Shelby Foote Biography


Birthday: November 17, 1916 (Scorpio)

Born In: Greenville, Mississippi, United States

Shelby Foote was an American novelist, historian, and author. He grew up during the era of Great Depression. He saw several changes in his life that influenced his writings. He lived in Southern America among the cotton plantations, where depression hit hard. There was always an air of uncertainty and a looming prospect of war. He is widely known for his three-volume historical account called "The Civil War: A Narrative”. While he was well known among his peers, he gained popularity when he appeared in Ken Burn's PBS documentary 'The Civil War in 1990'. He was an ardent Confederate supporter and even mentioned in an interview that he would have fought for the Confederacy and believed that they fought for good things. He negated slavery and felt that there was a lot of misunderstanding associated with the Confederate flag and slavery. His biographers have mentioned that his writing mostly hyperbolized the tensions of the war and portrayed the social prescriptions of Southern paternalism.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Shelby Dade Foote Jr.

Died At Age: 88


Spouse/Ex-: Gwyn Rainer, Peggy DeSommes, Tess Lavery

father: Shelby Dade Foote

mother: Lillian Rosenstock

children: Huger, Margaret

Born Country: United States

Novelists Historians

Died on: June 27, 2005

place of death: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Ancestry: Austrian American

Notable Alumni: University Of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

U.S. State: Mississippi

More Facts

education: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

awards: Guggenheim Fellowship
National Humanities Medal
Dos Passos Prize

St. Louis Literary Award
Helmerich Award

Childhood & Early Life
Shelby Foote was born on November 17, 1916, in Greenville, Mississippi, to Shelby Dade Foote and Lillian Rosenstock. He grew up in the Episcopal faith, and also attended the synagogue till he was eleven.
His family lived in various places when his father worked at Armour and Company. They lived in Greenville, Jackson, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama.
His father passed away in Mobile, Alabama when Shelby was only five years old and he moved back to Greenville with his mother.
When he was 15, he met Walker Percy with whom he formed a lifelong literary and fraternal bond. They both influenced each other's writing.
Shelby Foote was also the editor of "The Pica," the local newspaper of Greenville High School. In 1935, he wanted to attend the University of North Carolina along with the Percy boys but was denied admission at first. However, he managed to get enrolled in the university later.
He was always interested in learning more than getting a degree and would be often found in libraries more than classrooms.
While in college, he started to send fiction pieces to Carolina magazine, which was an award-winning journal.
In 1937, he returned to Greenville and started working in construction and also for the local newspaper, 'The Delta Democrat Times.'
In 1940, he joined the Mississippi National Guard and was sent to Northern Ireland in 1943.
He was dismissed from the army for forging documents when he visited his then-girlfriend Teresa Lavery outside the official military lines.
He also enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1945, but was discharged as private and never participated in any combat.
After his stint in the armed forces, he returned to Greenville and started working in a radio station. His first novel was called ‘Flood Burial’, published by The Saturday Evening Post in 1946. He received $750 for his book and quit his job and began his career as a full-time writer.
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Shelby Foote’s writing career began with his first novel ‘Tournament’, which was published in 1949. His planter grandfather inspired the story.
His next book, ‘Follow Me Down’ (1950), was a fictional account of a Greenville murder trial that he had witnessed.
When he wrote ‘Love in a Dry Season’, published in 1951, he portrayed the lives of the upper class in Mississippi during the Great Depression.
His book ‘In Shiloh’ (1952) was a historical narrative of the American Civil War written in the first-person perspective of seventeen different characters.
This novel had garnered some popularity and sold 6000 copies as soon as it was published and was critically acclaimed by readers and reviewers. However, some scholars and historians like M. McGrady and Timothy S. Huebner have mentioned that he was biased towards the Southern cause throughout the novel, and depicted the Confederate cause as a rebellion for liberty and disregarded slavery and its consequences.
His piece ‘Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative’, published in 1954, was a collection of novellas, sketches, and short stories set in the fictional county of Mississippi.
His novel ‘September, September’ (1978) was another fictional work where he wrote about the abduction of the son of an affluent African American man by three white Southerners set in Memphis in 1957.
Foote was admired by many of his peers like Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. His idol, author William Faulkner, even mentioned him in a university lecture and said that he showed promise as a writer if he wrote as Shelby Foote and not Faulkner.
His works were in the recommendation list of ‘The New Yorker’ and also ‘The New York Times Book Review’.
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During the 1960s, he was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1952, Shelby Foote moved to Memphis to continue his work on ‘Two Gates to the City’, which was supposed to his masterpiece epic. However, he was struggling to complete his work, and during this time, he was contacted by Bennett Cerf of Random House publishing. Cerf proposed the idea of writing a short story about the Civil War. Even though he was not a historian, he was offered a contract of approximately 200,000 words.
Foote used non-traditional methods and only referred to the 128-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. He referred to himself as a ‘novelist-historian." He never added footnotes like standard historical accounts because he believed that if affected the readability and the experience of readers.
While he was working on his would-be magnum opus, he soon realized that it could not be finished according to the Cerf's requirements. Instead, he proposed the idea of expanding the project into three volumes of almost 600,000 words each to be completed within nine years.
His proposal was accepted by Random House, and he began writing his 3000-page historical account ‘The Civil War: A Narrative’. The individual volumes were called ‘Fort Sumter to Perryville’ (1958), ‘Fredericksburg to Meridian’ (1963), and ‘Red River to Appomattox’ (1974).
In his 20 years as an author with no stable paying job, he supported himself with the help of Guggenheim Fellowships, grants from Ford Foundations, and loans from Walker Percy.
Family & Personal Life
Shelby Foote married his Irish girlfriend Teresa (Tess) Lavery in 1944 when he was 28 years old and moved to New York after the marriage. However, the union did not last long, and they were divorced by March 1946.
When he was 32, he met Marguerite "Peggy" Desommes, who came from a prestigious family in Memphis. They were soon involved in a romantic relationship, and Peggy became pregnant with Foote's first child.
They married the same year and moved to Greenville. Foote was engrossed in his work, and Peggy had a mental illness, and their marriage fell apart. They divorced in 1952, and Peggy took their daughter Margaret along with her to Memphis.
His third and final marriage was with Gwyn Rainer. They had a son, Huger Foote, in 1961, and they remained together till his death in 2005.
On June 27, 2005, Foote passed away at the Baptist Hospital in Memphis when he was 88 years old. He suffered from a pulmonary embolism, followed by a heart attack, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.

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