The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy

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Date: Spring 1998
From: The Southern Literary Journal(Vol. 30, Issue 2)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 5,489 words

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The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy. Edited by Jay Tolson. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1997. 310 pp. $27.50.

Jay Tolson concludes his gratifying edition of the letters of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy with Foote's commemoration of Percy at St. Ignatius Church in New York City on October 29, 1990. Although not cast in the epistolary form, the editor says Foote considered this to be "his last letter to his best and oldest friend," who had died at his home in Covington, Louisiana, six months earlier:

The English essayist E.H. Carr said at the close of his early thirties

critical biography of Dostoyevsky: "A hundred year hence, when

Dostoyevsky's psychology will seem as much a historical curiosity as

his theology seems to us now, the true proportions of his work will

emerge; and posterity, removed from the controversies of the early

twentieth century, will once more be able to regard it as an artistic


Similarly, I would state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in

time for what he was in simple and solemn fact--a novelist, not

merely an explicator of various philosophies and divines, existentialist

or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them or even influenced by

them, than was Proust, say, to or by Schopenhauer and Bergson.

Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors. Like

Flannery O'Connor he found William Faulkner what Henry James

called Maupassant, "a lion in the path." He solved his leonine problem

much as Dante did on the outskirts of hell; he took a different path,

around him. 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."

Reading the letters Foote and Percy exchanged over the years--often wryly humorous, often disputatious, often profound, and not infrequently all three at once; at times deeply moving, and always revealing--one comes to understand why Foote thought of his summary evaluation of Percy's literary significance as a final message to his friend. It memorializes an argument, either by statement or implication, present throughout the Foote-Percy correspondence: namely, the proper nature of the vocation of the novelist.

Shelby Foote and Walker Percy first met in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1930, when, following the death by suicide of Walker's father, Leroy Pratt Percy, a prominent attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, William Alexander Percy, a bachelor, invited the surviving family of his "favorite cousin," Walker, his two younger brothers, and their mother, to come to Mississippi, and live with him in the imposing house that had been built in 1882 by the grandfather for whom he was named at 601 Percy Street in the Delta town of Greenville. William Alexander had lived here alone since the death the year before of his mother and father, former United States Senator Leroy Percy. Upon the death of Martha Sue Phinizy Percy in an automobile wreck in 1932, the lawyer, planter, poet, and author of the well-known memoir Lanterns on the Levee--whose home "was a mandatory stop on the itinerary of poets, novelists, journalists, and any other notables touring the region"--formally adopted his young cousins.

Even before the Percy boys arrived in Greenville "Uncle Will," as he was always known to Walker and his two brothers, had asked Shelby to come over to meet Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy. One reason for his invitation to the thirteen-year-old Shelby may have been that he knew Shelby had also lost his father. Another reason may have been that as "a connoisseur of intelligence," he wanted his young cousins to make the acquaintance of a youth with a mind as bright as theirs. But, although he knew Shelby already showed literary inclinations--and even fancied he "resembled the young Marcel Proust" (possibly because Shelby, like Proust, had a Jewish mother and a gentile father)--William Alexander Percy could hardly have foreseen that in bringing Walker and Shelby together, the two, who were almost the same age, would hit it off so well that they would develop what must be accounted one of the notable friendships in the history of American letters.

The literary basis of the friendship was foreshadowed when they were classmates at the Greenville High School, where both contributed to the school newspaper. At this time, unlike Shelby, Walker had no thought of becoming a writer. The substantial literary basis of their relationship began to develop fifteen years later, when Foote was beginning to emerge as a promising novelist, and Percy, just as he was on the verge of becoming a practicing physician, had fallen into a state of doubt about what he would do with his life. After he had graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in chemistry, Percy had with due dispatch acquired a degree in medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. But his medical career had been arrested almost immediately by tuberculosis contracted while he was interning at New York's Bellevue Hospital. As a result he had to spend over two years of confinement in tubercular sanitoriums (Trudeau in the Adirondacks and Gaylord in Wallingford, Connecticut). Beset by doubts about his vocation to the science of medicine, engendered by wide reading in literature, philosophy, and theology during this period of enforced leisure, Percy had turned, somewhat uncertainly, toward the idea of discovering an alternative vocation in writing. But he seems not to have made a definite commitment to writing until 1948, when after settling in the Vieux Carre of New Orleans with his bride, Mary Bernice Townsend ("Bunt"), he, together with Bunt, was confirmed in the Catholic faith. Meanwhile, Shelby Foote--his commitment to writing never in doubt from his high school days on--had served a largely self-directed but strenuous literary apprenticeship, which included close attention to the great modern novelists, Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Joyce, Thomas Mann, and, most notably, Proust--"always Proust, who may just be the top knocker of them all aside from Shakespeare." Proust's "subject is a great one," he said to Percy, "the discovery of a hidden vocation. Art hunted him down like the hound of heaven and found him in the end." Now, indelibly marked by the tenets of "High Modernism," Foote was on the verge of a novelistic career that would soon be inaugurated by the publication of four novels in four successive years. All of these attracted attention, and at least one, a story about the Civil War called Shiloh (1952), won high praise.

