Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life

Overview

A biography that plumbs the ambiguous life of the gentlemanly novelist and historian

For a biographer Shelby Foote is a famously reluctant subject. In writing this biography, however, C. Stuart Chapman gained valuable access through interviews and shared correspondence, an advantage Foote rarely has granted to others.

Born into Mississippi Delta gentry in 1916, Foote has engaged in a lifelong struggle with the realities behind his persona, the ...

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Overview

A biography that plumbs the ambiguous life of the gentlemanly novelist and historian

For a biographer Shelby Foote is a famously reluctant subject. In writing this biography, however, C. Stuart Chapman gained valuable access through interviews and shared correspondence, an advantage Foote rarely has granted to others.

Born into Mississippi Delta gentry in 1916, Foote has engaged in a lifelong struggle with the realities behind his persona, the classic image of the southern gentleman. His polished civil graces mask a conflict deep within. Foote's beloved South is a changing region, and even progressive change, of which Foote approves, can be unsettling. In letters and interviews, and in his writings, he often waxes nostalgic as he grapples to recover the grace of an earlier time, particularly the era of the Civil War. Indeed, Chapman reveals that the whole of Foote's novels and historical narratives serves as a refuge from deeply ambiguous feelings. As Foote has struggled to understand the radical shifts brought to his native land by modernization and the region's integration into the nation, his personal history has been clouded by ideological conflict.

This biography shows him pining for aristocratic, antebellum culture while rejecting the practices that made possible the injustices of that era. Privately and vehemently, Foote opposed George C. Wallace's and Ross Barnett's untenable segregationist stance. Yet publicly during the 1960s and '70s he skirted the explosive race issue.

Foote is best known for his dazzling and definitive The Civil War: A Narrative. Written from 1954 to 1974, the three-volume opus was published during years when the South exploded with racial and political tensions and was forever changed. This biography recognizes that nowhere are Foote's personal conflicts, ambivalence, and outright contradictions more on display than in his fiction. Although Love in a Dry Season, Jordan County, and September, September are set in the contemporary South, they reach no firm social resolutions. Instead they entertain, dramatize, and come to grips with the social, gender, and racial barriers of the southern life he experienced.

While showing how Foote's guarded embrace of the South's past and present characterizes his identity as a thinker, a historian, and a writer of fiction, Chapman discloses Foote's reluctance to address burning contemporary issues and his veiled desire to recall more gracious times.

C. Stuart Chapman is a Massachusetts State House aide living in Jamaica Plain. His work has been published in the Clarksdale Press-Register, Memphis Business Journal, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Jamaica Plain Gazette, Modern Fiction Studies, and other publications.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
C. Stuart Chapman's brisk, colorful biography gives a frank, full-bodied portrait of the man and an agile examination of Foote's development as a writer. — Sherie Posesorski
The Washington Post
Shelby Foote was already well known to literate students of our national Iliad as the author of a brilliant trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative. Stuart Chapman, entranced by Foote's performance, felt it his destiny to become the historian's biographer, with the present result. A Writer's Life, it is called; and it is indeed a literary biography in which the processes and politics of writing are paramount and sometimes threaten to overwhelm the personal detail. — Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Library Journal
Shelby Foote (b. 1916) was first thrust into the limelight as the enchanting Southern gentleman historian retelling the history of the Civil War in Ken Burns's PBS series. As Massachusetts State House aide Chapman reminds us in this elegant biography, such fame eluded Foote during most of his life. He draws on interviews with Foote and letters between Foote and numerous correspondents, including novelist Walker Percy. Using this access, Chapman chronicles Foote's life from his birth into a family of Mississippi Delta gentry to his days as the cocksure editor of a lauded high school paper and his failed college career at the University of North Carolina. At the time, Foote considered himself primarily a novelist, and Chapman captures the writer's elation over the success of his first two novels, Shiloh and Follow Me Down. He follows Foote through a period of struggle and then narrates the 20 years during which Foote sequestered himself to write his greatest success, The Civil War: A Narrative. Chapman persuasively points out that although Foote opposed the segregationist policies of George Wallace and others, he preferred to lose himself in the past as he wrote the Civil War trilogy. Given its unrestricted access to the author and his papers, as well as its evenhanded insight, this is bound to become the definitive biography. For all libraries.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2003

    Best book that I've seen this season

    Read an excerpt from some galley proofs that a professor of mine. Very cool. Now, it's clearer about how this man was the star of Ken Burns' Civil War series.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2003

    Many thanks for this insightful work

    Chapman is to be commended. Foote is a national treasure. Bravo.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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