BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Shelby Foote, author of "Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg
Campaign," where did you get that title?
SHELBY FOOTE: It comes from the Bible. The stars in their courses fought
against Sisera. When Deborah or whoever it was drove his tent peg in his temple,
freeing the Jewish people from this tyrant, she explained that he had been led into
this terrible tragedy that happened to him by the stars. In other words, fate had
brought him there, and the title ties in with Robert E. Lee being led into defeat at
Pickett's Charge by success after success after success, until finally fate decided
to hammer him down, and they did at Pickett's Charge.
LAMB: Gettysburg was fought when?
FOOTE: It was fought on three days, the first, second and third of July.
LAMB: What year?
FOOTE: 1863, almost in the middle of the war.
LAMB: This is called the Modem Library of the World's Best Books. Why did
you decide to do this book -- is this the only one you've done in this series?
FOOTE: Yes, it's the only one in that series. I'm on the advisory board of the
Modern Library, and they asked me what of mine I'd like to have there, and this
is a chapter from my three-volume Civil War narrative, and it is a central chapter
of this central volume, so it's sort of, if I might say so, the capstone or the arch of
that whole narrative of the war.
LAMB: Why did you want to pick that?
FOOTE: It is more a complete story in itself than any other section. This narrative
is woven in and out of other things, but this chapter, better than any other that I
know of, tends to stand by itself and could be a book of its own.
LAMB: Could someone buy this book and not have read your others and be
comfortable reading this?
FOOTE: I think so. It's one of the few instances of an excerpt of 90,000 or so
words that you could do that with, out of that narrative.
LAMB: Over what span of time did you write your three-volume set?
FOOTE: I began it in 1954 under a contract with Bennett Cerf at Random House
for a short history of the Civil War, and I sat down to outline this short history
and saw that I would be simply writing a summary and wouldn't be interested in
doing it. So I wrote and told them at Random that I'd be willing to go whole-hog,
spread-eagle on the thing, three volumes. There was some hesitation, I presume,
but in about a week I got word to go ahead, and I went ahead for the next 20
years. I finished it in '74. I began it in the spring of '54 and finished in the spring of
'74.1 did not do anything else during that whole time of any import. I didn't write
a novel; I didn't do any of those things. Just worked on the war.
LAMB: Where were you living in 1954?
FOOTE: I was living in Memphis. I had just moved there from my home about
150 miles down river in Greenville, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta there. I'd
moved up to Memphis, and one of the reasons I accepted this job offer to write
the Civil War thing was that I had just finished five novels and they were more or
less related to each other and I was looking forward to writing another set of five,
but I thought it might be nice to take some sort of vacation to break the time
between the two of them, and I was going to spend this year or maybe year and a
half writing this Civil War piece. The next thing you knew, I was in it up to my
neck and happy the whole time. I have a strong belief that novelists have a great
deal to teach historians about plotting, about character drawing, about other
things, especially the concern about learning to be a good writer, which many
historians don't bother to do. I was happy the whole time. I never felt really
different writing a history from what I'd felt writing novels.
LAMB: The 11 part series on the Civil War on Public Television, the Burns'
series, your face is on there a lot. How many hours did they tape?
FOOTE: It was kind of strange. I had two sessions at my house with Ken and his
crew, and I took them to Shiloh and I took them to Vicksburg and we did a little
filming at Shiloh and a little at Vicksburg, but most of it was done right there in the
sitting room at my house. I think he had maybe four hours of tape out of which he
took what he wanted.
LAMB: How has that changed your public persona?
FOOTE: Well, that's what it did change is my public thing. It vaulted me into the
public attention, which had been minuscule before that, and I had all kind of
reactions to that happening. But it sold books, and that's the glorious thing about
it. The war stayed in hardcover but it also came out in Vintage, which is a soft
back subsidiary of Random, and it took off like a skyrocket after this television
LAMB: Up until that program, do you know how many copies were sold?
FOOTE: It sold rather well. It did well and it got good reviews, all three volumes,
and was selling well. But it really took off after the television series.
LAMB: Any idea how many?
FOOTE: Volume one is in its 21st edition now, I think. It's a huge number.
LAMB: Would that mean hundreds of thousands of books?
FOOTE: Yes, for the three volumes.
LAMB: So what's happened to you since you've been seen by so many people?
FOOTE: I get this strange star-quality reaction from people, which I find rather
unpleasant, really. Crossing an airport or going somewhere to dinner or
something, there are people who come over and say how much they enjoyed the
war. I haven't yet had anyone come up to me and take the trouble to say they
didn't enjoy it, but they do tend to come over and say ...
LAMB: How do you deal with it?
FOOTE: I tell them that I'm glad to hear it, and one reason I'm so glad to hear it,
aside from personal vanity, is I'm always pleased to know that I might have had
something to do with people beginning to understand the American Civil War,
which I think is enormously important for every American citizen
LAMB: Somebody told me that you didn't like to sign books.
FOOTE: I don't sign books, except for close friends, and I do it for two reasons.
One is I think it makes it mean something that way when you do sign it, and the
other is I'm saving myself and an awful lot of other people a lot of trouble in not
fooling around with that autographing business. I think it's ridiculous.
LAMB: When did you decide to do this?
FOOTE: Early on. Way back when I was writing the first novel, I did it that way.
