Shelby Foote, the historian whose incisive, seasoned commentary - delivered in a drawl so mellifluous that one critic called it "molasses over hominy" - evoked the Civil War for millions in the 11-hour PBS documentary in 1990, died on Monday at a Memphis hospital He was 88 and lived in Memphis.
His death was reported by his wife, Gwyn, The Associated Press said.
Mr. Foote's 89 cameo appearances in Ken Burns's series "The Civil War" were informed by his own three-volume history of the war, two decades in the making, that blended his practiced novelist's touch with punctilious, but defiantly unfootnoted research.
His mission was to tell what he considered America's biggest story as a vast, finely detailed, deeply human narrative. He could focus on broad shifts in strategy or on solitary moments of poignancy, like the tearful but still proud Robert E. Lee picking his way through the ranks of his vanquished army to surrender.
"He made the war real for us," Mr. Burns said.
His goal was to emulate the authoritative narrative voice of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Mr. Foote's books carried a great plot, and as academic historians increasingly saw themselves as social scientists armed with the tools of quantitative analysis, he turned to Shakespeare for metaphors and to colloquialisms for literary impact.
"What sort of document was this anyhow?" he wrote of the Emancipation Proclamation, before going on to discuss it.
Facts, Mr. Foote said, are the bare bones from which truth is made. Truth, in his view, embraced sympathy, paradox and irony, and was attained only through true art. "A fact is not a truth until you love it," he said.
Critics suggested that Mr. Foote played down the economic, intellectual and political causes of the Civil War. Some said that Mr. Foote may have played down slavery so that Southern soldiers would seem worthy heroes in the epic battles he so stirringly chronicled.
Mr. Foote is survived by his third wife, the former Gwyn Rainer, whom he married in 1956, and two children, Margaret Shelby and Huger Lee.
Shelby Foote was born on Nov. 17, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., the cultural center of the Mississippi Delta. He was the only child of Shelby Dade Foote, a local businessman, whose roots ran deep in American history, and Lillian Rosenstock Foote. Among the Shelby-Foote direct ancestors was Isaac Shelby, a frontier leader in the Revolution and the first governor of Kentucky. Mr. Foote's great-grandfather, Capt. Hezekiah William Foote, a slave owner, fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh (where, he reported, his saber was bent and his horse's tail was shot off) and later became a judge. Less respectable was his grandfather, Huger Lee Foote, a planter who gambled away what would have been a substantial inheritance.
Under the influence of William Alexander Percy, a local author and the uncle of young Shelby's best friend, Walker Percy, the boy took to books, discovering abiding favorites from Shakespeare to Dickens. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he wrote short stories and poems for the campus literary magazine before dropping out in 1937 without taking a degree. But he did find occasion, with Walker Percy, to visit William Faulkner in Oxford, Miss. The pair were cordially received.
In 1940 Mr. Foote entered the United States Army and served as a battery captain of field artillery in Europe before his Army career ended abruptly in 1944, when he was caught sneaking off to Belfast, Ireland, to see a girlfriend. The Marine Corps recruited him, but the war ended, and in November 1945 he was discharged. He found odd jobs, including a stint as a reporter for The Delta Democrat Times, whose publisher, Hodding Carter, felt he spent too much office time writing fiction. In 1946 he sold his first short story to The Saturday Evening Post, and after rejections and rewrites he sold his first novel, "Tournament," to the Dial Press.
Drawn from his own family history, the tale of a Delta planter who gambles away the family fortune was greeted, somewhat unoriginally, as a promising first novel. Not all critics felt that the promise was redeemed in the four novels, all set in the South, that followed. A New York Times reviewer wrote that "Follow Me Down" (1950), about a Mississippi farmer who murders a teenage girl, showed more virtuosity than depth, but a later reviewer had kind words for "Love in a Dry Season" (1951), a gritty Delta tale. "Shiloh," (1952), which became his best known novel, and a hint of his future achievements, offered an affecting account of the famous Civil War battle through the monologues of soldiers in the blue and the gray. And in 1954 came "Jordan County," seven Delta stories set in reverse chronological order, from 1950 to 1797. He wrote all these books in the garage behind his mother's house. His last major novel, "September, September," set in Little Rock, Ark., during the 1957 school-integration turmoil, appeared in 1978.
