Shelby Foote Essay - Critical Essays


Shelby Foote’s The Civil War and his six novels are based on three elements: a sense of history, a sense of place, and a sense of change. Foote’s sense of history is not that of the antiquarian; rather, he is preoccupied with the historical roots of present conditions. As a novelist, he seeks to “thicken the present” in his narratives by bringing out the historical background. In Tournament, for example, Foote concentrates on the historical background of Jordan County and Bristol—the settling of the area in the 1820’s, the Civil War, and World War I. Love in a Dry Season spans the period from the 1920’s to World War II. The historical background for September September is the integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Foote’s sense of place is distinctly that of the American South. As William Faulkner created his mythical Yoknapatawpha County and Jefferson, Mississippi, so Foote created his mythical Jordan County and Bristol, Mississippi, which he peopled with blacks and whites, rich and poor, old and young. Like Faulkner’s saga, Foote’s series of novels includes recurring characters; a major character in one novel may be mentioned only in passing in another. Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, and Jordan County all take place in Bristol in Jordan County, and even though September September takes place in Memphis, four of the main characters are from Bristol. In novel after novel, then, Foote highlights the history of his South as it was first settled in the early 1800’s, as it began to flourish and prosper, as it was torn and scarred by the Civil War, as it was decimated by the yellow fever epidemic, and as it changed in the ensuing decades.

In a critical comment, Foote grouped novelists into two categories. The first decides to write about a “situation in which a man does so-and-so”; the second decides to write about a “man who does so-and-so,” which is followed by the situation. Foote believed that for a good writer, the man must come before the situation. Foote’s interest in history and his rich sense of place are both subservient to his preoccupation with moral action, with men and women making choices, especially under the pressure of change.

Foote’s themes arise logically from his analysis of history, place, and change. Beginning with Tournament, one of his major themes is the individual’s loneliness. Each person is utterly alone, says Foote, in orgasm, in nausea, and in dying. Human beings must accept loneliness as a fact of life, attempting to achieve contact without expecting to lose their essential solitude. Another recurring theme in Foote’s works is the crisis of manhood. Rooted in the romantic antebellum South, this concept of masculinity involves a complex code that governs every aspect of a man’s life.


Foote readily acknowledged that his first novel, Tournament, was written when he was “sort of thrashing around in the wilds of the English language.” Tournament foreshadows Foote’s interest in history, place, and change and introduces his themes of loneliness and masculinity. At the center of the story is the rise and fall of Hugh Bart. Structurally, the events are framed by a type of prologue and epilogue, both of which are titled “Asa.” Asa is Bart’s grandson, who, because he really never knew his grandfather, begins piecing together facts and details. Bart’s rise and legend begin when he is elected to a four-year term as sheriff of Issawamba County, Mississippi; theclimax of his rise is his restoration of Solitaire Plantation and his acceptance among the wealthy planters. Bart’s fall begins with his son’s refusal to accept the responsibility of his heritage and culminates when Bart sells Solitaire, leaves the horses and the land, and moves to “the buildings and sidewalks and people.”

Foote’s sense of history and place are evident in the plot line of Tournament. Once Bart purchases Solitaire Plantation, the actions center on Jordan County and Bristol. History figures prominently in the plot, as Foote gives an in-depth account of Isaac Jameson’s cotton empire, carved out of the Mississippi wilderness and later destroyed during the Civil War. Symbolically, the fall of the Jamesons and the destruction of Solitaire parallel not only the fall and destruction of the Old South but also the fall and destruction of Bart’s dream: Just as the Jamesons’ way of life faded with a new era, so too will Bart’s.

The changes that doom Bart are not directly related to the Civil War or any other particular historical event; rather, they are indigenous to the times. Bart’s first son, Hugh, is expected to assume management of the plantation. Instead, he withdraws from the University of Mississippi after his freshman year, fails at managing Solitaire, and is fired from another job. Even Hugh’s accidental death in a 1917 army camp is symbolic of Bart’s doomed way of life. Other forces contributing to Bart’s fall are his daughter Florence’s lesbian sexuality and his daughter-in-law’s promiscuity.

