Shelby Dade Foote, Jr., was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on November 17, 1916, to Shelby Dade Foote and Lillian Rosenstock Foote. His father was a prominent Greenville businessman. His grandfather, Huger Lee Foote, an early planter near Greenville, was the model for Hugh Bart, the protagonist of Tournament. Foote’s great-grandfather had been a cavalry officer at the Battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War, and another ancestor, Isaac Shelby, had been one of Kentucky’s early governors and had fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Foote attended grammar and high school in Greenville. When he was about twelve years old, he read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850, serial; 1850, book), which made him realize that reading would be “worth a grown man’s time,” but he freely admitted that neither he nor his family had a literary background. The Foote household did possess, however, the Harvard Classics, Stoddard’s Lectures, and current novels by writers such as Rex Beach, Vina del Mar, Percy Marks, and “lots of others mercifully forgotten.”
One of Foote’s best friends in Greenville was Walker Percy, later to become a distinguished novelist himself. Percy was being reared by his uncle, William Alexander Percy, who had a tremendous influence on Foote’s reading and eventual interest in literature. Foote later recalled that there were literally thousands of books in the Percy house and noted that if the Percys had not moved to Greenville he might not have developed an interest in literary things. Very early, William Percy recommended that Foote read what he regarded as the three great modern novels—Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924)—all three of which Foote read in about a six-week period. Foote continued to read extensively.
While in high school, Foote began writing poetry but soon turned from poetry to prose. After he graduated from high school, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even though he was impressed with the large university library, he soon realized that he did not want a college degree, and about halfway through his first quarter, he dropped out of his classes in all of the subjects he did not like. He remained on the campus and would sneak into classrooms where undergraduate and even graduate courses that interested him were being taught. He particularly enjoyed medieval history, philosophy, and courses in the novel, but, ironically, he did not take any classes in creative writing. From 1935 to 1937, he worked on The Carolina Magazine, the university’s literary publication, in which he published book reviews, poetry, and short stories.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September, 1939, Foote joined the Mississippi National Guard. He wrote Tournament in 1939 and submitted the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, but it was politely rejected by one of the editors, who informed Foote that, even though several...
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