Buoyed by his success, Foote felt fully qualified to counsel Percy as he began a belated effort to make himself into a writer. The central theme of his counsel was the warning that art and a search for the meaning of religious faith do not mix. The admonition went unheeded but not unnoticed. To be sure, if we think of Foote's commemorative tribute to Percy in 1990 as being a last message to his friend, it may well seem as though Foote was having the Final word in a dispute that had been foreshadowed in 1946 when Percy had first mentioned that he was thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic. At that time Foote had warned him this could only mean he was now "in full intellectual retreat." Learning of his confirmation, Foote told Percy, who had by this time begun tentative work on a never-to-be-published apprentice novel called "The Charterhouse," that at the very outset of his potential career as a novelist he had virtually destroyed the possibility of becoming one of great ones, since "no practicing Catholic can ever be a great artist; art is by definition a product of doubt; it has to be pursued." In the same letter of November 19, 1949, Foote observed further:

I once said I didn't think God would be hard on writers. We are the

outriders for the saints; we go beyond (where they won't go) and tell

them what we've found. If we burn for that, we'll take pride in our

burning, our pain; the triumph wont be God's.

All your dogma contradicts Proust's dictum: "Respect the natural

movement of your thoughts." That is the secret of originality; it's so

seldom done. And don't say it's simply Rousseau all over

again--Rousseau is about as far removed from Proust as you are....

Of course with you it {has been} simple. You {have} rejected art.

But how about those like myself, for whom rejection of art would be

a rejection of life. You think God put us here as he put the devils?

You think he gave us man's form and man's soul, and then merely the

choice between two things, sin or suicide? I say again, the triumph

wont be God's, not even by God's own standards.

At the end of his letter Foote softened his harsh judgment of Percy's literary motives. A "little fret," he said, "brought on by anxiety" about one of his own novels in progress. But Foote meant what he had said and continued to admonish Percy over the years, at times severely, for in effect confusing God and art. Although his attitude toward his friend's writing became more complex, and more understanding, as time went on, he felt Percy harbored the wrong-headed notion that "the novelist is some kind of exalted pamphleteer," who thinks that fiction is simply a more attractive way than the essay to offer instruction about the moral and spiritual plight of modern man. Admitting that he admired "the Catholic religion for its unwillingness to compromise and its essentially realistic outlook," Foote nonetheless advised Percy that ever since The Divine Comedy the distinctive value of Catholicism had been undercut by "Catholic intellectuals." "`Thou shalt have no other gods before you,' is a dictum of art," he added somewhat pompously; "and whoever departs from this {like the contemporary novelist, Graham Greene, whom Foote disliked and Percy liked} is penalized to the degree of his departure." And yet it would seem Foote believed it would never be too late for art to find Percy, and as time went on he encouraged any evidence of the grace of art working on Percy. Finally he was rewarded by the news from Percy--who by this time had written all but one of his novels--that he had undertaken a reading of Remembrance of Things Past. Greeting this announcement with delight (in a letter dated March 3, 1984) Foote, citing the fact that he himself had read the whole of Remembrance of Things Past eight times, urged Percy not to "be put off by any foolish notion that the massive work seems `loose' or undisciplined": It "enlarges life," while being "altogether the tightest, best-constructed and most disciplined novel I ever read. You'll think so too, if you stay with it, and most of all if you'll reread it as soon as that first reading has had time to sink in."

