YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Shelby Foote, 88; Novelist, Historian, Commentator on Ken Burns' 'Civil War'

June 29, 2005|Nick Owchar | Times Staff Writer

Southern novelist and historian Shelby Foote, who chronicled Mississippi Delta life in his fiction and created a panoramic history of the Civil War, died Monday in Memphis, Tenn., his wife, Gwyn, said Tuesday. He was 88.

No cause of death was given.

Best-known for the courtly eloquence he brought as commentator to Ken Burns' 1990 PBS documentary, "The Civil War," Foote belonged to a rich tradition of Mississippi storytellers that has included William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

It was his appearance in Burns' film, enthralling its 40 million viewers with his battlefield-eye-view of the war, that first gained this singular American storyteller the recognition of a wide audience.

"One of the reasons why that documentary worked itself into the bloodstream of this country is because of Shelby," Burns said.

Slight of build, his gray beard trimmed close to the jaw, Foote vividly evoked the horrors of 19th century warfare, such as the hail of bullets that cut men down at Shiloh, as well as the war's smaller moments -- days when rations ran so low that soldiers ate sloosh, a mixture of cornmeal and bacon grease. And he did it with a charming, mellow voice that seemed dipped in Delta mud.

"Shelby had a way of talking about the war that blew everyone else out of the water," Burns said. "He understood, as few historians do, that the word 'history' contains the word 'story.' I'm really going to miss him, miss the sound of his voice."

In an epic prose style, Foote told stories like an American Homer, producing over 20 years "The Civil War: A Narrative" in three volumes -- "Fort Sumter to Perryville," "Fredericksburg to Meridian" and "Red River to Appomattox."

"The American Civil War is an experience central to our lives," Foote explained in a 1987 interview contained in "Conversations With Shelby Foote," edited by William C. Carter. "The Civil War, for us, was very much similar to the Trojan War for the Greeks; the Civil War is our 'Iliad.' "

Hailed by some as an important new telling of the war, Foote's story of a nation divided was especially resonant for Americans during the tumultuous '60s and '70s when it appeared.

The "credit for recovering [the Civil War's] majesty to the attention of our skeptical and unheroic age will hereafter belong peculiarly to Mr. Foote," wrote the historian M.E. Bradford, reviewing the first volume for the National Review.

"Peculiarly" seems strange in a statement of praise, yet Foote was a man of many paradoxes: a novelist who won renown for a work of history; a recorder of great military feats who had been a self-described mediocre soldier in World War II, and an opponent of racial segregation who still loved the Confederate flag. During the controversy in 2000 over the flag on South Carolina's state capitol, Foote said its original symbolism of states' rights had been perverted by extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite his contributions to American literature, Foote never won the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, although he was inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994 when he was 78. Friends such as Carter suggested that the literary community didn't know what to think of Foote, who eluded easy categorization as either a historian or fiction writer.

"I suspect that fiction writers felt he'd abandoned their camp, and the historians sniffed at him like some outsider," Carter told the Los Angeles Times. "But then, Shelby never paid much attention to such things anyways. He always followed his own path, even if it took him to places he never intended."

Until Burns' film brought him widespread attention (and marriage proposals from smitten viewers, which greatly amused him), Foote shunned the spotlight, quietly working a 9-to-5 schedule in an upstairs room of his Memphis home. Like a man from another century, he composed the trilogy -- more than 1.5 million words in all -- with an old-fashioned dipped-ink pen. A picture of Marcel Proust, a literary hero, hung above his typewriter.

Foote once told his lifelong friend Percy, "For God's sake, Walker, do not listen to anyone who would try in any way to tell you how to shape a book. If you let anyone fiddle with your way of seeing

Foote was born Nov. 17, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., to a family that helped settle the Mississippi Delta. He was the only child of Lillian Rosenstock and Shelby Foote Sr., a meat-packing executive who died of blood poisoning when Foote was 6.

The traditions of the South were embodied in Foote's great-grandfather, Hezekiah Foote, a landowner and Confederate colonel whose horse had been shot from under him at the battle of Shiloh, although he survived. Foote's paternal grandfather, Huger, typified another kind of Southern gentleman, the rich man's son who lost much of the family fortune to gambling, a story Foote tells in his first novel, "Tournament."

Los Angeles Times Articles