In their six-decade friendship, Mr. Foote and Walker Percy exchanged scores of letters about their work. Mr. Foote, who was a few months the junior, played the mentor, but it was Percy who made the more impressive literary mark with his first novel, "The Moviegoer," which won a National Book Award in 1962. Mr. Foote was at his friend's bedside at his death in New Orleans in 1990.
Mr. Foote's novels were treated respectfully: Southern literary journals carried long analyses, with at least one essayist faulting the literary establishment for its shameful neglect of his achievement, and French critics found resemblances in his experiments with time and points of view between the Foote world of Jordan County and William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County). But it was nonfiction that brought him widespread attention.
What began as a Random House proposal for a short account of the Civil War as its centennial approached turned into an opus. Writing in an ornate script with an old-style dip pen in his rambling magnolia-shaded house in Memphis, where the Footes had moved in 1953, he produced the 2,934-page, three-volume, 1.5 million-word military history, "The Civil War: A Narrative." At 500 to 600 words a day, with times out to visit battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles, it took him 20 years. The volumes appeared between 1958 and 1974.
Carrying readers from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, the work was greeted by most reviewers in the spirit of the New York Times Book Review contributor who called it "a remarkable achievement, prodigiously researched, vigorous, detailed, absorbing." Others used words like "monumental," "comprehensive," and "even-handed." In The New York Review of Books, C. Vann Woodward complimented the author on capturing the "intimacy of combat" with his "impressive narrative gifts and dramatic purposes."
Responding to the observation that it took him five times as long to write the war as its participants took to fight it, Mr. Foote pointed out that "there were a good many more of them than there was of me." Inspired by the works of Tacitus, Thucydides, Gibbon and, more surprising, Marcel Proust, Mr. Foote's own specially prized writer for prose style, psychological insight and the sweep of his vision, he created a history as written by a novelist, with due bows to a line that included Tolstoy, Stendhal and Stephen Crane.
In treating North and South evenhandedly and covering the campaigns in both east and west, Mr. Foote accepted the historian's standards of evidence without the baggage of footnotes, for which he was faulted by some academics, who also criticized his sketchy attention to politics, economics and diplomacy. But most were grateful. Louis D. Rubin Jr. summed up in The New Republic: "It is a model of what military history can be."
Among the most vivid scenes was the description of Gen. Robert E. Lee's slow ride after his surrender: "Grief brought a sort of mass relaxation that let Traveller [Lee's horse] proceed, and as he moved through the press of soldiers, bearing the gray commander on his back, they reached out to touch both horse and rider, withers and knees, flanks and thighs, in expression of their affection."
The work brought its author three Guggenheim Fellowships, a Ford Foundation grant and considerably more in royalties than any of his novels had earned, and he was admitted to a distinguished company of Civil War historians that included Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins and Douglas Southall Freeman. "They call you Gibbon and you know that's silly," he told an interviewer. "But if they don't call you Gibbon you get a feeling they're holding back."
Still, it remained for television to carry him to fame. In 1985 Ken Burns, planning his television documentary on the war, called on Mr. Foote, who had been recommended by his fellow Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, to be a paid consultant. The choice of an accomplished stylist steeped in Southern lore was made to order, and Mr. Foote readily established himself as the viewers' surrogate.
The series, a smash hit for public broadcasting, attracted an audience of 14 million over five nights and turned Mr. Foote into a prime-time star. His fans learned that he was a pipe smoker who loved Mozart and Vermeer and Proust (he said he had read "Remembrance of Things Past" from start to finish nine times) and drank bourbon outdoors and scotch indoors. His dog, Booker, an akita, dozed nearby as he wrote. At one point Mr. Foote was getting 20 calls a day from admirers who just wanted to have him over for dinner. He took a page from Ulysses S. Grant who, in reply to the remark "You must get lots of mail," said, "Not nearly so much as I did when I answered it all." Mr. Foote stopped writing back.