Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Foote and Percy Rolling in Their Graves?

So I've dragged myself into the blogosphere. I guess it had to happen.

For years I scorned the medium. After all, Fitzgerald didn't need a blog. But I've come to realize that Fitz and the other guys were operating in the days when people still read books and magazines. Now everyone's getting their info online, and a blog is just a different way of communicating ideas. Technology is inevitable, as my wife likes to point out in our heated discussions concerning the Amazon Kindle. At this point, no one questions whether an electric guitar is still a guitar, and so it will go in years ahead when the debate over whether blogging constitutes writing is finally put to rest.

What closed the deal for me was the fact that my former colleagues from the University of North Carolina Wilmington--smarter and more talented people than I--have taken to blogging like Rick James to cocaine. If Emma Bolden ain't too proud to blog, then neither am I.

So...the loose theme of this blog is "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants." What I mean to do here is simply muse on the artists and ideas that I find interesting. Will this new outlet curb my compulsion to deliver unsolicited monologues on, say, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts in social situations? Probably not. But I think it could be fun.

Today I have Shelby Foote and Walker Percy on the brain: two of the finest writers the South produced in the latter half of the 20th century. I've just finished reading "The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy" and am still reeling from the headiness of the exchange. Email seems so superficial in comparison to these stately, rambling, often brilliant letters.

For the uninitiated: Walker Percy was a longtime resident of Covington, Lousiana and penned a number of acclaimed novels such as "The Moviegoer" and "Love in the Ruins" as well as many philosophical (and sometimes impenetrable) essays. Shelby Foote wrote over two million words over the course of his career but is best known as the soft-spoken, scene-stealing commentator from Ken Burns's "Civil War" miniseries (To some Yankees, with his aristocratic accent and carefully cultivated beard, he was Col. Sanders with a Ph.D.* Imagine that, they must have thought, a smart Southerner!)

I started reading The Correspondence back in my twenties, and at the time I couldn't get enough of the young Foote's grandiose pronouncements. Now, after rereading those passages, I am struck by how much of a prick Shelby Foote actually was in his early years, and am a little alarmed that I didn't pick up on this before. For about ten years starting in 1948 Foote cajoled and berated Percy endlessly, and told him, essentially, that he would never amount to anything as a writer unless he read Proust. Well, in 1961 the still Proust-free Percy published "The Moviegoer" and promptly won the National Book Award.

By the end of their lives it was Percy who feverishly cranked out novels, while Foote spent endless hours making mix tapes of his favorite symphonies and did the occasional commentator gig for cash. "Two Gates to the City"--the magnum opus he spent his entire life chattering about ("The protagonist will be the Delta itself!") remained unfinished at the time of his death. Instead, the novelist's lasting contribution to American letters was the staggering three-volume nonfiction opus "The Civil War: A Narrative." No mean feat, but not exactly what he'd envisioned for himself when he started out. Walker Percy, on the other hand, had intended to be a doctor. As John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

*Foote performed poorly in college and did not earn his honorary doctorate until after Ken Burns made him famous.