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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Visit To Shelby Foote's Home

Mike and I took a rare, tax-season day off Sunday to visit the estate sale of the late author and Civil War historian Shelby Foote.

Born in 1916 in Greenville, MS, Foote was first a novelist, but later achieved acclaim for his three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. Popularity among the general public, however, did not come his way until documentarian Ken Burns invited Foote to take part in his 1990 PBS mini-series, The Civil War. When the program aired, Foote appeared in almost 90 segments -- about one hour of the 11-hour series. Foote's extensive knowledge, charm and Southern gentleman drawl made him a celebrity. Foote’s quirk of speaking of the Civil War as if it were currently taking place reinforced his historic authority and made the viewer feel that Foote had actually lived through the experiences he described. His descriptions and narrations in the documentary are conversational rather than pedantic. The overall effect is that here’s a man you’d like to sit and talk with over a couple of pots of coffee.

No matter what region of the U.S. you're from, you should rent or buy the dvd set of the Ken Burns’ documentary. It humanizes the period through personal letters written in that era and glimpses of soldiers’ and civilians’ lives. It’s informative and heart-wrenching. I guarantee that you will learn facts about the Civil War that you’ve never heard before.

Being big fans, we were anxious to walk through Foote’s home and hoped that we’d find a reasonably priced memento from his possessions.

Foote moved to Memphis in 1952 and bought the English cottage-style home with his wife in 1966. The 11-room home was built in 1927 and covers 3,900 square feet including a secret room – the location of which was not disclosed to estate sale visitors.

The house sits in a lovely mid-town Memphis area of large, old homes and can barely be seen from the street because of the huge, old Magnolia trees in the front yard. The 28x15 living room was impressive. From the entry hall, you turn left, step down three stairs and enter the room facing a large fireplace at the opposite wall. Because the living room stretches to the left of the main part of the home, there are windows down both sides of the room. Although windows of this style are not large, there was an abundance of them throughout the house so that it would be sunny and cheerful during the day.

I refer to my favorite upstairs room as “the tower room.” That’s just how it affected me. After climbing the stairs from the entry hall, you would turn right and immediately take a step up. Somehow, because of its positioning, there is at least one window on all four walls of this room. Love it. But here’s the most interesting part. There is a door in the room that leads to a small balcony --- overlooking the living room. I could just imagine having a party downstairs and stepping out onto the balcony to make announcements. Fascinating. The door itself was constructed much like a dutch door. The top half opened from the middle – like French doors – and, I presume, could be left open for ventillation, eavesdropping or whatever. When closed, however, the door was solid and gave no hint of what lay on the other side.

Downstairs, at the very back of the house was Shelby Foote’s study with rows of book shelves and his built-in desk. Mike noted worn-down places at the desk's edge – perhaps where he rested his arms when working. Much of his narrative for the Ken Burns’ documentary was filmed in that room at that desk. I was surprised to learn that Foote composed by hand -- pen and paper. No typewriter. No computer. It was exciting to stand there, touch his desk and know that much of his important work had taken place there.

Before leaving, we purchased two, small, matching, white porcelain cups that were part of his household possessions. His cups now reside on our living room mantle adding another little piece of history to our home.

Shelby Foote died in June 2005.

Here’s a link to today’s Commercial Appeal wrap-up story on the sale.


Anonymous said...

what a pleasant read! I can only imagine the fun you two had exploring that beautiful home, it must have been very insightful. I, too, have always been a fan. Those two small cups that you purchased now hold a great deal, evidently. Thank you for painting a vivid picture! Eddie A.

Scarlett said...

Thank you, Eddie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. You might also find posts of interest under the labels History, Memphis, and Mississippi.