From the Archives: Reflections on Shelby Foote

January 15, 2019

Journalist Raad Cawthon Shares Vignettes From Time Spent With Esteemed Civil War Historian and Novelist Shelby Foote.


By Raad Cawthon | Photos by Karena Cawthon





     The postcard is one of those plain beige ones you used to be able to buy at the post office, unadorned and with the postage, 13 cents, printed on it. It is addressed in that distinctive handwriting, the message written in the careful, and eccentric printing of someone using a dip pen. It reads:


      7 Aug 82

      Dear Raad Cawthon,

            I thank you for sending me last month’s interview. You did a good and careful job, & I apologize for waiting so long to say so. Tell Miss Newsom she shot a good picture considering the grizzled subject & I’m sorry she didn’t keep her promise to send me a sample. As for yourself, keep working; that’s a long life you’ve got ahead of you.

            Regards & best wishes.

                                                Shelby Foote


      I’ll be honest with you. There are no notes, other than stories printed in newspapers, one an expurgated version in the sole edition of The Southeron, a well-before-its-time, doomed-to-failure project of Malcolm White. The Southeron is so obscure you can’t even find a mention of it on the Internet. Two other interviews, one for The Clarion-Ledger and a second, years later for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also seem to have disappeared into the ether. No matter, I was there. 


      There are no tape recordings of what was said the two times I talked with Shelby Foote. The tapes of the conversations have long since vanished. So this is not about journalism. It is about memory.


      This is what I remember. Shelby told me this story.


      As he was writing his magisterial history, The Civil War: A Narrative, a three-volume tour de force that would grow to well more than a million words and take two decades to complete, he insisted on visiting every site about which he wrote. And he insisted on visiting at the time of year, on the very day the battle had been waged.


      That dedication, or obsession if you wish, brought him one early April to Shiloh, a place only two hours east of his home in Memphis. He visited dozens of times. Shiloh, a lonesome stretch of central Tennessee some 22 miles northeast of Corinth, Mississippi, was Shelby’s favorite battlefield.


      Shiloh is my favorite because it is the least disturbed of the major battlefields and that is because it is practically in the middle of nowhere. At Shiloh you can still see the Bloody Pond, walk the Sunken Road, and see the thicket of the Hornet’s Nest. There you can still see the topography, as it was; feel what it was like.


      It was at Shiloh, on a stretch of land near the Tennessee River, that on April 6-7, 1862, the Union and Confederate armies came together to produce a bloodbath unlike anything seen before in American history. Before the two days were done the two armies, which together totaled 111,511 men, would suffer 23,746 casualties, including 3,487 killed. Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander who was considered the South’s finest soldier, was killed at Shiloh, the highest-ranking commander on either side killed in the war. U.S. Grant, the Union commander, almost had his reputation destroyed there, as newspaper reporters, few if any of whom were on the battlefield, wrote that the battle was almost lost because he was drunk, a patent falsehood.


      The Confederates surprised Grant and his army, almost sweeping them into the river the first day. That night both armies “slept on their arms” in the field and the fires of both were easily visible to the other. On the second day in fierce fighting the Union prevailed, but so bloodied were both armies that each withdrew. 


      So Shelby had been on the field at Shiloh, named for a church that stood on the battlefield, on April 6 and he returned, early in the morning, well before sunrise on April 7, year unknown.


      I wanted to see what it was like for the soldier who had slept in the field that night, knowing that the fighting was going to begin again as soon as the sun rose and that it was going to be as bloody and desperate as the day before.


Walking into the darkened woods, Shelby settled beneath a tree. Soon he fell asleep.


      I dreamed that I was in the middle of an immense battle. When the sun came up I awoke …and for a long moment I thought that it was real.


      The story, told in that mesmerizing drawl that evoked the Mississippi Delta of his childhood and early adulthood, was quintessential Shelby. His stories had spellbinding timing. Listening to him, as he tamped and lit his pipe, was like listening to someone who had actually been there tell about the Civil War.


      Shelby didn’t start out to be a historian. And even after The Civil War: A Narrative appeared, the result of a suggestion by an editor that Shelby write a “brief history” of the war to mark its centennial, there were those historians who said he should not be admitted into their dusty fraternity. His book should have been footnoted, they said. Or he should have dealt with events away from the battlefield, like the economics of the war or the issue of slavery. When I asked Shelby about the criticism, he had but one reply.


      There are more than a million words in those books and not one factual error has ever been found.


