The way young Shelby Foote recounted the conversation, his meeting with William Faulkner might have left anyone else deflated. As the famed novelist signed copies of one of his books, he told Mr. Foote that he had read Mr. Foote's novel "Follow Me Down" and liked it. "It's a good book," he said. Then he looked "piercingly" at Mr. Foote and added, "Do better next time."
Faulkner could hardly have offered him more useless advice. In 1951, at the age of 35, Mr. Foote was already obsessed with writing; he never did less than his best, as he wrote in a letter to his friend Walker Percy. Indeed, Mr. Foote's ambition was so great that he had plenty left over for Percy, too. "If you are serious about wanting to write fiction," he wrote to Percy in 1948, "you had better get to work."
Percy would get to work; he just needed a little more prompting than Mr. Foote. The result was an outpouring of works by both men - fiction and nonfiction, essays, articles and, now, a remarkable collection of letters between the two gathered in "The Correspondence of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote" by editor Jay Tolson.
The letters are a marvel of literary and artistic criticism; they include narrative blueprints, historical insights and the occasional personal anecdote. It is to the great credit of Mr. Tolson, author of a biography of Percy and editor of the Wilson Quarterly, that he has made these letters available with a minimum of distracting footnotes but with enough annotation to make the potentially confusing understandable. He also leaves unedited misspellings - calculated and otherwise - grammatical mistakes and the rare epithet without which some of the humor and irony that inform the more than 40 years of correspondence might have been lost.
Had it not been for the misfortunes of the Percy family, the two men might never have met. LeRoy Percy, a prominent attorney and Walker's father, killed himself after a long bout with depression. Walker's uncle William Alexander Percy, a lawyer, planter, poet and author, invited the family to stay with him in Greenville, Miss., and introduced Walker to Shelby Foote. Their friendship would follow them from Greenville High School to the University of North Carolina, through illness, through marriage and divorce right up to Percy's death in 1990.
Mr. Foote's is the dominant voice in this collection of letters for the simple reason that he didn't begin saving Percy's letters until 1970, whereas Percy saved Mr. Foote's letters dating back to the '40s. But Mr. Foote's letters also tend to be longer than Percy's and their tone more confident. "Stand by," he wrote in 1952, long before his monumental three-volume history of the Civil War made him famous, "I'll tell you true. I'm going to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Or if I'm not, it wont be from a lack of knowing the requirements. …