Fame besieges Shelby Foote, voice of 'The Civil War'

October 03, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington

That voice.

That courtly, engaging drawl -- Southern to its Mississippi soul, easy as a well-worn armchair. The kind of voice you could listen to forever. The kind of voice that makes you feel all is right in the world.

The kind of voice that has turned historian and writer Shelby Foote, the Southern heart of last week's PBS series "The Civil War," into an overnight celebrity at age 73, having enchanted many of the program's 14 million viewers with his rich, colorful stories.

The author of a 3,000-page trilogy on that war, Mr. Foote is now being called "Mr. Civil War," the "Carl Sagan of historians." Reporters and admirers have besieged him -- both at his home in Memphis, Tenn., and while in Washington earlier this week for a PEN/Faulkner writer's gala at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

An old Army buddy he hasn't seen since 1942 looked him up. Some Southerners are calling to shout at him for participating in "Yankee propaganda." Sales of his books are way up. Even single women, taken with his apparent warmth and charm, have phoned this Greenville, Miss., native (married for 34 years) to tell him of their rapture.

"I could correct it in a hurry by meeting personally with them," he says with characteristic self-deprecation, "but I don't have time."

To say he's been less than thrilled with his new-found stardom is, well, it's what we might say. This is what he says:

"It has run me damn near stark staring mad!

"If I knew how to handle it, I'd be all right. But what I told myself is it's gonna last about a week or maybe two and then it will be over -- as indeed it will. And if it's not over I'll make it be over. Ah'm not gonna get caught up in this show business HOOrah!"

The author of several novels, he spent 20 years writing his Civil War trilogy -- indeed, we watch him age from the clean-shaven young man with glossy black hair on the book jacket of volume one to the gray-haired and bearded gentleman pictured on volume three.

He had written his first five novels in five consecutive years. "And I was happy as a colt in clover," he says.

But when Random House asked him in 1954 to write a short history of the Civil War, he signed on. "All my life I was gripped by the Civil War," says the great grandson of a Confederate soldier. "I read the 'Bobbsey Twins,' then 'Tom Swift,' then 'Tarzan,' then moved on to the Civil War."

But he decided he couldn't tell the story as he wanted to in a single volume, so he proposed to the publisher an expanded version. "I spent 20 years writing that and enjoyed it the whole time. I felt the same way I did writing a novel."

Mr. Foote not only acted as the on-screen "tour guide" for last week's 11-hour documentary, appearing 89 times throughout the production, he also acted as a historical consultant. "Getting Shelby Foote for my documentary," director Ken Burns told Newsweek, "was almost as good as getting Bobby Lee."

Initially, Mr. Foote and about two dozen other historians were sent a copy of Mr. Burns' first draft of the series, then asked to come to Washington.

"We sat around a big table and went through it page by page," says Mr. Foote. "We were leery of it -- a historian is always doubtful about how much good history is gonna get on that tiny tube. But we got over that in a hurry because we found [Mr. Burns] willing to drop anything -- no matter how dramatic or how much he'd counted on it -- if there was anything doubtful about its historical authenticity."

For instance, Mr. Foote informed Mr. Burns that a famous speech Robert E. Lee was said to have made to his assembled generals never took place. "There was good testimony that he had [made the speech], but it just wasn't true. Ken dropped it immediately."

Mr. Burns and his crew went to Mr. Foote's Memphis home to shoot two three-hour segments. And then the historian took them to battlefields at nearby Shiloh and Vicksburg.

"Ken did a good thing that I've always insisted all good historians who write about the Civil War ought to do -- he went to those battlefields on the anniversaries of the battle. So that the field looked the way it did at the time the battle was fought. Shiloh in January is very different from Shiloh in April when the trees are leafed out.

"He got a dividend from that too. He recorded sounds. So the birds you hear singing when you see those pictures are the birds that would be there that time of year. Now, nobody nailed that down and said, 'My God, that's a titmouse! How did he know that?' But I claim it had its effect."

Mr. Foote believes it was that kind of detail -- coupled with the narrative format -- that so captivated TV audiences. "It doesn't approach the Civil War through issues, it approaches the Civil War through the people who fought it and directed it. Then it approaches the issues through them, but the people always come first. And folks like that."

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