of Shelby Foote
and Walker Percy
Jay Tolson, editor
W.W. Norton, $27.50, 310 pp.
By Andrew Santella
Commonweal, February 28, 1997
In 1931, Walker Percy began his writing career with a stint as gossip
columnist for the Greenville (Mississippi) High School Pica. His
first item was about the "desperate affair" of his best
friend, "G.H.S.s own playboy, Shelby Foote."
The friendship survived Percys adolescent wisecracks. It survived,
in fact, for six decades, until Percys death in 1990. One
of the pleasures of reading the correspondence between Percy and
Foote is in seeing these old friends savor success, when it finally
comes. Percy matured from high school gossip columnist to National
Book Award winner, with The Moviegoer in 1961. Foote published his
sprawling and celebrated The Civil War: A Narrative between 1958
and 1974. When several of Footes novels in translation were
up for prestigious awards in France, in 1978, Percy wrote to his
former colleague in scholastic journalism, "That aint
bad for a Pica staffer."
Their letters show each taking almost as must pride in the others
successes as in his own. The two argued with, encouraged, and influenced
each other by post almost every step of the way. Foote especially
seemed to relish his role as mentor. He made the earlier headway
as a writer, publishing his first novel, Tournament, in 1949. Four
more novels followed in the next four years, receiving good reviews,
but generating for the most part middling sales. Of that group,
Shiloh (1952), a fictional recreation of the Civil War battles,
was his only popular success. Foote, though, took his relative obscurity
as evidence that he was on the right artistic track. Finishing Shiloh
in 1951, he wrote Percy, "This one does it: Im among
the American writers of all time--got there on the fourth book."
Consistent with this self-ranking, Footes early letters to
his friend took the tone of a master instructing a student. At times,
he was breezily harsh, prefacing advice with statements like, "The
thing you dont understand (but will when you work harder and
come to it yourself) is . . ." At the same time, Percy was
producing two unpublishable novels. It is hard to imagine that the
struggling writer was always happy to see another of his more successful
friends didactic letters in his mailbox.
But Footes advice sometimes did hit the mark. In a 1951 letter
he suggested Percy write a novel set in New Orleans. "The main
thing is for you to plot it carefully from beginning to end, making
it fit a rigid time-scheme: Mardi Gras, for instance, with its climax
and the following holy day." This was at least six years before
Percy began writing his first published novel, The Moviegoer, set
in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
Footes advice continued even as Percy built a career that
established him a major American novelist. His six novels and two
books on philosophy and language received the kind of critical attention
that Footes work never received. Still, Percy remains difficult
to classify. His novels are set in the South, but he didnt
like to be considered a Southern writer. European writers like Kierkegaard
and Camus were enormous influences, but he said that existentialism
had become a virtually meaningless label. Indeed, Percy told Foote
that it was his work in semiotics that would survive in a hundred
years. Foote begged off, claiming that "the abstract makes
my legs ache and my mind wander." Foote, on the other hand,
never let up pushing his lists of recommended reading, especially
Proust. When, in 1984, Percy finally gave in and wrote that he would
do his assigned reading, Foote was so pleased that his reply is
touching to read.
Jay Tolson, editor of the Wilson Quarterly and author of Pilgrim
in the Ruins (1993), a biography of Percy, supplies an introduction
that nicely summarizes the lives of the two "brothers in art."
His notes on the letters are helpful without being too intrusive.
Unfortunately, Tolson was working with a handicap: Foote didnt
begin saving Percys letters until the 1970s. For the first
third of this collection, the reader gets only Footes words.
This is where Tolsons explanatory notes are most valuable,
filling in the gaps left by Percys lost letters. But as disappointing
as the loss is, it does give the first section the feel of a dramatic
monologue. The reader, hunting Footes letters for contextual
clues to Percys whereabouts and activities, may be reminded
of that writers 1976 novel Lancelot, with its silent, mysterious
Footes letters, though, are more than engaging enough to carry
the load. His good humor shines through, just as it did in his role
as commentator in Ken Burnss television documentary on the
Civil War. He especially loosened up later in his career, when the
accolades he was receiving for his massive war narrative seemed
to satisfy his ambition and obviate the need for self-celebration.
The Civil War had taken Foote twenty years to write and ran over
1.5 million words. He thought it might earn him a National Book
Award or a Pulitzer. Though largely ignored by award committees
and academic historians, the book was received by some as a landmark
achievement, bridging literature and history.Some critics said his
achievement rivaled Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire. "They call you Gibbon and you know thats silly,"
he confided. "But if they dont call you Gibbon you get
a feeling theyre holding back."
Foote is also the more provocative of the two. He needled Percy
about his work habits, about his reading, even about his conversion
to Catholicism. Percys faith was a source of real conflict
between the two. When Percy told Foote, on a trip to New Mexico
in the late 1940s, of his plans to join the church, Foote reportedly
responded, "Yours is a mind in full intellectual retreat."
Fearing that Percys faith would impede his growth as a writer,
Foote wrote in 1949, "There is something terribly cowardly
(at least spiritually) about the risks to which you wont expose
your soul. Pushed, youll admit that doubt is a healthy thing,
closely connected with faith, but you wont follow it . . ."
"I seriously think no good practicing Catholic can ever be
a great artist; art is by definition a product of doubt." That
their friendship survived challenges like that was probably testament
to Percys strength of character. So are Percys last
letters to Foote. "Dying, if thats what it comes to,
is no big thing since Im ready for it and prepared for it
by the Catholic faith, which I believe," he wrote ten months
before his death from cancer. "What is a pain is not even the
pain but the nuisance (and expense) to everybody."
It is reassuring to close this collection with Percy professing
the faith that had so deeply informed his career as a writer. And
it is reassuring to know that Foote was with Percy at the end, as
the two had been with each other in friendship for sixty years.