Who is Shelby Foote?
Shelby Dade Foote Jr. (November 17, 1916 – June 27, 2005) was an American writer, historian and journalist. Although he primarily viewed himself as a novelist, he is now best known for his authorship of The Civil War: A Narrative, a three-volume history of the American Civil War.
With geographic and cultural roots in the Mississippi Delta, Foote’s life and writing paralleled the radical shift from the agrarian planter system of the Old South to the Civil Rights era of the New South. Foote was little known to the general public until his appearance in Ken Burns‘s PBS documentary The Civil War in 1990, where he introduced a generation of Americans to a war that he believed was “central to all our lives.” Foote did all his writing by hand with a nib pen, later transcribing the result into a typewritten copy.
Foote was born early enough in history to know and hear the stories of Civil War veterans, he lived long enough to see the Civil Rights Movement, and he died soon after the turn of the 20th century. His career trajectory took him from a relatively unknown novelist (though he was personally acquainted with William Faulkner), to late-life celebrity due to a star-turn in a Ken Burns documentary, and in recent years, posthumously, he has been a frequent target of criticism for his work as a historian, including allegations that he embraced “Lost Cause” beliefs. Some of this criticism is disputable from Foote’s own writings. I’ve embedded an interview below.