LAMB: Do you find people get mad at you because you won't do it?
FOOTE: Occasionally somebody gets mad, but mostly when I tell them why,
they say, "I understand that. Yes, that's right." They even approve of it
LAMB: When did you first get interested in the Civil War?
FOOTE: Any Deep South boy, anyhow, and probably all Southern boys have
been familiar with the Civil War as a sort of thing in their conscience going back. I
honestly believe that it's in all our subconscious. This country was into its
adolescence at the time of the Civil War. It really was; it hadn't formulated itself
really as an adult nation, and the Civil War did that. Like all traumatic experiences
that you might have had in your adolescence, it stays with you the rest of your life,
certainly in your subconscious, most likely in your conscience, too. I think that the
Civil War had the nature of that kind of experience for the country. Anybody
who's looked into it at all realizes that it truly is the outstanding event in American
history insofar as making us what we are. The kind of country we are emerged
from the Civil War, not from the Revolution. The Revolution provided us with a
constitution; it broke us loose from England; it made us free. But the Civil War
really defined us. It said what we were going to be, and it said what we're not
going to be. It drifted away from the Southern, mostly Virginia, influence up into
the New England and Middle Western influence, and we became that kind of
nation instead of the other kind of nation.
LAMB: What would have happened if Stephen Douglas had won the Presidency
FOOTE: I can't help but think -- I usually don't like "what ifs," but I think that if
Douglas had been elected, it simply would have postponed the problem. I think
the problem was there. Seward called it an "irrepressible conflict" and I think it
was there and I think it would have been there while Douglas was there or
certainly after Douglas left All these splits were going on. The Whigs were
dissolving or had dissolved. There were issues that were so bitter between the
abolitionists in New England and the fire-eaters in South Carolina and various
other places in the South that I'm almost willing to believe that with all our genius
for compromise, there still wasn't anyway to settle this thing except by fighting.
The most regretful thing is that the thing went on for four years with an incredible
savagery. That's the great shame. There was bound to be a fight, but for it to be
the fight that it was with literally more than a million American casualties, that need
not have been. Something should have stopped it before that
LAMB: How many men fought on the Union side and how many on the
FOOTE: There's a good deal of argument about that. I've forgotten the exact
figures. There probably were a million and a half Union and possibly as many as
800,000 Confederates. Maybe those figures will hold.
LAMB: How many died?
FOOTE: The deaths totaled about 650,000. Two things might bring home to you
how savage it was. All the American wars combined -- now, this is somewhat
unfair because I'm only talking about American casualties in those other wars. I'm
not including the foreign casualties. But more Americans were casualties in the
American Civil War than in all the wars we'd been engaged in -- the Revolution,
The War of 1812, the Mexican War -- all rolled in together, not as many
casualties as there were at Shiloh, the first great battle of the war. It lasted two
days. There were 25,000 casualties there, and that's the total casualties of all the
American wars up until then.
LAMB: What was Greenville, Mississippi, like?
FOOTE: Greenville, Mississippi, just barely existed at the time of the Civil War.
Where I'm from is called the Mississippi-Yazoo Alluvial Delta, and it was only
settled along the Yazoo and the Mississippi. The whole interior was one great
swamp filled with alligators and moccasins, and it wasn't until after the Civil War
that they put the railroad in and could get the trees out and then dig the drainage
ditches that it became habitable. But Greenville was shelled during the war. It was
a little town on the river, and it was shelled as a diversion to Grant's attack on
LAMB: You were born in 1916?
LAMB: What were your parents like? What did they do?
FOOTE: My father came from a long line of illustrious Mississippians. His
grandfather, my great-grandfather, commanded a cavalry at Shiloh, and his father
was a planter there in the Delta, and he expected to live a life of ease, mainly
involving dice-shooting and cards and whiskey and flying around. His own father
short-circuited that by pushing his fortune across a poker table and lost the
plantation. So my father had just married my mother and scarce knew what he
was going to do with himself, and her father got him a job as a shipping clerk at
Armour & Co. there in Greenville.
In the next six years, somehow or another he changed everything about himself
and wound up managing Armour branches in Pensacola, Jackson. He'd just been
transferred to Mobile, where he was the head man in the Southern region, and he
died of septicemia from a operation on his nose. I was just short of 6 years old. I
often look back on it. If he had lived, it's pretty clear he would have wound up in
Chicago with Armour & Co. and I'd have been a Chicago kid going to prep
schools and living in some suburb, and I consider that a great deliverance. I'm
sorry I had to sacrifice my father to do it, but it's strange what accidental things
like septicemia can do to people's lives.
LAMB: Do you remember him at all?
FOOTE: I do. It's a good test for me of how far back people generally can
remember. I remember very, almost clear, snapshots when I was like 4 and 5. I'll
tell you a strange thing about memory. it fades. I'm 77 now. Your memory fades,
and I will remember my father very clearly, and then it'll fade. Then about another
five years, when it's almost faded out of sight, I'll have a very vivid dream of him,
and the memory's back fresh again in my conscience. That's a strange
phenomenon to me.
LAMB: How about your mom?