      When I first called Shelby Foote, out of the blue, looking up his listed phone number in the Memphis directory, I was a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. It was the early ‘80s, a time of intense optimism in Mississippi. William Winter was governor. He had a first-rate mind and brought with him into office a surge of progressivism. Willie Morris, native son of Yazoo, had returned to Mississippi from the “man swarm” of New York to be writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. Barry Hannah, one of Southern literature’s most distinctive voices, would soon follow. You could run into Miss Eudora at the Jitney 14 or share a booth and a tot of bourbon with her at The Mayflower. There was vibrancy unlike anywhere I had lived or worked, a sense of real possibility.


      Unlike some other of the young, well-educated, hungry reporters who Rea Hederman, an upstart who changed The Clarion-Ledger from his family’s avowedly racist paper to one that would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for its coverage of Winter’s efforts to revamp the state’s education system, I was more interested in the state’s cultural heritage than in putting politicians in jail, however much they might deserve it. When Steve Fagan, the managing editor, interviewed me for a job and asked what I wanted to do, I told him I wasn’t sure but I knew I didn’t want to be an investigative reporter. “Thank God,” Steve replied. “You’re the first reporter since All the President’s Men came out to tell me that.”


      So I got to do features. One that I wanted to do was a story on Shelby Foote. I admired Shelby because of his novels and when I read Shiloh, his telling of the Civil War battle from the perspective of seven different participants, I was hooked. I was a Civil War buff and a literature buff and here was a guy who combined the best of both. So one day I said to my editor I would like to write about Shelby and he said, “Sure. If you can get him, go do it.” You have to remember this was back in the time when newspapers did things like that. So I looked up his number in the Memphis phone book and called him. When he answered – Yes, he did answer the phone – I told him who I was and what I wanted to do. He told me he didn’t like doing interviews and that he was working, trying hard to make progress on his latest book. But after a little he said to come on up, that he would give me an hour or two.


      The house was not baronial, but was a large, substantial brick home on East Parkway, a leafy enclave in mid-Memphis. An African-American woman answered the door but Shelby soon appeared, welcomed us and took us through the house and up the stairs to his study. As I walked through the house my first impression was that in every room there seemed to be a bed and each was covered with a white chenille bedspread. I didn’t ask about that and I still don’t know.


      His study was not a large room but was snug and comfortable, with a fireplace and a writing desk with bookcases above it. We sat in two chairs and I felt as if I were in a Jovian presence. It was the deep, liquid eyes. It was the close-cropped, salt-and-pepper Robert E. Lee beard. It was the pipe and the sound of that marvelous voice, like good whiskey when you come in from the cold. 


      He told me this story.


      I think the only two true geniuses in the Civil War were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Years ago, I met one of Gen. Forrest’s granddaughters. She was well up in years by then. When I told her my theory, that her grandfather’s genius was matched only by that of Lincoln, she paused, smiled, and said, “Mr. Foote, we don’t think too much of Mr. Lincoln in my family.” But as the conversation went on she grew more animated. And then she told me she had her grandfather’s sword. “Would you like to see it?” she asked. I said I certainly would and so she went and got it. Then she asked if I would like to hold it and I told her I would. She told me I could draw it, so I did. And there, in Bedford Forrest granddaughter’s living room I swung the sword around my head and gave kind of a “Whoo-hoo!”


      Shelby’s father died when he was young and his mother, who never remarried, brought him home to Greenville. There, when he was 15, he met Walker Percy, who would be his lifelong friend, and became an adopted member of the household of William Alexander Percy, Walker’s uncle, an attorney and a man of letters. When Percy went off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Shelby wanted to follow but the school would not admit him. He went anyway, eventually gaining admittance but never graduating. It seems he wasn’t so much interested in anything but writing. Already Shelby had begun writing stories. Like most Southern writers, particularly of his generation and the one that followed, William Faulkner awed him. After all, it was Flannery O’Connor, no slouch as a writer herself, who said, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”


      Once, when Shelby and Walker were driving back to Chapel Hill they decided to drop in to Rowan Oak and meet the great man.


      Walker and I were driving back to school and we hatched this plan to go to Oxford and seek out Faulkner. I believe there was some whiskey involved. So we drove on up to Oxford and found our way out to Rowan Oak. We sat there for awhile looking at the house and then Walker said, “Well, let’s go.” He got out but I didn’t and he went up and knocked on the door. Faulkner answered the door and let him in. He was in there for a good while and then came back out. I never got out of the car and I never met Faulkner.


      After leaving college Shelby wandered back to Greenville where he worked construction and, like so many aspiring writers, found himself working for a newspaper, The Delta Democrat Times. The war intervened and Shelby was made a captain in the artillery, stationed in Ireland. Then he got court-martialed.


      He told me this about that.


      It was over a woman. I had met this girl who lived outside Belfast and I was pretty interested in her. So I took a jeep over to see her. The problem was she lived just outside the area where we were allowed to take vehicles. I changed the documents and when they found out about it, they court-martialed me. Threw me out of the Army. I came back to the States, worked as a reporter for a while and then joined the Marines. They discharged me, still a private, in 1945. I never saw combat, something I regretted for a long time.


