Tolson marshals a more comprehensive selection of the 1948-90 correspondence excerpted in his Percy biography, Pilgrim in the Ruins (1992).
Percy's reputation rests on his novels, especially the National Book Award-winning The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, Foote's on his titanic nonfiction narrative The Civil War. Because literary orthodoxy beholds Percy as the brighter star, it's surprising how much more brilliantly Foote shines here. Though younger by six months, Foote, who published four novels by age 35, is initially a kind of artistic big brother to Percy, who in 1948 began the first of two unpublished novels that preceded The Moviegoer. Since Foote didn't save Percy's letters until 1970, the first 22 years are one-sided: Foote's expansive, 19th-century epistolary style (he recaps Percy's philosophical and artistic arguments as he refutes them) is nearly detailed enough to carry the monologue, and his passion--for writing, reading, music, food--is more than up to the task. However, better annotation from Tolson (as well as a fuller introduction that would put their works in a sequential context) would have shed some welcome light. Even as Percy's star rises, his letters--shorter, less composed, and less frequent--reveal a more tentative, self-doubting muse compared with the brimming confidence that propels Foote fearlessly into his 1.5-million-word magnum opus. Beneath the deeply abiding fraternal affection of boyhood friends (they met at 14 in Greenville, Miss.) lie diametrical approaches to art. Foote, driven to tell stories because "how a thing happens is more interesting than what happens'' or why, advises the "christian existentialist'' (as Percy ruefully considered himself pigeonholed) to "leave psychology to the psychologists, theology to the theologians.'' Percy saves his didacticism for fiction, while Foote continuously assails his friend with literary advice and books to read--most prominently Proust, whom Percy resists to the end.
Despite shortcomings in the editorial packaging, the letters provide a fascinating window into a lifelong friendship and the writing life.