FOOTE: My mother never remarried, and I was an only child. Her devotion to
me meant so much to me because I was a kid who stayed in trouble all the time. I
was the editor of the high school paper, and I dedicated myself to giving the
principal a hard time. When it came time for me to go to college, I applied to
Chapel Hill for admission and received a lever back saying, "We're sorry. There's
no place for you here." The principal had taken the trouble to write them a letter
saying, "Do not let this boy in your school under any circumstances." But I got in
the car and drove up there and got in tune for registration. When I reached the
desk, they looked at me and said, "We told you not to come." I said, "I know
you did, but I didn't think you meant it." Now, this is 1935. There were empty
rooms in dormitories and everything else, and they said, "All right, since you're
here," so I went to school there.
LAMB: Why did the principal feel that strongly?
FOOTE: Because I'd been giving him a hard time as editor of the high school
LAMB: How did you get interested in writing?
FOOTE: That's always hard for a writer to say. I'm sure my interest began in an
interest in reading, which then was translated into an interest in writing. How did
this fellow do this? I can remember a Sunday School prize or something when I
was about 11 years old. I won a copy of "David Copperfield." Up to that time I'd
read the "Bobbsey Twins" and then "Tom Swift" and the "Rover Boys" and
"Tarzan," but since I got this as a prize, I decided I should read it. I found a world
that was realer than the world I lived in, unlike these Tarzan and other books.
This was a whole other world, and it was a world of art. I couldn't have defined it
as that, but, one thing, I knew "David Copperfield" better than anybody I knew in
the real world, including myself. I said, "My God," to myself, "this is a whole
world." I didn't then read all of Dickens or start becoming a serious reader until
three or four years later, but I remember vividly having that reaction to that book
"David Copperfield." I think most writers probably have that experience.
LAMB: What year did you get out of college?
FOOTE: I only went two years. The war was heading up. Hitler was on a
rampage, and I knew we were going to get in it and I wanted us to get in it, so I
came home to spend the year that was left getting to know my homeland before I
got my head blown off in the war. Then I joined the Mississippi National Guard
when Hitler went into Poland. This was by way of telling him he couldn't get away
with that. The Guard mobilized in November 194O. We went down to Carnp
Blanding and began basic training.
LAMB: Did you go overseas?
FOOTE: Yes. I went to officer candidate school at Fon Sill, Oklahoma, in, I
think, January of '42 right after Pearl Harbor and finished there, came back to
Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and was [sent] out to Camp Bowie, Texas, and
Brown wood, near Dallas and Fort Worth, and then went overseas and joined
the 5th Division, which had been in Iceland since way before Pearl Harbor, and
ran crossways of a colonel on the staff there who's well-known for somebody
you should not get crossways of. He lay for me and finally got me on falsifying a
It was a rule that you could not use a vehicle for recreation beyond a distance of
50 miles. We were 50 miles from Belfast, so it was a common practice among us
to write 50 miles. Our battalion was outside that 50-mile radius. That was the
charge of falsifying a government document, and I was court-marshalled and sent
home. I stayed home and I worked on a local desk at Associated Press for about
six months. Then I couldn't take it any longer and went down and joined the
Marine Corps, and I was in the Marine Corps for a year and they dropped the
bomb and the thing was over and I came on home. The Marines were funny
about that. They said -- well, fellow Marines. I went through boot camp at Paris
Island and everything, having been a captain in the Army. They said, "You used
to be a captain in the Army. You might make a pretty good Marine if you work at
hard." I enjoyed it. I liked the Marines.
LAMB: If I figure right, in 1954 you were about 37, 38 years old when you
started writing about the Civil War.
LAMB: When you went to Europe and you were in the Marines and in the Army,
did you know anything about the Civil War then?
FOOTE: Yes. I carried with me, in my baggage, G. F. R. Henderson's
"Stonewall Jackson." I had [Douglas South] Freeman's "R. E. Lee" with me as
often as I could lug it around. I spent my spare time even then figuring out what
happened during the seven days and drawing maps. It always fascinated me.
LAMB: You say at one point in this book for the Modern Library that when
Robert E. Lee was up north, people would stop him from the North and get his
autograph. How come?
FOOTE: There was a general admiration for Lee. It's curious in the Civil War,
the men who were most hated were not very dangerous men. They were men like
[Benjamin Franklin] Butler. God knows who you'd name on the Southern side
that they hated so much. They were not much killers. The real killers like Grant
and Lee were enormously admired by the opposite side. There's something very
strange about that, but it is strange.
LAMB: When you started really thinking about writing it when you were 37 or
so, had you been to a lot of Civil War sites?
FOOTE: Yes. It was a sort of hobby of mine. I was going back and forth to New
York three or four times a year, driving in those days up U.S. 1 -- through the
Shenandoah Valley and all that, and I would stop at battlefields all along the way
and go out of my way to go to them just to see what they felt like. In visiting
battlefields, it's very important that you go at the same time of year, if possible on
the very anniversary of the battle, because the place is so different other times of
years. To understand the battle of Shiloh, if you went there when it was fought, in
early April, you could see what it was like. If you went there in February or later
on in July, it would be a different field, and you wouldn't understand the way the
new growth of leaves choked everything in so nobody knew what direction north,
south, east or west was. So you get that thing and you get the weather, you get
the soil and you get the coloration of things; get the true feel of it.
LAMB: You said earlier that the Civil War defined what we were going to be and
what we were not going to be. What are we?
