′A Collection Large and Full of Treasures′
By Richard J. Alley
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
As moves go, it wasn′t such a great distance. Only a little over two miles to be exact, from the study of a turreted, fairy-tale-like house on East Parkway to the Gothic, shady campus on North Parkway. Nevertheless, the acquisition by Rhodes College of the Shelby Foote Collection of writings, papers, hand-drawn maps, photos and memorabilia is such that it will take researchers and students on a journey through decades worth of history, stories and lessons.
The collection is a major gain for the college. On a rainy March morning in the warm confines of the Paul Barret Jr. Library, dignitaries and notables gathered to see and speak about the significance of the Foote collection to the worlds of literature, research, history and Rhodes itself.
As President Bill Troutt said that morning, the acquisition of the Foote collection “is a very special moment in the life of our college.”
Though many of the items had been on loan for years to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there was never much doubt that Foote’s ties to Rhodes were strong, as he received an honorary degree in 1982 and lectured on campus in 1988 and 1991.
When son Huger Foote set out to find a permanent home for his father’s vast collection of papers and books, he kept the elder Foote’s wishes and beliefs close to heart. Huger says of his task: “With that spirit in mind, things were somewhat simplified. At any juncture, I only needed to ask, ‘What would my father have wanted?’ and follow that course … It was important to me that the entire collection be kept intact and preserved in its full integrity to inspire and, I think, amaze this and future generations of scholars. Rhodes shares this vision.”
Shelby Dade Foote Jr. was born in Greenville, MS, in 1916. He attended Greenville High School and, later, UNC, where he first began contributing fiction to that school’s literary journal, Carolina Magazine. In 1940 he joined the Mississippi National Guard and, eventually, the Marines, though he was dismissed from both branches of service. As a writer, he worked for the Associated Press in New York City. He would move back to Greenville and then to Memphis in 1952 where he lived until his death in 2005.
He was a Southerner by birth and in all things, and the very culture and history of his homeland shaped who he was as a person. In fall 1994, Brian Lamb, the founding CEO of C-SPAN and host of “Booknotes,” visited Foote in his study for the television program. Foote told Lamb that day that “Any Deep South boy, 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 subconsciouses.” But it was Memphis where he would make his home by choice to live and work for more than half a century.
“I wrote the first volume (of The Civil War: A Narrative) on the exact western city limits of Memphis because it was on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River,” Foote told Lamb. “The second volume was written on the eastern limits of Memphis, which Yates Road was then. 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.”
Foote published a novel a year from 1949 to 1952, beginning with Tournament and ending with Shiloh. The latter was a precursor to the three-volume, nonfiction, 1.2-million-word The Civil War: A Narrative published in three parts in 1958, 1963 and 1974. His novel September September, set mostly on Beale Street and the bluffs of Memphis, was published in 1978.
Based on a recommendation by writer Robert Penn Warren, filmmaker Ken Burns sat down with Foote in the late 1980s before shooting his planned documentary on the Civil War. The result of that conversation was Foote’s face and smoky Southern drawl in almost 90 segments, one full hour of the 11-hour series. The documentary was enormously popular and Foote imbued it with a personality that propelled him into the limelight, a celebrity that Foote professed was unwanted and that some strangers and unknowing fans found not to be tolerated.
Despite the previous novels and the trilogy, Foote predicted that his magnum opus would be the novel Two Gates to the City. Though unfinished, its partial manuscript, notes and outlines now have a home among the photos and letters of the collection at Rhodes.
The inventory also includes letters to and from, and photos with, lifelong friend Walker Percy; 2,350 volumes from Foote’s private library, including first editions by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Percy; leather-bound and hand-written manuscripts; personal diaries; an extensive collection of music and sculpture; as well as family correspondence and photos. There is an address book filled with Foote’s distinctive handwriting where, on one page, the reader will find a phone number for Ken Burns preceded by that of Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason, TN. On the opposite page, a listing for actor Matthew Broderick.
All items will be housed in the 136,000-square-foot Paul Barret Jr. Library, and a task force made up of the library and Information Technology Services division and members of the History, English and Religious Studies departments will work to index, catalogue, archive and display the collection. It is a process that will provide invaluable experience and training for students.
