delta is a wildass."

Other Mississippi writers, Walker Percy and Josephine Haxton (who writes under the name of Ellen Douglas), were also his friends.

Foote lived in Memphis most of his life. He died there Monday night.

Another pal, Bill Pearson, was in a book club with Foote for 30 years or so. He was a valuable addition to the club, Pearson recalled yesterday, because he had read everything. Over the years, Foote assigned some of his own books -- including his first novel, "Tournament" -- to the club. He was to be the host in February to discuss Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding," but he got sick.

"Shelby always said that if he could, he would take six weeks off and read Proust all over again," Pearson said. A couple of weeks ago, Pearson visited Foote in Baptist Hospital in Memphis. They talked about books.

According to my mother, Mary, who went to Greenville High School with Foote, "Shelby was always a rebel." She remembered that he worked on the high school newspaper, the Pica. She laughed and said that for some reason they pronounced it "the peekah."

She also recalled a popular story about Foote and a history teacher named Miss McBrayer. The teacher told Foote that he would argue with the Lord, if given the chance.

The first time I met Foote, my mother introduced us in the parking lot of a Memphis bookstore. He was wispy thin and distinguished-looking. I think he had a pipe in his hand. I know he had that wonderful beard.

Years later he came to speak at a library in the Delta town where I was living. After the talk, he agreed to stop by a gathering of admirers and amateur historians. Someone sat down to play "Dixie" on the piano; someone else began parading around the living room with a Confederate flag. He and I and a few other folks left immediately.

He usually represented reflecting, reasoning southerners well.

He had a way of being that was smooth and strong. He wrote his books in longhand.

His eyes always looked real tired, like they had seen too many problems and not enough solutions. Or maybe too much Proust.

I called him once in the late 1980s to ask him to write a nonfiction story for a magazine I was editing. It was in the middle of the afternoon. His wife laughed and said he couldn't come to the phone. He was in the bathtub.

When he called me back he said he had nothing else to write about the Civil War. He had said it all. He wanted to focus on his fiction.

"He should not be misunderstood as some precious exemplar of a South that never was," Hodding Carter said yesterday. "He knew its flaws and its great comic pretensions."

Carter said: "He spoke from it rather than at it. Shelby was a person who demonstrated repeatedly that growth can be a continuing matter for a writer. That you don't have a bright flame in youth then burn out."

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