FOOTE: Well, the Civil War included emancipation, and it was immediately
followed by true emancipation. I mean, the Constitution freed the slaves, not just
those who were in rebel hands, as Lincoln's proclamation claimed.
LAMB: Define the word "emancipation." What's it mean?
FOOTE: "Emancipation" means the setting free of people who were in slavery.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free anybody. What it did was it
declared that all slaves not then in territory occupied by the Union would be free
as of January 1, Meaning if I can reach out and touch you, you're not free. If
you're beyond my reach, you're free. Well, they didn't immediately say, "I am
free," and march somewhere. They couldn't. But the real emancipation, the
Constitutional amendment freeing the slaves, freed all the slaves.
Slavery is a huge stain on us. We all carry it. I carry it deep in my bones, the
consequences of slavery. But emancipation comes pretty close to being as heavy
a sin. They told -- what is its million or 7 million people, "You're now free. Hit the
road," and there was a Freedman's Bureau, which was a sort of joke. There were
people down here exploiting them. Three-quarters of them couldn't read or write,
had no job, no hope of a job, no way to learn a new job even, and they drifted
back into this peon age system under sharecropping, which was about all they
To this day, we are paying and they are paying for this kind of treatment. I don't
mean there should have been a gradual emancipation. I mean there should have
been true preparation to get this people ready for living a kind of life. They were
free and should have been free all along, but they were not prepared for living in
the world. They'd been living under conditions of slavery, which kept them from
living in the world.
LAMB: You say it also defined what we were not going to be. What does that
FOOTE: It means the loss of the so-called Southern virtues, some of which are
very real -- a man's word is his bond, the business of not insulting each other
with impunity. Some of these things are very small, but they weigh large on the
LAMB: You moved to Memphis, which is in the South. Why did you choose to
leave Greenville to go to Memphis? What was the real reason?
FOOTE: I never left home when I came to Memphis. Memphis is the capital of
the Mississippi Delta, even though it's in Tennessee. It's the city. If you're in the
south Delta, you go to New Orleans. If you're anywhere above the middle Delta,
you go to Memphis. I don't think there's a been a season of my life that I hadn't
been in Memphis with my mother or one of my aunts and uncles up there
shopping and everything. People went up there for everything -- men to buy guns
and shoes and things, and women to buy clothes. This was before there were
malls and dealers with designer clothes in small towns, so excursions to Memphis
were frequent for shopping purposes.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
FOOTE: Just my mother and I all the time until right after the war. I was married,
got divorced and then remarried again after I moved to Memphis. I've been
married now for 36 years, I think it is.
FOOTE: One child, a son, 32 years old.
LAMB: What's he do?
FOOTE: He's a photographer and getting to be a good one.
LAMB: Did he take any of the photos of you that we see ever?
FOOTE: No. He takes photographs of me, but for some reason or other, that
brand of nepotism I haven't been involved with.
LAMB: Where was this photo taken?
FOOTE: That was taken at home, but it was done by a photographer from
Denver. His name is Larry Shirkey and that's a cut from a larger photograph.
LAMB: Do you purposely have all your photos taken without a smile?
FOOTE: I think that I do. I share that with Abraham Lincoln. There's only one
photograph of Lincoln that has a little bit of a ghost of a smile, and that's the
last one, the one that was taken just shortly before the assassination and when he
knew the war was won.
LAMB: If you look at your three-volume series, they have different pictures on
them at that age. Did you consciously decide to have always a serious look?
FOOTE: I don't think so. I think probably a battery of psychiatrists could figure it
out, but no not consciously. For one thing, I don't like having my picture made,
and that's one reason I'm frowning, saying, "I don't like this; I don't like this
LAMB: When did you write your first novel?
FOOTE: I wrote my first novel -- I said I left school to come home and wait for
the war to start. I wrote the first draft of my first novel during that period while I
was waiting for the war to start in 1939 and >40. Then when I came back from
the war in '45, I sat down and revised it, and it still was my first novel. It was
published by Dial in 1949.
LAMB: What was it?
FOOTE: It was called "Tournament," and it's the story about a planter in the
Mississippi Delta and about his rise and fall, very loosely based on my
grandfather's life, although he died before I was born so it wasn't out of personal
acquaintance with him.
LAMB: You've written how many novels?
FOOTE: I've written six novels -- five before the war and one since.
LAMB: How many non-fiction books?
FOOTE: This is my only non-fiction, this civil war narrative.
LAMB: Do you like one over the other?
FOOTE: No. I suspect I like to think of myself as a novelist because that's what I
was for most of my life and that's the way I thought of myself, and I've haven't
changed. It pleases me when someone tells me what they like best is my novels.
But, no, I've faced the fact that I probably am more apt to be known for writing
this three-volume history than anything else.
LAMB: Since your fame from television, have your novels sold any?
FOOTE: Yes, they have. Vintage has brought them out in softback. Those that
were out of print are back in print, and they do quite well.
LAMB: In the notes in one your books I found that your favorite historian is
[Cornelius] Tacitus. Who was he?
