The Civil War Finds a Homer in Writer Shelby Foote

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until last month, historian and novelist Shelby Foote lived the life of a medieval scholar. Not for him the frissons of lunch at the 21 Club or meetings with producers. Instead, he worked quietly in the bedroom of his rambling house in Memphis, dipping an ancient pen into its inkwell to produce 500 words a day. Shunning such modern intrusions as answering machines, he took comfort in the fact that he could go for days with no company other than his wife, Gwyn, 60, and their 10-year-old Akita, Booker.

Lately, though, Foote, 73, has been under siege. Since appearing as the principal commentator in Ken Burns's masterly 11-hour PBS series The Civil War, he has become a kind of video folk hero. The courtly Foote combined a drawling delivery and erudite insights in an anecdotal style perfectly suited to the task of putting a fresh spin on a familiar story. Now all of America, it seems, wants to hear more. Foote is listed in the Memphis phone book, and these days the phone rings constantly. A San Antonio radio station puts Foote directly on the air with phone-in callers. He gives each of their questions a charming, chatty answer. Then he's put on hold. "They're selling some leather interior," he says. "Now they're segueing to Debbie Reynolds. This really is a ridiculous world." All in all, says Foote, "I'm looking forward to when my fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame are over. What I do requires steady work and isolation from all this hoorah."

For all of that, he clearly savors the opportunity to talk about his intellectual passion. Author of the 5½-inch-thick, three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative (now in its 18th printing), he believes that the conflict that ended in 1865 still has a bearing on our lives. "I think what Churchill said about the Civil War was correct: It was the last great romantic war and the first horrendous modern war," he says. "It fascinates us because it is still the central event of our history. So many of the questions that still plague us, particularly concerning race relations and the size and power of central government, can be better understood if we see how they arose and how we attempted to solve them."

Foote was wary when, at the urging of Robert Penn Warren, Burns called in 1985 to ask whether he would care to be involved in a TV show. But Foote was impressed by Burns's documentary on Huey Long and became enthusiastic "when I met him and found that he was after the truth," he says. Upon meeting Foote, Burns was soon moved to make him "the presiding spirit of the documentary," he says. "He provides the painful recollection of the South's loss without any of the old animosity and the old excuses."

Foote's fascination with the war began when he was growing up in Greenville, Miss., where one of his best friends was Walker Percy. The only son of a packing-company manager whose father had gambled away the family fortune, Foote was a voracious reader. "I read the Bobbsey Twins, but instead of moving on to detective stories, like a perfectly normal human being, I latched onto the Civil War for some reason," he says. "I've always been crazy about it."

He attended the University of North Carolina but quickly decided that going for a degree would be pointless. "I had no interest in passing courses like calculus," he says, "so I just took what I wanted to—philosophy and history and English."

Foote left college to fight Hitler in 1939 and began his first novel while waiting for his unit to be mobilized. In 1946 he sold his first fiction to The Saturday Evening Post and quit his job at a Memphis radio station to write full-time.

In 1954, after Foote had published five novels (all set in the South), Random House president Bennett Cerf asked whether he would write a short history of the war. "I didn't think a summary would hold my interest, but I told Mr. Cerf I was willing to go whole hog and do a three-part thing on it," he remembers. "There was silence for about a week, and then he wrote back and said to go ahead. I thought it would take me about three years, but it took me 20."

Foote read countless books on the war and visited every major battle site—on its anniversary date, to get the weather right. The project enthralled him. "There's nothing better for a writer than to be reluctant to go to bed, anxious to wake up and start again," he says. "That's living. That's what I felt." Yet he returned happily to fiction in 1977, and his work has been well reviewed. (September September was bought by Cybill Shepherd and will begin shooting this month in Memphis.)

Foote says his first two marriages (one of which produced daughter Margaret, 41) foundered on his early frustrations as a writer. He married Gwyn, the mother of his son, Huger, 28, while he was working on the first volume of The Civil War. It amuses him that he is being recognized at this late date. "When I was a hardworking, pistol-hot writer, I was unknown," he says. "Now that I'm a tired old man, they start hollerin' how good I am. I'm not going to analyze what that all means. I'm just determined not to let it turn my life into something I don't want it to be." Yet he admits the appeal of fame. "It's a real thing," he says. "We all want to say, I was here.' "

—Michelle Green, David Hutchings in Mempish

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