Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Novelist Shelby Foote, whose soft Southern style and extensive knowledge of the Civil War, made him that rarest of historians — a public figure and star — has died in Memphis, Tenn., at 88.

His widow, Gwyn, said Mr. Foote died Monday night.

Mr. Foote is best known for his three-volume, 3,000-page opus on the Civil War and his easygoing, avuncular presence on the 11-hour Ken Burns’ series “The Civil War,” which first aired on PBS in 1990. His gray beard, soft accent and gentlemanly manner made Mr. Foote appear as though he belonged in a picture taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

“Shelby Foote was central to the success” of the documentary, Mr. Burns said in a telephone interview yesterday, pointing out that Mr. Foote was featured 89 times in the series, with no one else appearing more than seven times.

“He brought a Southern perspective without a Southern bias to the war and made history and historical figures, such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, come alive,” Mr. Burns said of the Mississippi native and longtime resident of Memphis.

Mr. Foote worked on the Civil War history for 20 years, using his skills as a novelist with six books to his credit to write in a flowing, narrative style.

“I can’t conceive of writing it any other way,” Mr. Foote 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.”

Civil War historian John M. Taylor praised Mr. Foote’s “delightfully fluid writing style,” adding, “No one exceeded his depth of knowledge on the Civil War.”

“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, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. “He could also write a crackling good narrative of a campaign or a battle.”

Though a native Southerner, Mr. Foote did not favor the 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 was the principal speaker at a 1993 ceremony in Gettysburg, Pa., that commemorated the 130th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“It is an awesome, indeed, a daunting thing to stand here, where, perhaps, the greatest American — in or out of public office, high or low — stood 130 years ago and delivered what he later called ‘my little speech,’” Mr. Foote said.

In those remarks, Mr, Foote pointed out that he had been required to memorize the Gettysburg Address as a Mississippi schoolboy and was grateful. He described Mr. Lincoln’s two-minute speech honoring those killed in the Battle of Gettysburg as an “imperishable page in the highest rank of American prose.”

Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College who arranged for Mr. Foote’s appearance that day, called Mr. Foote “a beautiful writer … a shy man who became a public figure.”

“I understand Ken Burns’ epic actually made him into a sex symbol” late in life, Mr. Boritt said.

John F. Wilson, senior vice president of programming for PBS, said the network and its employees were “deeply saddened by the death of Shelby Foote. When ‘The Civil War’ premiered in 1990, Mr. Foote, along with Ken Burns, became a household name, synonymous with epic historical storytelling.”

Later, Mr. Foote would call his celebrity “a terrific disruption” and say he worried it might detract from the seriousness of his work.

His first novel, “Tournament,” was started before World War II 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. His last novel, “September, September,” was published in 1978.

In 1954, 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 that was not finished until 1974.

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

Mr. Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Novelist Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and as a young man Mr. Foote served as a “jackleg reporter” and got to know author 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.

Mr. Foote’s extensive resume included stints as a novelist-lecturer at the University of Virginia in 1963; as playwright-in-residence at the Arena Stage in Washington from 1963 to 1964; and as a writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia in 1968.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Shelby, and a son, Huger Lee. A graveside service is planned for tomorrow in Memphis.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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