FOOTE: Tacitus was a Roman historian right after the birth and death of Jesus,
and he is, above all, a writer. Tacitus' style is just a joy to be involved with,
whether in the original Latin, which I can barely stumble through, or in a decent
translation. It's very hard to get a good translation of Tacitus. There's a man
named Brodribb who did a pretty good one. There's something about him. He
writes about high-placed scoundrels for the most part, and he takes that Roman
Empire apart. Some historians said about Claudius that he was a successful
emperor, hard-working and everything else, and "then, alas, he fell upon the pen
of Tacitus," which always tickles me, as a rule. But I like Tacitus very much.
There are other historians I like a lot.
LAMB: When were you introduced to Tacitus?
FOOTE: Probably during high school probably was when I first encountered him.
I took Latin in high school. We didn't have Tacitus, though. Tacitus is too hard to
read. You do Caesar and then finally Virgil, but you don't get to Tacitus until you
go on from there.
LAMB: And also you mentioned the Peloponnesian War.
FOOTE: Right, Thucydides.
LAMB: Is there any relationship between what you read there and what you have
found about the Civil War?
FOOTE: Yes, a great deal. I'll tell you something interesting stylistically. There's a
strong belief -- I think it's utterly true -- that [Edward] Gibbon, in writing "The
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was strongly influenced by [Henry]
Fielding's "Tom Jones." There's also a strong belief that Thucydides' "History of
the Peloponnesian War" is strongly influenced by his reading Chylus and
Sophocles. I believe that the artists are out front and have a great deal to teach
historians about good writing and dramatic composition, which I consider the best
history to be. Aristotle said, in criticizing great drama, that first you learn how to
write well -- a good sophomore in high school can do a surprisingly good
description of a sunset -- then you learn to draw characters that can stand up and
cast a shadow, and the last thing you learn to do is plot. That's the skill that
comes last, if it comes at all.
That is where I think historians neglect a huge advantage. I think history has a
plot. You don't make it up; you discover it. It's there. Oscar Wilde talks about life
imitating art. I have noticed that when a man dies, no matter at what age or by
what cause, his life then has a beginning and a middle and an end, and sometimes
his death explains his youth. Good friends of mine who were killed in the war
spent their youth exactly as if they knew they were going to be killed. It's a very
strange business, but that's art taking over, insisting on giving a thing form when it
seems to be formless. I think that when you supply that form -- and, mind you,
I'm not talking about superimposing it; I'm talking about discovering the form -- it
makes that a very exciting reading experience.
LAMB: In this book, there's a little introduction about Shelby Foote. It tells us
about you, but your other books you just start right off.
FOOTE: So does the narrative. There's no preface saying I owe my debts to this
and that and the other. That all comes at the end. It starts and in the full narrative,
the sections -- I never called books "chapters" in my novels, but in the history I
was careful to call it Chapter One, Chapter Two, emphasizing its kinship to the
LAMB: There are no footnotes and no bibliography.
FOOTE: The subject, after 100 years, is well enough known not to need
footnotes, the Civil War. Footnotes are extremely useful to other historians, and I
was writing for historians' enjoyment and, I hope, instruction, but mainly I did not
want to interrupt this narrative with this bunch of footnotes down at the bottom of
the page where your eye leaves the story every now and then to glance down at
the footnote. I thought that the footnotes would cost me more artistically than they
would gain me in academic respect.
LAMB: Who's Ralph Newman?
FOOTE: Ralph Newman is a Civil War enthusiast from Chicago and one of the
leading persons to make the Civil War into the American consciousness through a
thing he had called the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop there in Chicago. He was
one of the founders of the Civil War Round table in Chicago, which I think was
the first of the roundtables. They, long before this period of the huge popularity of
the Civil War, were working away at it and doing very interesting stuff.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up is that you also mention in one of your books in
your comments at the end that he came out with a bibliography that meant you
didn't have to do it.
FOOTE: Right. He and his friend Pete Long published a separate bibliography
that covers everything, and I said if you want to know where I got my books, go
to Newman's bibliography. That's where I got them.
LAMB: Three hundred and fifty books on the Civil War?
FOOTE: About that number was the working library I had near my desk at all
times. I worked from printed sources entirely. I did not get into the archives and
dig around among manuscripts.
LAMB: Have you read all those books?
FOOTE: Yes, I had. I read them and read them with pleasure, most of them.
LAMB: One of the other things I noticed in reading this is that you'll just start with
a name. There's not an explanation of where this person comes from and all that.
FOOTE: Right. What I do is I work at development. I don't stop the story to tell
you who somebody was. I release things about his life as the story goes along.
I've got a long way to go, you see. I've got a million and a half words there, and I
take my time. You don't find where Lee courted his wife until the Battle of
Fredericksburg. He's looking through his binoculars across the Rappahannock at
an oak tree in the yard of a house over there, and that's where he courted his
wife. It picks these pieces up as you go along until finally, I hope, you get to
know these people they way you do get to know people in real life, finding out
little by little about them instead of just three pages of biography.
LAMB: Where have you physically written all these books?
FOOTE: I wrote the first volume on the exact western city limits of Memphis
because it was on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The second volume
was written on the eastern limits of Memphis, which Yates Road was then the
eastern limits of that. And the third volume was written where I live now, right in
the geographical center of Memphis. All three volumes were written, every line of
them, there in Memphis.
LAMB: In a house or an office?