There seems to be no record indicating Percy read Remembrance of Things Past more than once, or for that matter, that he ever completed a first reading of the massive sequence of stories. But ironically by now Foote would seem to have come to think that, without benefit of Proust, and in spite of Percy's attachment to the study of theology, philosophy, and psychology, and his Kierkegaardian distrust of aesthetic motivation, art had found him early on. In his posthumous tribute to Percy six years later, Foote predicted confidently that future readers would confirm this. Purged by time of their merely topical context, Percy's novels will be seen as constituting an "artistic whole" that, like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, "enlarges life."

In this connection it is by no means incidental to add that, although, after writing five novels and beginning "the big one," a work of Faulknerian proportions called "Two Gates to the City," Foote abandoned the novel form to spend twenty years writing the 1,300,000 words of The Civil War: A Narrative History, there is no evidence in his letters he ever considered this suspension of his vocation to the novel in the prime of his literary life to have been a violation of his exalted conception of the writer as artist. On the contrary--and in spite of the discomfort caused by the fact that literary critics thought he was writing history and historians thought he was writing literature--Foote believed that in the making of his Civil War history he had been completely faithful to the demanding discipline of the art of narrative. And indeed, written in the fading aura of high literary modernism, Foote's Civil War, which Walker Percy called "the American Iliad," may appropriately be thought as one of the last great expressions of the age of Proust and Faulkner.

Yet, even if Shelby Foote may be said to have a certifiable place in the ranks of twentieth-century writers who were eminently devoted to the art of their task, one does not feel altogether comfortable with his eloquent attempt to place Walker Percy in these ranks. Nor does Tolson, who, even though he makes no evaluative comment on the significance of Foote's "last letter" to Percy in his edition of the Foote-Percy correspondence, had earlier in his biography of Percy, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (1992), taken issue with Foote's "interpretation of the relation between Percy's art and his governing ideas and beliefs." These Tolson says "were never {as Foote implies} merely the furnishings or adornments" of Percy's fiction.

Art, Percy knew, is itself a form of knowledge, wonderful in its ways,

but he also believed that it is a form insufficient unto itself--and

insufficient because it can become, like the naturalistic sciences, its

own hollow idol. What Modernism, in the words of such masters as

Flaubert and Joyce, proposes as its own complete and self-justifying

end is a knowledge as "objective" as that proposed by the modern

sciences--knowledge, in Art's case, as the objectification of sensibility,

of an affective exquisiteness. But it is precisely because of its claims

to objectivity, and its elevation of sensibility above all else, that Art

can only mistakenly be considered fully adequate to questions about

the ethics and ends of human lives. Yet this mistake is the hallmark of

Modernism, a creed which, however etiolated, still defines the regnant

aesthetic principles of the western world.

Perhaps it is of some significance that the second biographer of Percy, Patrick Samway, makes considerable use of the Percy-Foote letters, but, although referring specifically to several of the tributes offered on the memorial occasion for Percy at St. Ignatius, makes no mention of Foote's. The reason for this omission, one surmises, is not that Samway disagrees with Tolson's thesis that Percy understood art as a form of knowledge "insufficient unto itself." It is because, rejecting the temptation "to write a book of literary criticism based on biography"--that is, to "interpret the fiction of a creative writer as implied or suppressed biography "--Samway's aim is "to trace Walker Percy's life by allowing it to unfold as Percy lived it." In fulfilling this intention he is so detailed in his account of how Percy lived his life, and the people he lived it with, that he opens himself to the charge, in the words of one reviewer, of offering "plenty of information but little illumination." Yet, though it may seem that he is setting down everything he has gleaned in his extensive research of his subject, imposing no order save that of chronology, Samway has an interpretive intention. This is to suggest how Percy's "life informed his fiction and nonfiction, which in turn formed and informed his life." For instance, Samway carefully explains that at Bellevue, "a living medical textbook," the Columbia medical school had a special affiliation with the first of the hospital's three divisions, the "medical, chest, and surgical" divisions. For this reason Percy was assigned to an internship in pathology, which meant that each "working day fell into a predictable pattern" of

seeing individual patients, doing necessary lab work, and performing

autopsies in the basement morgue, where he analyzed various deadly

diseases and illnesses. Most of the corpses were known as "five day

cases" (bodies unclaimed after five days) or "murderers and floaters,"

