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The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy

The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy

5.0 1
by Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Jay Tolson (Editor)

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“A fascinating window into a lifelong friendship and the writing life.” —Kirkus Reviews
In the late 1940s, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, friends since their teenage years in Greenville, Mississippi, began a correspondence that would last until Percy's death in 1990. Walker Percy, the highly regarded author of The Moviegoer, wrote six novels,


“A fascinating window into a lifelong friendship and the writing life.” —Kirkus Reviews
In the late 1940s, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, friends since their teenage years in Greenville, Mississippi, began a correspondence that would last until Percy's death in 1990. Walker Percy, the highly regarded author of The Moviegoer, wrote six novels, two volumes of philosophical writings, and numerous essays. Shelby Foote met with early success as a novelist, but his reputation today rests more upon his massive three-volume narrative history of the Civil War, and his role as commentator in Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. The correspondence between Percy and Foote traces their lives from the beginning of their respective careers, when they were grappling fiercely and openly with their ambitions, artistic doubts, and personal problems. Although they discuss such serious matters as the death of Foote's mother and Percy's battle with cancer, their letters are full of sly humor and good-natured ribbing. Jay Tolson has selected, edited, and annotated the letters of these two remarkable writers to shed light on their relationship and their literary careers. Includes an eight-page insert with photographs of the writers chronicling their friendship.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
That two writers-good friends from boyhood-could be so different in outlook and lifestyle gives this correspondence its interest. Even their attitudes toward each other's work can be seen in Walker Percy's preserving most of Foote's letters while his easy-living, thrice-married, allegedly unmoneyed pal began keeping Percy's letters only after 20 years of neglect. The reason becomes obvious. A slow starter but eventually a distinguished novelist whose wry fiction belies his letters, Percy (The Moviegoer) was rigid in thought and rather dull. A Roman Catholic convert and a physician by training, he was often gibed at by Foote, who claimed that the best writing emerges from doubt rather than certainty and that there was "something terribly cowardly... about the risks to which you won't expose your soul." Rejecting prayer, Foote confided, "I do know that the closest to God I ever come is when I'm at my work. Otherwise I don't even feel that I'm part of creation." Both products of Mississippi, Foote, largely unsuccessful in fiction, produced a now-classic three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. His feisty opinions on writers and writing are of far more interest than what one learns of their very different lives, the exchange ending with Percy's death in 1990. Now 80, Foote has gone on to popular recognition as commentator in Ken Burns's TV documentary The Civil War. Tolson (Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy) has done an inadequate job of annotating the letters, leaving many titles, names, events and other obscurities unidentified. Photos through the text take the principals and supporting players from their teens into old age. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Foote, a novelist and Civil War historian (Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, Random, 1994), and Percy, erstwhile physician, latter-day philologist, and philosophical novelist (e.g. The Moviegoer), spent their teens together in Greenville, Mississippi. But if Percy biographer Tolson's edition of their 40-odd-year correspondence is any indication, they did not get around to writing each other regularly until their thirties, with Foote always the sparkplug. Not only do his letters far outnumber Percy's, but they show he fancied himself the latter's cultural mentor to such a tiresome degree that finally the usually pliant Percy breaks out, "Christ, you sound like Ralph Waldo Emerson." Unfortunately, Foote was allowed to play the schoolmarm from hell until Percy died in 1990. Would that the far wittier and more intellectually accomplished Percy had been the chattier one. For as Foote himself recognizes, "Our trouble is you talk about what brings books into being and I talk about this books themselves." Hit-or-miss indexing also weakens the value of this edition. For libraries collecting everything by either writer.-John Dye, Panhandle State Univ. Lib., Goodwell, Okla.
Kirkus Reviews
Tolson marshals a more comprehensive selection of the 194890 correspondence excerpted in his Percy biography, Pilgrim in the Ruins (1992).

Percy's reputation rests on his novels, especially the National Book Awardwinning The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, Foote's on his titanic nonfiction narrative The Civil War. Because literary orthodoxy beholds Percy as the brighter star, it's surprising how much more brilliantly Foote shines here. Though younger by six months, Foote, who published four novels by age 35, is initially a kind of artistic big brother to Percy, who in 1948 began the first of two unpublished novels that preceded The Moviegoer. Since Foote didn't save Percy's letters until 1970, the first 22 years are one-sided: Foote's expansive, 19th-century epistolary style (he recaps Percy's philosophical and artistic arguments as he refutes them) is nearly detailed enough to carry the monologue, and his passion—for writing, reading, music, food—is more than up to the task. However, better annotation from Tolson (as well as a fuller introduction that would put their works in a sequential context) would have shed some welcome light. Even as Percy's star rises, his letters—shorter, less composed, and less frequent—reveal a more tentative, self-doubting muse compared with the brimming confidence that propels Foote fearlessly into his 1.5-million-word magnum opus. Beneath the deeply abiding fraternal affection of boyhood friends (they met at 14 in Greenville, Miss.) lie diametrical approaches to art. Foote, driven to tell stories because "how a thing happens is more interesting than what happens" or why, advises the "christian existentialist" (as Percy ruefully considered himself pigeonholed) to "leave psychology to the psychologists, theology to the theologians." Percy saves his didacticism for fiction, while Foote continuously assails his friend with literary advice and books to read—most prominently Proust, whom Percy resists to the end.

Despite shortcomings in the editorial packaging, the letters provide a fascinating window into a lifelong friendship and the writing life.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderful read. Both Foote and Percy, especially Shelby Foote, wrote interesting, witty, revealing letters to each other. Anyone who enjoyed Mr. Foote's remarks in Ken Burn's Civil War tv series, will enjoy 'hearing' his style and personality when reading this volume of correspondence.