The first drafts, notes, outlines and maps drawn in his own hand offer an important peek into Foote’s mindset and his efforts to write through subjects and scenes. These are vital to any researcher of history or literature, or Foote himself.
“I can imagine scholars of the Civil War, and particularly of Foote and of Southern literature, coming to campus to make use of the papers that will be housed here,” says Tim Huebner, Department of History chair.
“Someone who is doing serious research on the fiction, on a novel like Shiloh, and thinking about its relationship to the history he wrote might want to look at that manuscript and see if there’s evidence of nascent beginnings of this history,” says Marshall Boswell, Department of English chair. “Any number of things can be found in a manuscript, it’s really interesting research for people to do.”
The work of Shelby Foote creates a kind of estuary for history and literature, a pool in which the two disciplines mingle and even feed off of each other. Foote told the Paris Review in an interview from 1997, “I think of myself as a novelist who wrote a three-volume history of the Civil War. I don’t think it’s a novel, but I think it’s certainly by a novelist. The novels are not novels written by a historian. My book falls between two stools— academic historians are upset because there are no footnotes and novel readers don’t want to study history.”
As to history, Foote understood how to tame it in every respect, both in the research and in the telling of stories, and make it accessible.
“There is no great difference between writing novels and writing histories other than this: If you have a character named Lincoln in a novel who’s not Abraham Lincoln, you can give him any color eyes you want. But if you want to describe the color of Abraham Lincoln’s, President Lincoln’s, eyes, you have to know what color they were. They were gray,” Foote told the Paris Review interviewer.
His 2003 biography, A Writer’s Life, was written by 1991 Rhodes graduate C. Stuart Chapman who saw Foote as an important figure, not just in literature and history, but in the culture of the South as well.
“His life spans this enormous amount of time, arguably even more than Faulkner,” Chapman says. “Shelby Foote is one of the last vestiges of the antebellum South.”
Boswell and Huebner plan to capitalize on the wealth of information and writings this fall when they collaborate on a Learning Community. First-year students will sign up to take “Southern Literature” and “The American South,” and the two classes will “cross-pollinate,” as Boswell describes it, adding, “I might send a student over there (Barret Library) and see if she can glean something from those manuscripts that might illuminate some point in the novel that the person is pursuing.”
Not only students, but the academic world at large will be better off with the collection to refer to and study, to see what it was the author was thinking—through copious notes, cuttings from magazines and newspapers and thorough outlines—as he wrote his novels and Civil War narrative.
“There are few writers who are identified with Memphis and the South the way that Shelby Foote is, and his papers are a real treasure trove precisely because he’s so organized and meticulous,” Chapman says. “It’s always the marginalia that’s so interesting about what he’s going through, what was happening in his life, in the Southern cultural phenomenon in relation to Mississippi or race or whatever it was.”
Such an extensive and high-profile collection may also pave the way for similar procurements down the road.
“I would hope that this would serve as a catalyst for us trying to develop a larger, regionally-focused archive on literature and history,” Huebner says.
Foote had said that he eschewed computers as a means of research. He preferred to look through books and newspapers, never knowing, yet always surprised, by what he might find there. He was a researcher, as his narratives on the Civil War prove, and the newspaper clippings that accompany his notes for novels found in the collection will provide a map in its own right, a connect the dots for future historians and novelists to learn how one writer may have arrived at point B from point A.
It is said that people who collect first editions of books do so to be closer to the author. If this is so, then to hold Foote’s handwritten manuscript for September September is to sit in the author’s study and share in the perfume of his pipe smoke as he dips nib into ink and scratches the opening line onto crisp white paper: “It was a bad time in many ways, some of them comprehensible, others not.”
Of the lifetime of work, Huger Foote says, “My father’s collection is large and full of treasures, and in studying it one discovers the vast and varied world that he has created in an intellectual life.”
Of the importance of access to such work, President Troutt adds, “We are a college that provides students with remarkable opportunities—the best in the classroom, the best beyond the classroom, and access to academic resources that can only be found here at Rhodes and here in Memphis. With the acquisition of the Shelby Foote Collection, we take another step forward in the excellence we offer at Rhodes.”