and most of the interns who performed autopsies worked without

gloves or masks. Walker's days normally began at 7 a.m. and

frequently lasted well into the night. Each morning house-staff teams

(an attending physician, a resident physician, several interns, and a

nurse) saw and discussed the progress of every patient. In the evening

they would work up new patients by conducting interviews, doing

much of their lab work, and writing up summaries of the morning


The internship in pathology at Bellevue was to constitute almost the whole of Percy's actual experience as a physician. But, it was, one sees, an intense experience that would become magnified in the memory of a highly sensitive and essentially poetic young physician, who was, as a consequence of it, suddenly transformed from doctor to patient by the very bacilli he had been observing in autopsies. And, becoming a fundamental resource of his imagination when the young physician turned from the medical vocation to that of philosophical essayist and novelist, the Bellevue experience provided a vivid basis for the analogy between medical diagnostics and a moral and spiritual diagnosis of the contemporary world that informs Percy's writings.

Not that the drawing of this analogy was unique in twentieth-century literature. Percy's experience in medical school and subsequent experience as a tubercular patient verified and enhanced what he had already learned by reading Thomas Mann's story of Hans Catstrop's experience in an alpine sanitorium in the years just before the First World War. In his second try at writing a novel, Samway observes, Percy transformed the story told by Mann, who had no medical training but was possessed of a powerful imagination, into "The Grammercy Winner" (also unpublished), a story in which Percy's "hidden years at Trudeau" became "an American version" of The Magic Mountain.

More than he allows in his introductory statement, Samway is the interpreter of the story he tells in Walker Percy: A Life, bringing his biography to what one may discern as an initial climax at the point in the late 1950s when Percy published an essay in The New Scholasticism entitled "Culture: The Antimony of the Scientific Method." In this, making his most convincing argument to date against the presumed superiority of scientific knowledge, Percy contended science must be seen as only one of the several ways in which culture asserts itself. Language, worship, myth-making, story telling, and visual and musical art are equally assertatory ways. "Science is limited," he argued, "in that it recognizes only functional linkages and yet presupposes other kinds of reality," notably "the intersubjectivity of scientists and their assertions, neither of which can be grasped by the functional method." Conceiving that "in the last analysis, the assertatory behavior of man, whether true or false, mythic or scientific, should be considered on the same ontological plane as the intersubjective enterprise of scientists," Percy, as Samway says, "called for a radical anthropology" in which "a human person is seen not merely as an organism, a social unit or a culture member, but as one who makes assertions that grapple with truth\falsity, right\wrong, and authenticity\inauthenticity."

In his call, Samway discerns, Percy "was in his own way struggling to validate his career as a novelist" by "setting up a philosophical ars poetica." In a broader way, one may say, Percy was establishing a context for the validation of his whole effort as a committed Christian of the Roman Catholic persuasion to explore the significance of the spiritual malaise he had come to envision as the major affliction of the modern age. Seeing this as the result of the diminishment of the mystery of human existence by science, Percy sought, as Samway says, to explore the power of a Christian literary artist, whether writing in the mode of the philosophical essay or the philosophical novel, to create the possibility of renewing the redeeming power of the Christian vision of human existence. His first notable achievement in this effort came with the writing of his third, and first published, novel, The Moviegoer (which he initially called "Confessions of a Moviegoer"). Five years later (1961), with the publication of his second novel, The Last Gentleman (initially called "Ground Zero"), Percy offered a further notable validation of his concept of the artist as philosophical novelist.

Although Samway does not explicitly suggest it, we may speculate with some assurance that Percy marked a second, more decisive, climax, in his career, when ten years after he had published "The Antimony of the Scientific Method," he referred to his career still more definitively in "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World" as being not simply that of a modern Christian artist but a postmodern Christian artist. The significance of "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World" is enhanced if we read it in the light of a letter Samway quotes from Percy's fellow convert to Catholicism, Caroline Gordon, who in 1951, having just read the manuscript of the "The Charterhouse," wrote to Percy: "You have an enormous--an incalculable advantage--over most people writing today; you know what it is all about.... When one is writing out of the Protestant mystique, which is what everybody who isn't a Catholic is doing--even the Communists, I think--one has the responsibility of setting up a new heaven and a new earth as one goes." It is different with a Catholic, who "knows that God has already created the universe and that his job is to find his proper place in it." But Percy had never been certain his advantage as a Catholic writer was so clear cut, and he came increasingly to feel less certain that it was. How could the advantage be so apparent, when, as he says in "A Novel about the End of the World," the "psychical forces... released in the postmodern consciousness open unlimited possibilities for both destruction and liberation, for an absolute loneliness or a rediscovery of community and reconciliation?" By the later 1960s Percy had come to entertain the apocalyptic possibility that finding one's place in the created universe might have become well-nigh impossible even for the Catholic philosopher and\or and novelist unless he assumed the responsibility, metaphorically at least, for setting up a new heaven and a new earth. Percy in effect began to flirt with the idea that the Catholic philosopher\artist has an absolute responsibility to discover a way to make the message of the good news of the Christian faith available in a culture so dominated by "the magical aura of science" that the very language in which the message is expressed has ceased to be relevant. Under pressure of his recognition of this situation, Percy envisioned the novelist turning from his former task of "constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody" and setting forth "with a stranger {the stranger being himself} in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless." But to have any hope of success in this mission he must be not only a good novelist but a skillful reader of signs, a semiotician.

