Civil War historian Shelby Foote died Monday night at the age of 88. Foote is known not only for his historical work, but for his friendships. A Mississippian, Foote knew William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor as a young man, but was most closely associated all his life with his best friend, Walker Percy.
The letters between Percy and Foote reveal a different side to the crusty old historian. When working on the first of his Civil War volumes, Foote asked Percy if he and his wife could spend a few weeks at the Percy home. "We could work all day and talk all night. I think it's a great shame we've been apart so much these past three-four years. Friendship is so rare a thing, it should never be neglected beyond necessity."
Sadly, Foote couldn't seem to understand Percy's attraction to Christianity, afraid that Percy's conversion would weaken him as a novelist. Foote was concerned, for instance, about Percy's insistence that characters in a novel should be "redeemable" or else they are uninteresting. "I think the real difference is, I'm talking about novels and you're talking about Protestant sunday-school tracts; old John Calvin is breathing down your neck." The Catholic Percy was no doubt amused to be called a crypto-Calvinist.
Despite his aversion to the faith, Foote was a brave and thoughtful man. He loved his native South while standing firm against Jim Crow and the race-baiting populists of the twentieth century. In what had to be the most withering blow a Ku Klux Klansman could ever hear, Foote accused the white supremacist group of "degrading the Confederate flag" by converting it "from a symbol of honor into a banner of shame," having "covered it with obscenities like a roadhouse men's room wall."
Letters between Percy and Foote are found in Jay Tolson's classic collection, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (W.W. Norton). You will find it a remarkable and thought-provoking glimpse at a rare and beautiful friendship between a man of faith and a man of doubt. It should also remind us, as we mark the passing of this great man, that such friendship is a gift to be cultivated, acknowledged, and received with grateful hearts from a Father who knows that we were not made to be alone.