FOOTE: In a house. I've always worked in the room where I usually sleep so
that I sleep near my desk, and the typewriter's over here. There's something
about it. When I go somewhere else, like in the summer I'll go down on the coast
or something, I can't work away from home. I'd have to stay there for two weeks
before I could start writing. I'm not like, say, D. H. Lawrence, who could write
anywhere and, in fact, never had a home. But to me it's a very deliberate thing.
Five hundred or 6OO words is a good day for me. I write with a dip pen, which
causes all kind of problems -- everything from finding blotters to pen points -- but
it makes me take my time, and it gives me a real feeling of satisfaction. I'm getting
where I'm going.
LAMB: What's a dip pen?
FOOTE: It's the kind you used to see in post offices all the time when you were a
boy. I would love to find one of those inkwells they had in post offices. They had
a spring in them. When you pressed down, it would wet the pen point, and then
when you lifted it out, it would close it again so the ink didn't evaporate. I can't
find one. I'm absolutely certain that right here in Washington there are five million
of them in a warehouse somewhere, but I can't find one. But a dip pen, you have
to dip it in the ink and write three or four words and dip it again. It has a real
influence on the way I write, so different not only from a typewriter but from using
a pencil or a fountain pen.
LAMB: What do you do with it after it's written the 500 words every day?
FOOTE: I set it aside to dry; then copy it off on a typewriter, make a typewritten
copy of it and then recopy on that until finally the day is over and I'm all the way
satisfied with it and I put it on the stack -- make a clean copy and put it on the
stack. That way I don't have to engage in something that to me is a particular
form of heartbreak, which is revision. I don't do that. My best friend in life for 60
years was Walker Percy. He had exactly the opposite. He said, "If I knew what
was going to happen next, I wouldn't be able to write. I wouldn't be interested in
writing if I knew what was going to happen." I'm the other way.
LAMB: So you're never edited?
FOOTE: No. There's no real need. I may take out a comma or put in an "and" or
something, but very minor stuff from then on.
LAMB: Do you have this arrangement with your publisher?
FOOTE: Yes. My editor at Random House for 35 years now has been Bob
Loomis. He's a good editor, and our arrangement is that he will encourage me, he
will do everything in the world to make me feel that I'm doing well and this and
that and the other, but he doesn't mess with the text.
LAMB: Do you know many authors that have this kind of arrangement'?
FOOTE: William Faulkner had it. I've seen a Faulkner proof. Somebody
presumed to read the galley proofs and make a correction of something and
Faulkner scratched it out. The next time he got to one, he saw another correction
mark, and he wrote, "Goddamn it, leave it alone!" That's the way I felt about it,
LAMB: How long does it take you to write the 500, 60O words a day?
FOOTE: A long time. Most writers I know work all morning and then are free in
the afternoon and the evening. Some few I know work at night, but very few
writers I know work over four or five hours a day, which is a long day for a
writer. I work in the morning three or four hours and then go back in the
afternoon and work three or four hours. It's because I'm a slow writer I have to
do that much. I write about 100,000 words a year, year in and year out.
LAMB: Do you keep all of these facts and figures in your head?
FOOTE: Mostly in my head. Particular quotations that I want to be sure to keep
up with I'll write on a piece of paper and stick on a piece of beaver board that's
in front of my desk so I won't forget to get it, but mostly I carry this in my head.
But by way of preparation for this, I did something that I think anybody would
find useful. I got large cardboard posters and drew columns down it, and then put
the year, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, and I had "diplomacy@ "military," "political" and
other things so that at a glance I could tell what was going on at that particular
time, and that's where the plotting came in, so that you weave the diplomatic
situation and the political situation and the military situation all into a narrative.
LAMB: I hesitate to ask this because I'm not sure which way you'd go with it
because you might not even like the question. But who are your favorite
characters after writing all these words about the Civil War?
FOOTE: You mean Civil War characters?
FOOTE: It's easy to state who your favorites are because they're many people's
favorites -- Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Tecumseh Sherman.
But I have some favorites that are grievously neglected. one of them is an
Arkansas general named Pat Cleburne, Patrick Ronayne Cleburne from
Arkansas. He probably was the best division commander on either side, and in
his day -- he was killed at Franklin about a year before the end of the war -- he
was called the Stonewall Jackson of the West and well-known and adored by his
men. He's been largely forgotten today. He's buried right there at Helena
[Arkansas] where Crawley's Ridge comes to the Mississippi. I'm very fond of
Cleburne. I got the same reaction at Cleburne's death that his men got. I was
greatly saddened to lose him. You get a great fondness for these people or a
severe dislike for them, and if you have a dislike for them, you lean over
backward hoping not to let it show. I'm sure it does.
LAMB: This particular book is in this Modern Library series. It sells for $13.50, I
think. What is the series? You're on this board. What is it?
FOOTE: Well, I'm surprised you would ask because to me, being as old as I am,
the Modern Library was what I grew up with. It was my introduction to
everybody--Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner. Everybody was in the Modern
Library, and that's where you went if you wanted to keep up with that plus the
classics. We were talking about Tacitus and Thucydides. I read them in the
Modern Library. The times being what they were, they were 95 cents a copy in
those days, not nearly as well-printed or as handsomely bound as now, but for 95
cents you could get all of Thucydides.