Pursuing Percy's developing "determination" to become both a "successful novelist and semiotician," Samway provides an illuminating account of Percy's devotion to the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce (including his friendship with Kenneth Laine Ketner, a contemporary student of Peirce). But although he recognizes that in the years when Percy was writing Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming, and The Thanatos Syndrome Peirce became a relatively greater influence on the shaping of his philosophical ars poetica than Kierkegaard, Samway--in spite of his awareness of the complexity of the inner history of Percy's literary career--tends to slight somewhat the significance of Lost in the Cosmos, the book most directly related to Percy's interest in semiotics. I am thinking of an interview in 1981 in which Percy announced that he had in progress a very ambitious work that he would, in imitation of Sir Francis Bacon's famous work, call Novum Organum. This would be his "big one," he said. In the past, he explained, he had been interested "in examining the human predicament novelistically," now he wanted to see if can be done semiotically." In contrast to the contemporary "nonradical science," a "technology which understands the interaction between things and things, and things and organisms, but ... has nothing whatever to say about what it means to be a human being, to find oneself in human predicaments," Novum Organum would advance the tenets of a radically "new science" dealing with "the semiotics of the self."

What came forth under a different title, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), is considerably less grand than the book Percy had promised. A more or less unclassifiable nonfiction-fiction, Lost in the Cosmos presents itself as a sophisticated spoof of the innumerable conventional self-help books. In a direct sense it is a parody of Carl Sagan's "splendid picture book, Cosmos," which, as Samway says, is in its way another popular self-help book. Yet Percy says in all seriousness that his parodic treatment of Sagan constitutes a far more significant "short history of the Cosmos" than Sagan's, its center being a semiotic theory of the self which explains not only why it is that man is the sole "alien creature, as far as we know, in the entire Cosmos" but why man the artist is the most alienated of all the varieties of man, and further why man the "writer-artist" is even more alienated than man the sculptor-artist or painter-artist. "In the age of science scientists are the princes of the age. Artists are not." Although "both scientists and artists achieve transcendence over the ordinary world in their science and art, only the scientist is sustained in his transcendence by the exaltation of the triumphant spirit of science and by the community of scientists." Artists, and notably "writer-artists," after achieving the orbit of transcendence through intense artistic effort, lack the support of an attending community, and when the sense of exaltation wanes and they face the problem of reentry into the ordinary world they feel estranged from the society around them. Consequently, they may sink into the despair of "neurosis, psychosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, florid sexual behavior, solitariness, depression, violence, and suicide."

One of the advantages of the detailed telling of Percy's life story in Samway's biography is that it affords us a contrast between Percy's constant involvement with others--not only with the members of his family, but with many friends and acquaintances, Catholic and non-Catholic, professional and personal--and his equally constant sense of alienation and loneliness. In the context of his biography, Lost in the Cosmos, like all of Percy's novels and many of his essays, reveals itself as a deeply personal search for community. One of the strangest comments in Lost in the Cosmos is the following:

The painters and the sculptors are the Catholics of art, the writer is

the Protestant. The former have the sacramentals, the concrete

intermediaries between themselves and creation--the paint, the

brushes, the fruit, the bowl, the table, the model, the mountain, the

handling and muscling of clay. The writer is the Protestant. He works

alone in a room as bare as a Quaker meeting house with nothing

between him and his art but a Scripto pencil, like God's finger

touching Adam. It is harder on the nerves.

