Historian, storyteller Foote dies at Memphis home at 88|[6/29/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Southern storyteller and historian Shelby Foote has died at his home in Memphis. He was 88.

Perhaps best known for a three-volume work on the Civil War that took him nearly 20 years to complete, Foote’s stories were used liberally by documentarian Ken Burns in his 11-hour documentary on the Civil War.

Foote, who died Monday night, was born in Greenville and reared, for a time, in Vicksburg. A city directory from 1921 lists Foote’s parents as living at 801 Speed St., and his father as manager of Armour Co.

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Old Court House Museum Director Gordon Cotton, a distant cousin of Foote’s who shares Foote’s love of history, said Foote was nothing if not a storyteller.

“He made it enjoyable, he made it fun and he made it interesting,” Cotton said of Foote’s narrative approach to telling history. “He brings it home to you. You can almost hear the music in the background.”

Foote once said as much: “I can’t conceive of writing it any other way. Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that is your goal.”

Cotton said he and Foote differ as historians because Cotton tends to look at the Southern story while Foote looked at the big picture.

“You get a truer picture when you’re interested in the whole thing,” he said. “He had the ability to transcend North and South without being offensive.”

Another cousin, Ashby Foote, 80, remembered the stories Foote told at family reunions as being full of humor and warmth.

“Most of the Foote family I’m acquainted with and who knew him, they were very high on his ability,” Foote said from his home in Clinton. “He tried to put himself in the position of the people, and he did a fantastic job.”

Before Foote became known as a historian through his work about the Civil War, he wrote novels. He began the first of his six novels before his service in World War II as a U.S. Army artillery captain; “Tournament” was published in 1949. Four more, “Follow Me Down,” “Love in a Dry Season,” “Shiloh” and “Jordan County,” all came in quick succession between 1950 and 1954.

In 1954, he was asked by Random House to write a one-volume history of the Civil War. A popular anecdote repeated by Cotton holds that Foote thought the work would take no more than a year of his time; it took almost 20 and spanned more than 3,000 pages.

In 1999, the Modern Library ranked that work, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” as No. 15 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.

All in all, Cotton said, Foote was a quiet man who was unsure what to do with his fame.

“In all the fame that he gained, he still had a listed telephone number in the Memphis directory,” Cotton said. “He didn’t sign autographs