by John Sledge
Reynolds Price called him “the last of the Southern gentlemen.” Shelby Foote mesmerized millions of Americans with his rich, syrupy accent, graying beard and sad eyes in Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary, “The Civil War.” Though he had written a readable and generally well-reviewed three-volume history of the conflict, Foote was a virtual unknown until the Burns film. Over the course of the 11-hour documentary, he appeared in 90 spots, accounting for an hour of the total air time, and emerged a star. For months afterwards, invitations to speak, interview requests and even marriage proposals poured into his Memphis home.
The time has long been right for a biography of Foote, and one has at last appeared.
Foote was born in Greenville, Miss., in 1916. His mother was from a prominent Jewish Delta family. His father’s career took the family to several Southern towns, including Mobile. When Shelby was only 6, his father died and the family returned to Greenville.
“I was given clearly to understand as a child that I was a Southern aristocrat,” Foote later recalled, and he lived like one, dashing about with belles and drinking prodigiously. Still, he felt himself to be, in ways, different from his fellows, and struck some as arrogant and aloof.
But not everyone. Among Foote’s closest friends was the future novelist Walker Percy. Foote and Walker maintained a lifelong correspondence, which is one of the glories of Southern letters, and Chapman quotes from it extensively and to good effect.
Chapman sketches Foote’s days at the University of North Carolina (where he was a habitué of local bawdy houses) and his military service during World War II. Shortly after the war, Foote sold a couple of short stories, and was optimistic about his chances for literary success. His writing regimen, which would eventually become famous, involved a dip pen and ink pot.
Foote’s early novels, including “Shiloh,” “Follow Me Down” and “Love in a Dry Season,” garnered some praise and demonstrated a maturing talent. Faulkner read “Follow Me Down” and told Foote it was “good,” but then fixed his eye and ordered him to “do better next time.”
In his novels, Foote dealt with the conundrums of race and class in the South. But during the civil rights struggle he avoided personal engagement with just those issues. According to Chapman, he “did almost nothing to effect change” but instead chose to retreat into the past, burying himself in the composition of his monumental Civil War narrative. Originally commissioned as a short history by Random House, the project took on a life of its own. Twenty years in the making, this million-word masterpiece captivated readers with its lucid, energetic prose. Foote reveled in writing it and was not shy in comparing himself to past greats like Shakespeare and Gibbon.
While writing his history, Foote visited the battlefields and immersed himself in contemporary accounts. By the time he completed the trilogy, his knowledge of the war was encyclopedic. This, according to Chapman, and Foote’s gifted storytelling ability, were what attracted Ken Burns, rather than the mellifluous accent that was to so enthrall viewers.
Chapman’s evaluation of Foote is unsatisfactory on a number of counts. Perhaps most irritating is his criticism that “The Civil War: A Narrative” slights the political angle. A number of reviewers noted the same thing; one called it “largely a battlefield book.” But battlefield books are necessary, and it is as a military history informed by a novelist’s sensibility that the set is significant.
This biography is certainly worth reading, but without Foote’s direct commentary, it is ultimately half a work.