Foote’s first novel, Tournament, was published in 1949. It was inspired by his planter grandfather, who had died two years before Foote’s birth. For his next novel, Follow Me Down (1950), Foote drew heavily from the proceedings of a Greenville murder trial he attended in 1941 for both the plot and characters.
Love in a Dry Season was his attempt to deal with the “so-called upper classes of the Mississippi Delta” around the time of the Great Depression. Foote often expressed great affection for this novel, which was published in 1951. In Shiloh (1952) Foote foreshadows his use of historical narrative as he tells the story of the bloodiest battle in American history to that point from the first-person perspective of seven different characters. Actually, the narrative is presented by 17 characters – Confederate soldiers Metcalf, Dade, and Polly; and Union soldiers Fountain, Flickner, with each of the twelve named soldiers in the Indiana squad given one section of that chapter. A close reading of this work reveals a very complete interlocked picture of the characters connecting with each other (Union with Union, Confederate with Confederate).
Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, was published in 1954 and is a collection of novellas, short stories, and sketches from Foote’s mythical Mississippi county. September, September (1978) is the story of three white Southerners who plot and kidnap the 8-year-old son of a wealthy African-American, told against the backdrop of Memphis in September, 1957.
Although he was not one of America’s best-known fiction writers, Foote was admired by his peers—among them the aforementioned Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and his literary hero William Faulkner, who once told a University of Virginia class that Foote “shows promise, if he’ll just stop trying to write Faulkner, and will write some Shelby Foote.” Foote’s fiction was recommended by both The New Yorker and critics from The New York Times Book Review.
Foote moved to Memphis in 1952. Upon completion of Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative, he resumed work on what he thought would be his magnum opus, Two Gates to the City, an epic work he’d had in mind for years and in outline form since the spring of 1951. He had trouble making progress and felt he was plunging toward crisis with the “dark, horrible novel”. Unexpectedly, he received a letter from Bennett Cerf of Random House asking him to write a short history of the Civil War to appear for the conflict’s centennial. According to Foote, Cerf contacted him based on the factual accuracy and rich detail he found in Shiloh, but Walker Percy’s wife Bunt recalled that Walker had contacted Random House to approach Foote. Regardless, though Foote had no formal training as a historian, Cerf offered him a contract for a work of approximately 200,000 words.
Foote worked for several weeks on an outline and decided that his plan couldn’t be done to Cerf’s specifications. He requested that the project be expanded to three volumes of 500,000 to 600,000 words each, and he estimated that the entire project would be done in nine years.
Upon approval for the new plan, Foote commenced writing the comprehensive three volume, 3000-page history, together entitled The Civil War: A Narrative. The individual volumes are Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958), Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963), and Red River to Appomattox (1974).
Foote supported himself during the twenty years he worked on the narrative with Guggenheim Fellowships (1955–1957), Ford Foundation grants, and loans from Walker Percy.
Foote labored to maintain his objectivity in the narrative despite his Southern upbringing. He deliberately avoided Lost Cause mythologizing in his work. He developed new respect for such disparate figures as Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, Patrick Cleburne, Edwin Stanton and Jefferson Davis. By contrast, he grew to dislike such figures as Phil Sheridan and Joe Johnston. He considered United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be two authentic geniuses of the war. When he stated this opinion in conversation with one of General Forrest’s granddaughters, she replied after a pause, “You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family.”
The work received generally favorable reviews, though scholars criticized Foote for not including footnotes and for neglecting subjects such as economics and politics of the Civil War era.