“Never lie to yourself. When you come right down to it, that’s the only rule a writer needs. The reason I speak with such assurance and denial of contradiction is that you are in my world now, the world of art—we’ve left Jesus and the saints.”
Thus Shelby Foote sternly advised his friend Walker Percy in a 1952 letter; the author of four acclaimed novels, including the classic Shiloh, the 35-year-old Foote was concerned that Percy—a Catholic convert and aspiring writer—would let his religion get in the way of his art. For a devout art-for-art’s-sake modernist like Foote, belief in God was no good for an artist, who must ultimately have faith in himself alone. “Stand by,” he ends his letter. “I’ll tell you true—I am going to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived.”
Foote’s fierce, fanatical musings on aesthetics—from his lifelong worship of Proust to his championing of Cormac McCarthy (“Blood Meridian is unrelenting violence from start to finish—Peckenpaugh [sic] raised to the Nth—& has some of the best writing Ive read for decades. Youre likely to despise it, but I urge you to give it a try”)—form the heart of The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, the epistolary record of a remarkable 60-year friendship that stretched from the writers’ boyhoods in Depression-era Mississippi to Percy’s death in 1990, by which point both had achieved literary fame.
Compiled and annotated by Jay Tolson, Arlington-based editor of the Wilson Quarterly and author of Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, the correspondence is for the most part one-sided; Foote didn’t begin to save his friend’s letters until 1970. At times, the reader is left craving Percy’s lost responses, especially when Foote tries to push Proust on his reluctant friend for the umpteenth time. (Foote now readily admits he got carried away. As Tolson recalls, deftly imitating the author’s Delta drawl, “Shelby said to me, ‘Well, you know, by the time Walker jumps in there, it’s none too soon. Ah didn’t realize how damned didactic ah was.’”)
Nevertheless, Foote’s eloquence more than makes up for his long-windedness, particularly when he describes the 20-year labor of love involved in forging his narrative history of the Civil War, which has been hailed as an American Iliad. This is letter-writing raised to a literary art—and intended not only for Percy: “I think Foote already had his eye on posterity when he was writing them, even back in ’48-’49,” says Tolson, who penned an article on Foote in the winter 1996 issue of Double Take magazine. “These are kind of like the letters of Keats and Flaubert. He seems to be lecturing to an audience that is wider than one person, so you get the feeling that this is what he intended as his aesthetic theory.”
Percy’s letters are instead more concerned with the aches—both physical and spiritual—of simply being human. Like the protagonists of his novels, Percy is the brooding moralist lost in the strip-mall ruins of the New South, and he finds no comfort in the refuge of art. “What type of fellow are you?” he chides Foote in a letter from 1975. “Are you telling me you can sit there in your castle in Memphis happily reading Shelley five hours a day?…Christ, you sound like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Please forward the secret of your maturity to a demoralized Catholic.”
Their heated arguments about art and life lend the correspondence a tension that’s always lurking in the background, never mind the writers’ deep fondness for each other. “It’s a very divergent point with these two men,” says Tolson. “They knew they would never resolve it, but it didn’t hurt their friendship at all—you’d just see the points of disagreement sparking from time to time.”
In a coda to the collection, Tolson includes the eulogy Foote gave at Percy’s funeral, “delivering what he considered his last letter to his best and oldest friend.” In a moving testimonial, he bestows on Percy the highest praise: “Their subject—his and Faulkner’s—and all the rest of ours, for that matter—was the same: ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’”