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Shelby Foote

November 17, 1916, saw the birth of American novelist and historian, Shelby Foote.  He was born into a distinguished southern family in Greenville, Mississippi, on the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, once a great swamp filled with alligators and water moccasins.  As a child, Foote followed his family on their moves throughout the South.  His father was a manager at Armour & Co.  Foote was only five when his father died unexpectedly of septicemia from an operation on his nose. 

Foote's mother--who never remarried--moved with her son back to Greenville, where Foote met author Alexander Percy and later become close friends with his nephew, Walker Percy.  The two shared their love for books and served as an inspiration for one another for the rest of their lives.

As a teenager, Foote sold poems to popular magazines for 50 cents apiece.  After serving as editor of his high school newspaper in Greenville, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he contributed to the literary magazine.  When the Second World War began in Europe, he dropped out of college to join the National Guard, two years before the United States entered the war.  He began writing fiction while waiting for his unit to be mobilized. 

After service, Foote took a job at a Memphis radio station when, in 1946, he sold a short story to the Saturday Evening Post.  He quit his job to write full time. 

Foote published five novels in quick succession.  Tournament, his first, came out in 1949.  His next novels, Follow Me Down and Love in a Dry Season, won critical acclaim but failed to sell very well.  His next work, Shiloh, was a fictional recreation of the Civil War battle.  It was a big commercial success and inspired Random House publisher Bennet Cerf to ask Foote to write a short history of the Civil War. 

Foote agreed, but only on the condition that he be allowed to write a monumental trilogy on the subject.  Cerf agreed, and Foote worked for the next two decades, writing 500 words a day.  The result was The Civil War: A Narrative, published in three volumes between 1958 and 1974. 

The collection ran 1.6 million words and totaled 2,093 published pages.  It was lauded by both critics and historians as a unique masterpiece and is in its 18th printing.  Foote later compared the project to swallowing a cannonball.  Scores of television viewers were introduced to his work during Ken Burns' 1991 highly lauded PBS television series, The Civil War, which Foote narrated.

Foote's interest in writing began with his interest in reading.  When he was still a child, he won a copy of David Copperfield in a local contest.  Until then, his reading had been confined to The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Tarzan.  He said years later, "This was a whole other world, and it was a world of art.  I couldn't have defined it as that, but, one thing, I knew David Copperfield better than anybody I knew in the real world, including myself."

When Foote was 19 years old, and he and Walker Percy took a trip from Greenville to William Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi.  Foote suggested they stop off there to meet the author; but Percy said he wasn't about to go up and knock on Faulkner's door.  So, when they arrived, Percy waited in the car while Foote walked up the cedar-tree lined walkway to Faulkner's house.  He was greeted in the yard by three hounds--two fox terriers and a Dalmatian. 

After several minutes, a small man, barefoot and naked except for a pair of boxer shorts, answered the door.  Apparently drunk, he asked Foote what he wanted.  Foote replied, "Could you tell me where to find a copy of Marble Faun, Mr. Faulkner?"  Faulkner curtly referred him to his agent and slammed the door.  Later in life, Faulkner and Foote became friends, after Foote walked Faulkner around the Civil War battlefields of Shiloh.

Foote once told Faulkner on one of their outings, "You know, I have every right to be a better writer than you.  Your literary idols were Joseph Conrad and Sherwood Anderson.  Mine are Marcel Proust and you.  My writers are better than yours."

Today, Foote still writes six to eight hours a day seven days a week in his bedroom.  He writes five or six hundred words a day (about 100,00 words a year) with a dip pen, stopping to re-ink it after every three or four words.  When he finishes writing, he sets his work aside to dry before copying it on a typewriter.  He puts his manuscripts away without editing, because he feels the work is complete. 

Foote said, "I'm privately convinced that most of the really bad writing the world's ever seen has been done under the influence of what's called inspiration.  Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time."

He also said, "I have noticed that when a man dies, no matter at what age or by what cause, his life then has a beginning and a middle and an end, and sometimes his death explains his youth."

Shelby Foote has won several awards, including the Charles Frankel award in 1988 and the St. Louis literary award in 1992.

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