Along with the railroads, automobiles, and cinema palaces comes the new world of business and finance, and the ruthless greed that is part of that world is something Bart does not understand. He feels antagonistic toward those who make their livelihoods merely by manipulating money. The ruthlessness of such men is emphasized when Lawrence Tilden refuses to extend the due date on Abraham Wisten’s loan, which results in Wisten’s suicide. Ironically, too, Bart loses $250,000, the money he got from selling Solitaire, when he deposits it in the Commercial National Bank in Memphis and the bank fails. Foote’s emphasis on how such changes mark an end to an era is nowhere more symbolic or poignant than in Bart’s funeral procession. “It had to be horse-drawn” was Bart’s command, and so the horse-drawn black hearse is followed by people in their automobiles.

Foote’s Tournament also explores the southern tradition of masculinity; the title suggests the medieval sense of honor, a code of conduct befitting gentlemen. Bart is elected sheriff because of his excellent marksmanship, and his skills in both trap shooting and hunting win him acceptance among the planter aristocracy. Bart’s courage is also a mark of his masculinity. This courage is evidenced when he single-handedly crashes through a barricaded cabin door and blows the head off a fugitive, and when he attempts to intervene in a gunfight between Cassendale Tarfeller and Downs Macready. Bart’s business ethics are evident in his indignation toward Tilden’s mercenary treatment of Wisten.

Finally, Tournament analyzes the theme of loneliness. The closing sentences in the Asa sections emphasize the basic loneliness of Bart’s life. In the prologue, Asa says that the one conviction he has formed from Bart’s life is that “each man, even when pressed closest by other men in their scramble for the things they offer one another with so little grace, is profoundly alone.” In his closing section, Asa quotes Bart’s dying words: “I’m in the dark, alone.” Loneliness thus frames Bart’s life and death, even though Bart had achieved some kind of contact with the people in his life.

Follow Me Down

Foote stated that his second novel, Follow Me Down, was influenced by Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-1869) and by two of Faulkner’s novels, The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). Follow Me Down was also influenced by Ernest Hemingway, from whom Foote claimed to have learned about the “terrific ambiguity of life”; Foote equated the irony and pity in Follow Me Down with the pity and irony in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Considered by some critics to be Foote’s most striking novel, Follow Me Down is about the adulterous affair between Luther Eustis, a fifty-one-year-old Solitaire tenant farmer, and Beulah Joyner, a twenty-year-old girl. Their affair ends tragically when Luther hears strange voices ordering him to kill Beulah; he drowns her and weighs her body down in the water with two concrete blocks, a crime for which he is sentenced to life in prison at Parchman.

Structurally, this is one of Foote’s most interesting novels in that the entire narration is composed of nine monologues. Beulah’s monologue is the center of the novel and is framed by two monologues by Luther. Preceding these are monologues by the circuit court clerk, the newspaper reporter, and a deaf-mute; following Beulah’s and Luther’s monologues are ones by Luther’s wife, the lawyer, and the turnkey at the jail. Foote later said that this technique was an experiment that enabled him to “examine a crime of passion by moving into it and then out of it.” The beginning monologues become increasingly more personal, climaxing with Beulah’s; then the monologues again move to the impersonal, ending with that of the turnkey, Roscoe Jeffcoat. Each character becomes individualized in his or her narration, and various details of the crime are seen from different points of view. Foote later used variations of this technique in Shiloh and September September.

In Follow Me Down, as in Tournament, Foote concentrates on the South in transition from traditional southern morality to modern sexuality. This conflict is skillfully and symbolically initiated when Foote describes the disruption of Brother Jimson’s prayer meeting four different times by an automobile carrying three soldiers and two women, one of whom is Beulah. The harsh intrusion of the modern world is symbolized by the automobile, which, with horn blaring and engine roaring, scatters dust on the worshipers. The conflict between tradition and modernism is even more apparent when Jimson bodily hurls each of the soldiers into the bushes. The tragic and damning implication of this conflict is typified in the adulterous affair between Luther, who represents traditional religion, and Beulah, who represents modern sexuality. Instead of dealing guardedly with sexuality as he does in Tournament, Foote relates the perverse details of both Beulah’s and her mother’s pasts.

The major theme in Follow Me Down is again the basic loneliness of the individual. As Parker Nowell, Luther’s lawyer, prepares his defense, he suddenly...

(The entire section is 4335 words.)