LAMB: I'm asking because it seems like there's something new going on. You
see these now in a lot more bookstores, new covers. What is happening? You're
on the board. The names -- Maya Angclou and Daniel Boorstin and Christopher
Cerf. By the way, is he related to Bennett Cerf?
FOOTE: He's Bennett's son.
LAMB: And Shelby Foote's on here; Vartan Gregorian from Brown University,
who used to run the New York Library; Edmund Morris, the biographer of
Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt; Arthur Schlesinger, William Styron and
Gore Vidal. What do you all do?
FOOTE: We meet and each has books that he would like to see in it, and we all
decide whether they should be done. The head of it is a young woman named
Susan DiSesa, who's an excellent editor, and we decide what should be in there
and then sometimes decide what should not. It's a growing list and a good one.
All the old titles are available, too. The Chaucer, for instance, is coming out in a
month or so, a beautiful book.
LAMB: Who owns it?
FOOTE: Random House. It is to Random House what -- well, Knopf has lately
bought Everyman's Library, which I'm sure you remember. Many publishing
houses have these things. It's a combination of ancient classics and sort of modern
LAMB: When I was growing up, I remember seeing Bennett Cerf on television. I
don't remember what the show was -- "What's My Line?" or something like that.
FOOTE: Yes, "What's My Line?"
LAMB: Is he still alive?
FOOTE: No. Bennett's been dead about seven, eight years now. He was a very
likeable man, and not many people realized, because he was such a punster and
so forth, what a good editor he was. He shook up the whole publishing business
in New York with Random House. He started it on a shoestring and drove it right
to the top. He got Proust. He's the one who got hold of Proust. He got Joyce's
"Ulysses." It was Bennett Cerf who did that. He did a lot of things.
LAMB: From the books that you've written about the Civil War and from your
appearance on the Civil War series, have you learned anything new about the
United States and the people's reaction to it?
FOOTE: The biggest change I've seen is in the racial problem with the blacks,
and some of it I regret very much. Quite the opposite of the Jews in the case of
the Holocaust, the blacks seem not to want to be reminded of history, seem not
to want to -- in this Disney project it was announced, "We will show you what it
was like to be a slave," but what a great outcry went up. "We don't want to see
that kind of thing," almost the opposite of the Jews having Holocaust museums
and all kinds of things. I regret that I think they ought to celebrate their past the
same way the Jews did about bondage in Egypt. They're not ashamed of it They
say, "We came out of it. We conquered it." I wish there were more of that.
The Civil War, there's a great compromise, as it's called. It consists of
Southerners admitting freely that it's probably best that the Union wasn't divided,
and the North admits rather freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in
which it believed. That is a great compromise and we live with that and that
works for us. We are now able to look at the war with some coolness, which we
couldn't do before now, and, incidentally, I very much doubt whether a history
such as mine could have been written much before 100 years had elapsed. It
took all that time for things to cool down.
When I was a grade school boy in Mississippi, I knew obscene doggerel about
Abraham Lincoln, left over from my parents and grandparents. Yankees were
despised. When one of them was so unfortunate as to move to Greenville,
Mississippi, he was despised. All that stopped. All that's over now, and the great
compromise obtains. I wish my black friends could do the same thing. The Illinois
senator [Carol Moseley-Braun] who didn't want the Daughters of the
Confederacy at Richmond to have a Confederate symbol -- not the battle flag;
just a Confederate symbol -- on their stationery, got her fellow senators to
disallow it. I do not understand that. That's a violation of the compromise, for
example, and it's an arousal of bitterness. But she, along with a great many others,
do not want to be reminded. She has every right to want to hide from history if
she wants to, but it seems to me she's trying to hide history from us, and that's a
LAMB: What do you think of Abraham Lincoln?
FOOTE: The first word that I have for Abraham Lincoln is genius. There's never
been a man function the way Lincoln did. He had never occupied anything
resembling an executive position before he came here to be president. He knew
almost nothing about the office. He didn't know how it ran; he didn't know about
departments like the Treasury and so forth. He had done a term in Congress,
which familiarized him there. He was very active in politics. The Lincoln-Douglas
debates show that the man knew a lot about government, but the actual executive
job he learned on the job, and he was just a miracle at it. He was a true genius.
LAMB: We are covering reenactments of the Lincoln-Douglas debates this
summer, and another person that I want to ask you about in that context is
Stephen Douglas and popular sovereignty, an issue we've discussed a lot here.
What do you think of that idea?
FOOTE: Well, Douglas is an interesting man because he had a profound influence
on history if he didn't do but one thing -- he ran for of fice. Up until then, no man
would run for the presidency of the United States. You couldn't say, "I want to be
president of the United States" or "I should be president of the United States."
Nobody would say a thing like that. It was too presumptuous. You sat back and
other people said you should be president. Douglas said, "I want to be president.
I should be president" others talked about their theories and everything, but
Douglas was the first to campaign. Now, today they campaign like mad and they
do nothing but campaign for two years before the election, but it was unthinkable
before Douglas for anybody to campaign. Douglas came south. He told his
advisers, "We have to go south and try to swing this thing, heal this break." It
LAMB: Do you have any sense of what impact the Lincoln-Douglas debates
actually had in those days?
