The Epistles of Pals

The Correspondence 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 Percy’s adolescent wisecracks. It survived, in fact, for six decades, until Percy’s 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 Foote’s novels in translation were up for prestigious awards in France, in 1978, Percy wrote to his former colleague in scholastic journalism, "That ain’t bad for a Pica staffer."

Their letters show each taking almost as must pride in the other’s 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: I’m among the American writers of all time--got there on the fourth book."

Consistent with this self-ranking, Foote’s 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 don’t 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 friend’s didactic letters in his mailbox. 

But Foote’s 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. 

Foote’s 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 Foote’s work never received. Still, Percy remains difficult to classify. His novels are set in the South, but he didn’t 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 didn’t begin saving Percy’s letters until the 1970s. For the first third of this collection, the reader gets only Foote’s words. This is where Tolson’s explanatory notes are most valuable, filling in the gaps left by Percy’s lost letters. But as disappointing as the loss is, it does give the first section the feel of a dramatic monologue. The reader, hunting Foote’s letters for contextual clues to Percy’s whereabouts and activities, may be reminded of that writer’s 1976 novel Lancelot, with its silent, mysterious listener. 

Foote’s 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 Burns’s 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 Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. "They call you Gibbon and you know that’s silly," he confided. "But if they don’t call you Gibbon you get a feeling they’re 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. Percy’s 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 Percy’s 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 won’t expose your soul. Pushed, you’ll admit that doubt is a healthy thing, closely connected with faith, but you won’t 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 Percy’s strength of character. So are Percy’s last letters to Foote. "Dying, if that’s what it comes to, is no big thing since I’m 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. []