      The woman who was the impetus for his truncated military career became Shelby’s first wife.


      As we sat talking I noticed that on the hearth beside the study’s fireplace was a big box of writing paper, Hammermill Bond I recall. I asked him why it was there and he told me he used it to kindle his fire. He said he wrote eight hours a day, five days a week, using a nib pen and writing in long hand. I thought of the Civil War trilogy and its million-plus words. So I asked about his writing process. 


      I write in longhand using a nib pen and ink. The only problem is I have trouble these days finding blotters. Nobody seems to make them anymore. Sometimes I write 300 words a day, sometimes less. But at the end of the day, I make a fair copy of my work. The first draft goes into a box and likely eventually is used to kindle a fire. But when I finish a book I have a written copy of it and have it bound in leather and it goes on the shelf.


      As Shelby talked I had been wondering what in particular was in the box on the hearth: a section, written and corrected in his distinctive, archaic script, about Gettysburg or Stonewall falling at Chancellorsville? I wanted to ask for one page, any page. Then I noticed the books he was talking about. On a shelf above his desk was a line of books, bound in leather with titles in gold. Tournament. Love In A Dry Season. Shiloh. Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative. September, September. All the novels were there. 


      At that point Shelby had not published a book since 1975 when September, September, the story of three whites who kidnap the eight-year-old son of a wealthy black Memphis businessman, set against that city in the late 1950s, came out. I asked what he was working on.


      I write every day. I’m working on a novel called “Two Gates to the City.” It’s set in the Delta, Greenville. It’s going to be a big book.


      What is it about?


      Everything. I’m trying to put into it everything I have left, everything I know. 


      Why everything?


      I have to get it down because I don’t know how much time I have left. I have to get it all down. This could be the last chance I get.


      Just before I left, Shelby and I began talking about other Southern writers and I brought up Miss Welty, offering with a kind of graduate-student certainty that I thought her short story, “Petrified Man” was brilliantly comic. Shelby fixed me with his eyes.


      You know what that story is all about, don’t you? It’s about sex, old-maid sex.


      I think my reply was, “Really? Huh.”


      At the time we first talked, Shelby was 65. He would live 23 more years and his fame—largely due to his appearance on Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War, which first aired in 1990—was ahead of him. It was only later that I realized Shelby had envisioned Two Gates to the City as early as 1951, had outlined it, had struggled with it but had always imagined it would be his definitive work. He laid it aside to write the Civil War trilogy, came back to it after September, September, continued to struggle, laid it aside again in 1978. Some say he gave up completely on the book in 1981, the year before I first talked to him, but that he continued to claim in interviews he was working on it. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. He told me he was writing daily and that Two Gates to the City was going to be the “big book,” the one that contained “everything.” 


      Me? I continue to take him at his word. In fact, for years I imagined him toiling away, scribbling 300 words a day with his dip pen, preparing a fair copy as the cocktail hour came on, moving forward, slowly but steadily on the “big book” that would contain “everything.” I looked forward to someday reading Two Gates to the City right up until June 27, 2005, the day Shelby Foote died.


      There was another interview with Shelby years later, after he got famous. That was when I broke the rules of journalism, carried my dog-eared copies of the Civil War trilogy all the way from Atlanta to Memphis, and, at the end of the interview asked if he would autograph them. Journalists don’t ask for autographs. Shelby paused before saying, “Why don’t I sign the first book. It’s the best.” That’s how I ended up with a signed copy of Fort Sumter to Perryville but not a signed copy of Fredericksburg to Meridian or Red River to Appomattox.


      He told me then the Ken Burns’ documentary had prompted hundreds of phone calls, many from women of a certain age who had found his charms on television irresistible. When I asked him the worst part of fame he pointed at the telephone and said, “That damned contraption right there!” Of course, his phone number continued to be listed and the story is he did once thank Burns for “making me a millionaire.”


      His novels are good and his particular favorite was Love In A Dry Season, his ripping back the scab on the self-satisfied elite of the Mississippi Delta set during the Great Depression. But he told me, before the documentary he never really made any money from his writing and that up until the early `80s the Civil War books, 20 years of work, had netted him about a quarter of a million dollars total. You do the math.


      But that all changed and he got famous and he got rich. And he looked good, with those eyes that could draw you in, that smile like he knew something you didn’t, that Robert E. Lee beard and that voice, like honey being poured over a hot biscuit. In fact, he looked so good I asked him what he did to stay in shape. This is what he told me and this is a quote because I remember it to this day like I remember my mother’s name. He said: “I read and I write. I drink a little for recreation. I take no physical exercise whatsoever.”


      God bless him.

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