MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote (search), who became a national celebrity explaining the war to America on Ken Burns' 1990 PBS documentary, has died at 88.
Foote died Monday night, said his widow, Gwyn.
The Mississippi native and longtime Memphis resident wrote a stirring, three-volume, 3,000-page history of the Civil War, as well as six novels.
"He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians. And he had a gift for character, for the apt quotation, for the dramatic event, for the story behind the story," said James M. McPherson (search), a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. "He could also write a crackling good narrative of a campaign or a battle."
On Burns' 11-hour PBS series "The Civil War," Foote became an immediate hit with his encyclopedic knowledge of the war, soft Southern accent and easy manner. With his gray beard and gentlemanly carriage, he seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph.
Later he would say that being a celebrity made him uneasy, and he worried it might detract from the seriousness of his work.
Foote worked on the Civil War history (search) for 20 years, using his skills as a novelist to write 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 moment 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 South in his history or novels and was not counted among those Southern historians who regard the Civil War as the great Lost Cause.
He publicly criticized segregationist politicians and abruptly abandoned a move to the Alabama coast in the 1960s because of the racist attitudes he found there.
"He was a Southerner of great intellect who took up the issue of the Civil War as a writer with huge sanity and sympathy," said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, a friend and fellow Mississippi native.
Foote attended the University of North Carolina for two years and served in World War II, though he never saw combat.
His first novel, "Tournament," was started before the war and 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.
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.
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 nonfiction.
His final novel, "September, September," published in 1978, tells the story of an ignorant white couple who kidnap the son of a rich black businessman in the 1950s. It became the basis for a TV move starring fellow Memphis resident Cybill Shepherd.
Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a "jackleg reporter" for the crusading editor Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, Foote got to know William Faulkner.
During World War II, he was an Army captain of artillery until he lost his commission for using a military vehicle without authorization to visit a female friend and was discharged from the Army. He joined the Marines and was still stateside when the war ended.
He tried journalism again after World War II, signing on briefly with The Associated Press in its New York bureau.
Early in his career, Foote took up the habit of writing by hand with an old-fashioned dipped pen, and he continued that practice throughout his life. Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal than using a typewriter.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. A graveside service is planned in Memphis on Thursday.