The Magazine

Epic Historian

Shelby Foote and the American Civil War.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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The main cause of Greenville's singular literary excellence was the public-spirited efforts of the lawyer-poet William Alexander Percy. The son of a senator and the leading man of his region, Percy eschewed political life but encouraged the cultivation of the artistic soul. He introduced Foote to his young cousins who had come to live with him, LeRoy and Walker Percy, and Foote spent much of his high school years in Will Percy's house and under his influence. There Foote learned to love Mozart, Shakespeare, and fine novels, and was inspired to educate himself to be a writer, because he learned, as Chapman lamely puts it, "that it was acceptable and heroic to be a writer in a culture where culture and masculinity often bumped heads."

CHAPMAN DISMISSES Will Percy's autobiography, "Lanterns on the Levee," as an "infamous defense of Southern plantocracy." But the book is much more than that. Despite its obviously racist and paternalistic moments, it still deserves to be famous. "Lanterns" contains some of the most beautiful and profound writing by any American on nobility, truth, love, friendship, solitude, and death. As the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy wrote, it is an amazingly coherent presentation of Stoicism as a way of life. When Foote thinks of the greatness of Southern aristocracy, he is moved by the example of Will Percy, which, at its best, transcends anything particularly southern.

Foote was remarkably devoted to his vocation as a writer, which provided the only discipline in his otherwise rather chaotic and irresponsible life. Because he cared about one thing so much, he thought he had a duty to let everything else slide. His love and family lives were a mess; he was an underachiever in school, couldn't hold a job, and was a shameless parasite for years, living off the generosity of his best friend Walker Percy, not to mention various foundation grants. On these matters Chapman is nonjudgmental; his fashionable opinions sometimes serve him well.

Foote's friendship with Walker Percy, who died in 1990, is preserved in a collection of letters. Percy wrote as a Catholic, and Foote thought that Percy's religious dogma prevented him from affirming the doubt that inspires the best novelists. For Foote, doubt is the beginning of artistic truth; for Percy, it is the mystery of being human articulated so well by Christianity. On this point, Foote is closer to the Stoicism of Will Percy, who was a lapsed Catholic. But that means he is too influenced by the Stoic's despair about the modern world--which includes his despair about the outcome of the Civil War. His friend Walker Percy found a way to avoid standing undecided between the greatness of aristocracy and the justice of democracy. Chapman seems unaware of Foote's admission in recent years that his dismissal of Percy's faith was based on a crude misunderstanding of his religion. But it's still the case that Foote's only real answer to the question of how to live well with doubt, even about love, is: Write novels! Chapman's biography isn't bad, but it would be better if he had any clue about what that answer really means.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls."