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If you like Shelby Foote's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Doris Goodwin and
David McCullough

Shelby Foote's recommended reading: David Copperfield

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Shelby Foote
Shelby Foote
Profile of Shelby Foote Biography of Shelby Foote Interview with Shelby Foote Shelby Foote Photo Gallery

Shelby Foote Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Novelist and Historian

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  Shelby Foote

How did you come to write Shiloh, your first work to deal with the Civil War?

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: I had intended, at that time, to do three Civil War books, two short ones and a long one. First would be Shiloh. The long one would be the Siege of Vicksburg, and the third one was going to be Brice's Crossroads. Those were all battles fought near my home region. I did Shiloh, but before I could get around to doing the big Vicksburg novel, I was going on the non-fiction Civil War, so I never came back to them.

Shiloh was your first big success wasn't it?

Shelby Foote: My second book, Follow Me Down had some success, got good critical notices, went into a second printing and things like that, but Shiloh was by far the most successful of those first five novels.

What made that subject so captivating for you?

Shelby Foote: Shiloh is a wonderfully dramatic battle. The leader of one side is killed, and the other one is going on to glory, and it was the first great battle. It lasted two days. Now, this is somewhat unfair since it were Americans on both sides, so all the casualties on that field were American, but the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, all three combined did not have as many casualties -- American casualties -- as fell on those two days at Shiloh. So you can see what a dramatic thing it was at the time it happened. For one thing you would think that those people would say, "24,000 casualties! My God, we'd better think this thing out and find some kind of way to settle this. It will kill all of the young men in the country." But they didn't. Each side got more determined than ever. And it's a very dramatic subject, Shiloh is, and a wonderfully preserved field. Anybody that wants to visit a battlefield, the one that comes closest to being the way it was when it was fought is Shiloh. It's not surrounded by hot dog stands the way Gettysburg is, and it's not near any big city, so there's this constant influx of tourists. It's wonderful.

Every superintendent they've had has kept it the way it was at the time of the battle. They replant the peach orchard. They dredge out Bloody Pond. They do all these things to keep it the way it was. And except for macadamizing all the roads and putting up monuments, it's very much the way it was at the time the battle was fought.

How did you go from that novel to your tremendous non-fiction work on the Civil War?

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: Bennett Cerf was owner and head of Random House. I think it was Doubleday that had something called a Landmark Series, a series of one-volume things about American history. So Bennett Cerf had the notion it would be a good thing to have such a series at Random House. The centennial of the Civil War was coming up in a few years, and he thought it might be good to start with a volume about the Civil War. He had read Shiloh, and he thought I would be a good one to write that, so he got in touch with me and asked me if I'd do a one volume, short history of the Civil War, a couple hundred thousand words. It sounded like a good thing to me. I had just written five novels, and I thought I'd take a year or two off. I moved to Memphis to take some time off to settle what I was going to do with the next five novels. It sounded like a good way to spend a year and a half, doing the Civil War, which had always interested me. I had read about it a good deal as a kid, mostly source material, stuff out of the war itself.

So I said, "Yeah, that would be a good thing." I signed a contract with them to do it, and I sat down to outline it, as I always do with novels or anything else. It occurred to me that I would not be happy at all giving a summary of the war, which is what it would be. I sat down and blocked it out as a three-volume thing, and wrote to Cerf and told him I would go ahead, spread-eagle, full thing if they wanted me to, but I wouldn't be able to do the short thing. There was a little pause of about a week or so. Then I got a letter from him saying, "Good. Go ahead." So I did, for 20 years.

Did you or he have any idea how long a project that would be?

Shelby Foote Interview Photo
Shelby Foote: No. But they were very patient about it. I took five years on the first volume, five years on the second volume, and ten years on the third volume. After I finished the second volume, I got a Ford Foundation grant to come up here for most of one year and be playwright-in-residence at the Arena Stage, so I got to know Washington a little bit. Then we moved down on the Alabama coast. We were going to build a house on the beach down there. I ran into Ku Klux Klan and the threat of hurricanes, and those two things made me decide not to build on the Alabama coast, so we came back to Memphis. That's where I had lived for the first two volumes, and it's also where I wrote the third one.

Had you written plays before?

Shelby Foote: Not really. I was always interested in the theater, but I hadn't written a play. When they asked me if I would accept and what I would do if I did, I particularly told them I would be interested in a production of Measure for Measure, a Shakespeare play that wasn't very often played. I never heard of it being played, and I was crazy about it. Zelda Fichandler was the head of the Arena Stage in those days. They took three of my stories from Jordan County and made them into a play and put them on as an experimental sort of thing. It was nice. I enjoyed it, but I'm not a writer for the theater. All I do is write monologues, which is what most novelists do when they try to write film scripts. I've done two or three film scripts. I did one for Stanley Kubrick, and enjoyed doing it. It was called The Down Slope. It was never made. He made Lolita instead!

For you, what are the great lessons of the Civil War?

Shelby Foote: This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we'll never get out of our history and our conscience and everything else, the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation. They told four million people, "You are free. Hit the road." Two-thirds of them couldn't read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I'm not saying emancipation is a sin, for God's sakes, and I'm not saying there shouldn't have been emancipation, but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head. And that now, my black friends, they are tremendously protective about slavery. They don't want to hear the word. The opposite of the Jews, who are very proud of coming out of Egypt. And it was this short-circuiting, of instant emancipation, that certainly was a good thing, but it had a very bad effect on them.

I don't know whether it's a lesson or not, but I think it needs to be looked at as if you were in that time and place. A lot of things change when you move back to being a part of it, without being caught up in the emotion of the time, but to understand the emotion of the time. You hear people in the Civil War saying, "I can't believe this terrible thing is going on right here in the middle of the 19th century." They talk like it's the end of the 20th century. It's very modern to them. These weapons of destruction are almost unbelievable to them.

Go back to the time. Muzzle-loading weapons sound awful primitive. They didn't seem primitive to them. They were a new kind of infantry rifle that is deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate at about 60 feet. And they lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance. He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That's why the casualties. There were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that same ratio, you'd have something like 10 million casualties, to give you some idea of what happened.

It was far worse in the South than it was in the North. One out of four southerners of conscriptable age was a casualty in that war. In the year after the war, the state of Mississippi spent one-fifth of its income on artificial arms and legs for the veterans. Very few people today realize how devastating that war was, especially to the South, but to the North too. A lot of fine men went into graves in that thing. There's no telling how many Miltons or John Keatses got buried.

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