Whether his words were spoken or written, no 20th-century storyteller could bring the American Civil War to life like Shelby Foote, the novelist and reluctant television star who died Monday night in Memphis, Tenn., at age 88.
As a writer, Mr. Foote spent 20 years, 1954 to 1974, crafting The Civil War: A Narrative, three volumes and 3,000 pages that the Modern Library, in 1999, ranked No. 15 among the century's best English-language works of nonfiction. Though popular, the books did not make Mr. Foote a household name. That would come in 1990, when Ken Burns' 11-hour documentary The Civil War aired on PBS.
Though a half-dozen experts were interviewed on-camera for the series, none appeared more often than Mr. Foote, nor made a greater impression. Speaking in a mellifluous Southern drawl that sounded like it could have been lifted straight off an antebellum plantation, Mr. Foote spoke of brave soldiers being scared by runaway rabbits, of deluded politicians in 1860 who promised that all the blood shed in the coming war could be mopped up with a pocket handkerchief, of Ulysses S. Grant not being recognized when he arrived in Washington to take command of the Union army, of descendants of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who did not exactly embrace Mr. Foote's view that the war produced two geniuses, their kin and Abraham Lincoln.
"We never have taken kindly to Mr. Lincoln," Mr. Foote would recall being told, chuckling softly at century-old grudges that refused to die.
"What Ken Burns did was the best thing to happen to the Civil War in 50 years," says O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, a Washington-based battlefield-preservation group. "And Shelby Foote was the star of the show."
Mr. Burns, currently at work on a series about America's involvement in World War II, said he approached Mr. Foote for the Civil War series at the suggestion of poet Robert Penn Warren. Mr. Foote, who was interviewed three times for the series, would be featured 89 times over its 11-hour run, some 80 times more than any other historian.
The human touch
"He was critical to the success of the program, critical in every single way," Mr. Burns said yesterday. "He helped bring those people alive for us in a way that no other historian would have been able to."
Whereas other historians would speak in grand terms of military strategies and pivotal moments, Mr. Burns added, Mr. Foote would zero in on the human aspects of the war, the details that brought these grand events and mythical figures back to human scale. "He could bring up this perfect bite. Shelby would always make it right."
Born Nov. 7, 1916, in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville, Mr. Foote made friends with Walker Percy, worked as a journalist and got to know fellow Mississippian William Faulkner (who, in 1958, identified Mr. Foote as a novelist "that shows great promise"). Mr. Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in the Army during World War II, attaining the rank of captain. While based in Northern Ireland, he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army. He returned to the States and enlisted in the Marines, but never returned overseas.
He started his first novel, Tournament, before the war. Based on the life of his grandfather, who had lost the family fortune through gambling, the book was published in 1949. Several other works followed, including Follow Me Down (1950), Love in a Dry Season (1951), Shiloh (1952) and Jordan County (1954).
With his latest book on the stands, Random House in 1954 asked Mr. Foote to write a one-volume history of the Civil War. The project soon took off, however: Vol. 1, Fort Sumter to Perryville, was published in 1958, followed by Vol. 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian, in 1963, and Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox, in 1974.
"His Narrative was one of the great works of historical literature in the English-speaking world," Mr. Burns said. "He wrote from a Southern perspective without a Southern bias. He was able to make real and human and palpable these human figures who were there for the most important moment in the history of our country."
Although a Southerner by birth, Mr. Foote did not mourn the "lost cause" so dear to many Southern historians. He spoke against segregationist politicians, publicly decided against moving to the Alabama coast in the 1960s after being alarmed by the racism there, and once wrote to a friend complaining about the racist policies of some Southern leaders, calling them "soft-talking instruments of real evil."
While Mr. Foote's work on the Civil War series made him famous, and he would also be interviewed as part of Mr. Burns' nine-part Baseball series, he never seemed especially comfortable in the spotlight. "Most people, if truth be told, are gigantic bores," he once said. "There's no need to subject yourself to that sort of thing."
Mr. Foote is survived by his third wife, Gwyn, whom he married in 1956; a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.