Before I launch into writing about Follow Me Down, I want to make sure y’all know who Shelby Foote is. I’ll start with his author bio, because it will either remind you or introduce you to one of the best Southern writers of our times:
Shelby Foote was born on November 7, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, and attended school there until he entered the University of North Carolina. During World War II he served as a captain of field artillery but never saw combat. After World War II he worked briefly for the Associated Press in their New York bureau. In 1953 he moved to Memphis, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Foote was the author of six novels: Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, Jordan County, and September, September. He is best remembered for his 3-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative, which took twenty years to complete and resulted in his being a featured expert in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary. Over the course of his writing career, Foote was also awarded three Guggenheim fellowships. Shelby Foote died in 2005 at the age of 88.
On a personal note, my mother was a life-long friend of Shelby Foote’s second wife, Gwyn, whom everyone called Ginny- with a hard G. She was statuesque, blue-eyed, and wore her hair in a grey page-boy before it was chic. The Footes lived right around the corner from where I grew up in Memphis. I am a contemporary of Ginny and Shelby’s son, Huggie, so nicknamed because his given name comes from Shelby’s family line and is Huger (pronounced Yoo-gee.) Best for a little kid to be called Huggie, as far as I’m concerned, and the name sticks to this day. Like his father, Huggie is an artist. He’s had an illustrious career as a photographer, and, after moving back to the states from Paris, he resides in New York City. If you’re interested in Photography, Huggie has a couple of books that you can find on Amazon. He admits to being influenced by Memphis’s renowned William Eggleston, and in my opinion, if you’re a photographer influenced by anyone, let it be Eggleston, but I digress.
I have a handful of Shelby Foote memories, one of which sees him sitting on the porch out at Cottondale in Collierville, Tennessee discussing the civil war with the erudite J. Tunkie Saunders, son of Clarence Saunders, who started Piggy Wiggly and built Memphis’s Pink Palace, which is now a museum. When you’re a little kid, you’re not impressed by much of anything, yet I recall running through the porch of what was once called The Old Stage Coach Inn, before J. Tunkie Saunders bought the establishment and turned it into a country retreat on the outskirts of Memphis. I was ‘at the farm,” as they called it, with Lucy Saunders, my age exactly, and we were making a beeline for the stables. Our plan had been to saddle up Buttons and Bows and ride her down to the levee, but I was stopped. “Claire, sit down,” J. Tunkie said, and I, being obliging to my elders, let Lucy run on ahead and did as I was told. For the next half hour, I listened to these two Southern gentlemen talk about the Civil War as if it were still going on somewhere down the road. Wasn’t a big deal to me then, but it is to me now, and I recall the pair matching wits, comparing notes over tumblers of cool, amber whiskey as the sun set through the pin oaks and thinking one day you’ll be glad you’re sitting here.
Another vision that stays with me is of the day my mother brought me round to visit Shelby in his library. She’d just acquired the first volume of Shelby’s three volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, and she wanted it signed. The two of us stepped down three wooden steps into what would have been anyone else’s living room, in the ivy-covered, pitched roof brick Tudor tucked back off of East Parkway. I’d never been to an author’s residence, and at thirteen or thereabouts, I hadn’t a clue what to expect from the man I thought of simply as Huggie’s dad. Shelby didn’t disappoint. Were you to have envisioned your best-case scenario of what to expect from an author in his den, Shelby would have exceeded it. He smoked a pipe, he wore a beard and a vest over his rolled shirt sleeves. His steady blue eyes were mesmerizing, canopied with a thicket of black lashes, his warm voice was courtly in a fluid Southern drawl. He was a gentleman through and through and didn’t let on that we were interrupting him at his work in the prime of his working hour. He received my fawning mother graciously with a manner as though he had all the time in the world.
The world got a taste of the real Shelby Foote, when he narrated Ken Burns documentary miniseries, The Civil War, which aired on PBS in five consecutive nights in 1990. 40 million viewers watched it, and the series was awarded more than 40 major television and film honors. In the show, Shelby wore a pinstriped Oxford and simply told his version of the war as he interpreted it. With more than twenty years of research behind him and a narrative passion that verged on the personal, Shelby Foote, in all his poised authenticity, single-handedly debunked all myth and stereotype many outsiders have of those of us from down South.
It was the Goodreads group, On the Southern Literary Trail, that caused me to read Shelby Foote’s Follow Me Down. I’ll go on and say it: not only am I a Southerner, but I’m a writer, and it shamed me to admit I’d never read Shelby Foote’s fiction. I have no excuse for never getting around to it, other than to say that I, like many, equated Shelby Foote with his Civil War volumes. I’d done myself a disservice, but that’s all behind me, for after reading Follow Me Down, I now have Shelby Foote fever.
Follow Me Down was published in 1950. It sets the standard for Southern fiction at its finest. Set in Jordan County, Mississippi, the book opens with a murder trial, and the reader learns quickly that the defendant has already confessed. Luther Eustice, a fifty-one-year-old, nondescript farmer, got himself into a pickle, when he crossed paths with a disreputable woman, thirty years younger, named Beulah Ross. After running off with Beulah to a small island on the Mississippi, Eustice changed his mind and couldn’t think to do anything else but drown her. Narrated in chapters by a circuit clerk, a reporter, a half-wit named Dummy, Eustice himself, Beulah the victim, Eustice’s wife, Eustice’s lawyer, and the jailer with the key, we learn the detailed minutia of the crime from differing vantage points—each with a voice so Southern and unique, Foot’s feat of writing is showcased for what it is: nuanced, insightful, and chock full of character as to lay bare the hidden secrets of the rural South. It’s the colloquialisms that captured me. An example is when Foote describes a man by writing, “He is the best example I ever saw of a man gone sour.” Politically incorrect at points for this day and age, the reader is gifted with the mental accuracy of a bygone era, yet never once does it pull them out of the story. Follow Me Down is a roughhewn and down-on-its-luck story written with such charisma and aplomb as to fascinate the reader on every page.
I’ll leave you here with one more Shelby Foote tidbit, since I’m being candid. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the great author and poet, Ron Rash, whose eyes grew wide when I mentioned I grew up in Memphis. The first question he asked was if I was familiar with Shelby Foote. I told him I was, though not as a reader, my acquaintance was personal. The look on Rash’s face as I recounted my affiliation with Shelby Foote was one of awestruck wonder. At the time I was thinking Mr. Rash must be a Civil War buff, but now I know why he had that look on his face: it was author admiration, pure and simple.