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Civil War Historian Shelby Foote Dies

Old 06-29-05, 11:15 PM
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Civil War Historian Shelby Foote Dies

Shelby Foote
1916 -- 2005

Historian brought Civil War to powerful narrative life

From Tribune news services
Published June 29, 2005

MEMPHIS -- Shelby Foote spent 20 years working alone on his three-volume, 3,000-page history of the Civil War. Then a 1990 PBS documentary on the war made him an instant celebrity and brought the world to his door.

He liked it better alone.

The celebrity, he said, was a "terrific disruption."

"People keep wanting me to come somewhere and speak," Foote said soon after "The Civil War," an 11-hour series by Ken Burns, first aired. "I've always managed to do very little of that."

Foote, who also wrote six novels, died Monday night at 88, said his wife, Gwyn. He had had a heart attack after a recent pulmonary embolism.

"He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians," said James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian.

On Burns' series, Foote became an immediate hit. With his gray beard and gentlemanly manner, he seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph.

Unease in fame

Later he would say that being a celebrity made him uneasy and he worried it might detract from his work.

Foote used his skills as a novelist to write the history of the war in a flowing, narrative style.

"I can't conceive of writing it any other way," he once said. "Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that's your goal."

Burns said Foote gave the documentary a "sense of willing the past to life."

"We had planned to film 30 or 40 historians. Shelby Foote was in it 89 times or something like that. The next closest was seven or eight times," Burns said.

Though a native Southerner, Foote did not favor the South in his history or novels and was not counted among those Southern historians who regard the Civil War as the great Lost Cause.

His first novel, "Tournament," was published in 1949. Then came "Follow Me Down" in 1950, "Love in a Dry Season" in 1951, "Shiloh" in 1952 and "Jordan County" in 1954.

Magnum opus

That same year, Random House asked him to write a single-volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three-volume project finally finished in 1974.

To Foote, the project became akin to "swallowing a cannonball." In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative" as No. 15 on its list of the century's 100 best English-language works of non-fiction.

But he also received darts for the books' perceived failings as an academic undertaking. He didn't bother with footnotes and touched only vaguely on larger themes.

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."
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Old 06-29-05, 11:33 PM
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Old 07-11-05, 04:33 PM
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Damn! I gotta get into this forum more often. I was in high school when we watched the Civil War, and his presence was what made that series.

Looks like he lived a long good life though, RIP.
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Old 07-11-05, 05:04 PM
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I had great admiration for Mr. Foote and his work. He struck me as a true gentleman. RIP.
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