If nothing else, the mention of the Scripto pencil, his own writing instrument, identifies the fact that Percy is talking about himself. In his chapter covering Percy's career from 1975 to 1980, Samway mentions his attraction to an essay I wrote in the mid-seventies on "Faulkner and the Legend of the Artist." In this, in connection with the speculation that Quentin is Faulkner's portrait of the artist, I refer to Faulkner's statement, "I am Quentin in The Sound and the Fury as Melville is Ishmael in Moby-Dick. " In a letter thanking me for sending him a copy of this piece, Walker said, "Faulkner's dictum serves to remind me that there is such a community of lonely artists--so lonely that one often forgets and needs to be reminded." He also mentioned the fact that he was now sixty years of age but still felt "hopeful of making a beginning in ... the endless task of creating oneself and a world from the poor makings of the bloody `rootless ego.'"

Although the assertion in Lost in the Cosmos that the writer is Protestant is obviously metaphorical, the comfort Percy took in the sense of community an isolated twentieth-century writer-artist, without religious commitment but with a Protestant background, felt with an isolated writer-artist, of similar disposition and background, a hundred years before his own time, strikes one as suggesting how perilous Percy's grasp of his identity as a Catholic "writer-artist" was. Declaring that the writer can only be a Protestant, was Percy, near the end of a career in which he had self-consciously, and on the whole, successfully, sought to establish himself as a leading Catholic novelist, still disturbed by what Shelby Foote had told him long ago: it is impossible to be committed both to the art of writing and to Catholicism?

Around the time Walker read my essay on Faulkner, Samway says, he wrote "Community," an "astonishing poem about how consoling it was to find a community of like-minded people outside the environment of the family," this in a varying group of artist and writer friends and acquaintances who, calling themselves "The Sons and Daughters of the Apocalypse," gathered weekly year around for lunch at Bechac's, a well-known restaurant in Mandeville.

Now comes the artist to his life's surprise--

A fond abstract middle-aged public man he....

{Who} trafficked in loneliness, little brother, cell-mate

And friend to him, and even turned to good use,

A commodity, a good businessman selling solitariness

Like GM selling Chevrolets or Burns furniture....

Now comes the surprise--

But what a surprise!

Twenty years of solitariness and success at solitariness,

Solitary with his family like the Swiss family on their island

Then all at once community.

Community? What friends out there in the world?


The final word in the poem seems to echo the final word in Lancelot, the novel Percy was completing in its first draft at the time he wrote the poem. It is the-only word, spoken by Percival, the priest and friend to whom Lancelot Andrewes, Lamar confesses the horrifying tale of his own life. When Lancelot says that it will either be my way or your way, not their way, Percival responds enigmatically, "Yes."

All of Percy's fictional "heroes" to an appreciable degree embody the sensibility of the literary artist, most of all Dr. Thomas More and Lancelot, tellers of the tales in which they appear, and Lancelot to a greater degree than More. Indeed in his lurid confession Lancelot sketches a portrait of the "postmodern" writer-artist. "Right now," Percy said to an interviewer in 1976 while he was writing Lancelot:

I'm trying to write a novel in which a man finds himself in some sort

of a cell--it's not clear whether it is a prison cell or a sanitorium cell.

He's there for several reasons--he's not quite sure, as a matter of fact

he's amnesic. But he's very much aware that the language is worn out.

And in the next room there's a woman who's in a state of catatonia;

she's also mute, she's retreated from language. So he conceives the idea

of trying to communicate with her by knocking on the wall. It doesn't

matter, except that what I had in mind was the wearing out of language

and the creation of a new language.

In writing Lancelot and somewhat later Lost in the Cosmos, Percy was responding to the challenge he had told Foote (in a 1973 letter) the novelist now faced: "Shakespeare had it easy; he had a language, a new language, busting out all around him, and he didn't even have to make up stories: the stories were around him too. We have to do it all, including the impossible or all but impossible task: make up a language as you go along. All you have to do to be a good novelist today is to be like God on the first day."

Percy of course didn't mean this. He didn't intend to commit the ultimate impiety, as Joyce had, and envision himself the artist, the word crafter, as God. But he knew the peril of the temptation. Engaged in an art in which words are the medium, and finding that all the words he was using were bereft of real meaning, he found it difficult, even with the utmost effort, to envision himself as a novelist engaged simultaneously in the vocation to serve art and the vocation to serve art and God.

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