FOOTE: I'll tell you one impact it had: it kept Douglas from being President of the
United States and it made Abraham Lincoln President of the United States when
he asked Douglas that thing. You always have to wonder whether some particular
thing that Lincoln does is done by accident or mistake or through this kind of
genius. The firing on Sumter is a case, a decision to reinforce something. He
either thought the South was going to back down or he thought he was going to
provoke a civil war. There wasn't anything else that could happen from doing that
So did he blunder into it or did he have enough foresight to see four years later
there was going to be a reestablished union? That's too much to ask him to have
done that, but did he really provoke the Civil War doing that? Well, during the
Douglas debate, he posed a question to Douglas where if Douglas answered yes,
he would win the election; if he answered no, he would lose the Presidential
election two or so years later or however many years it was. He had him hoist on
his petard there. Douglas gave the answer that won the senatorial election but
would lose him the presidential election.
LAMB: Was the Civil War inevitable?
FOOTE: I think that it was necessary. I do not believe that those differences
could have been settled without bloodshed. The question is the horrendous
amount of bloodshed. That was not necessary. That could have been stopped at
some point. God knows. But there apparently were differences so profound
between the abolitionists in New England and the fire-eaters of South Carolina
that dragged the rest of the country into this conflict that I'm inclined to agree with
Seward, who called it an irrepressible conflict.
LAMB: From what you know now and your own political philosophy, if you had
a voice and you lived back there, which side would you have been on?
FOOTE: There's absolutely no doubt. I'm from Mississippi. I would have been
on the Confederate side. Right or wrong, I would have fought with my people.
FOOTE: Because they're my people. It would have meant the end of my life as I
had known it if I fought on the other side. It would have been a falsification of
everything I'd lived by, even if I opposed it. No matter how much I was opposed
to slavery, I still would have fought for the Confederacy -- not for slavery, but for
other things, such as freedom to secede from the Union.
LAMB: Is there still a difference in the way people who live in Mississippi think
than, say, the people in Illinois?
FOOTE: Much less than my boyhood. Far less. In my boyhood -- and I'm old
enough to go back to before radio was being common. You had radios in towns
where there was electricity, but you must know that before REA there wasn't any
electricity in the country. Some few people had Delco generators to put in electric
lights and everything. But the name Roosevelt was always Roo-se-velt. You
never heard it, you say. He was always called Roo-se-velt, and it carried on
down. Now there's been an homogenization of accents and voices. I don't speak
exactly the way a New Englander does, but I speak a lot closer to it now than I
used to or than my people nowadays do. I remember breaking up a zoology class
at Chapel Hill talking about earthworms. They never heard anybody say
"ewarthwurum." It's a kind of a New Orleans accent.
LAMB: Do you have any other books you're writing? You say you write
100,000 words a year. What do you write about?
FOOTE: I write about the Mississippi Delta. All those novels are concerned with
-- that's my homeland. It's what I know. I don't have to do any research. It's all in
my experience. I enjoy very much doing the research and getting to know these
people well enough. I felt no different working with facts that I got out of
documents than I did with facts, so-called, that I got out of my head. They're both
facts. You have to be true to them. A good novelist is as true to his facts as a
historian is to his. It's true you can't give Lincoln the color eyes you want. They
were gray-blue, but there they are. They're gray-blue and you deal with them.
LAMB: Are you going write any more non-fiction?
FOOTE: I don't think so. I don't believe I will. An occasional thing -- I recently
wrote an introduction to Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" and rather
enjoyed doing it. It was about 10,000 words or so. But I'm a novelist, is what I
am if I'm anything.
LAMB: How often are we going to see you in the public spotlight from now on?
FOOTE: I don't know. I suspect less and less and less and less.
FOOTE: It's too disruptive. I was talking about my work habits. It also includes
working seven days a week. If I stop, the steam goes out of the boiler and I have
to spend another two days building up a head of steam, so that stopping is very
bad. I'm actually unable to work if I'm going somewhere and doing something
every 14 days or something. I would never get anything done.
LAMB: When we were talking earlier about your work habits, I wanted to ask
what you're like to be around when you're writing.
FOOTE: I don't know because I don't allow anybody around while I'm writing.
My wife manages to live with me and my son and our dog, but I like to be let
alone when I'm working. I see these Hollywood movies where the man gets up in
the middle of the night and dashes off a few thousand words, and his little wife
comes in to make sure he's comfortable and everything. That's all foolishness. I
would never be anything like that. In fact, I'm privately convinced that most of the
really bad writing the world's ever seen has been done under the influence of
what's called inspiration. Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're
doing the whole time.
LAMB: So what kind of a stretch do you go that you're in that writing mode?
FOOTE: A month or so, then take some time off. Take a week and go
somewhere and rest up, enjoy yourself, come back to it. This doesn't mean I
don't spend my evenings socializing and having fun with friends, going out to
dinner and all that kind of thing. I do.
LAMB: You have a note in one of your books that says, "Thanks to my friends
that allowed me to spend an evening without talking about the Civil War." When
you're not talking about the Civil War, what are you talking about?
FOOTE: Talking about the latest gossip of what's going on up the street there and
how somebody's getting along here and general politics on the national scene. A
writer's like anybody else except when he's writing.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like, the Modern Library series, and our
guest has been Shelby Foote, author of "The Civil War" and six novels. Thank
you for joining us.
FOOTE: Thank you. I enjoyed being with you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.