17 September (1971): Walker Percy to Shelby Foote

Walker Percy here writes to fellow  Shelby Foote about the reception of his new novel, Love in the Ruins. A dystopian satire about a genius, lapsed-Catholic inventor and his “lapsometer” (a kind of “stethoscope of the soul” that can read a person’s inner demons and complaints), the novel was panned by L.E. Sissman in his review for the New Yorker, to which Percy alludes below. 

September 17, 1971

Dear Shelby:

Bunt says Sissman is right, that I am a smart ass! How do you like that? Actually Sissman didn’t do me too bad. But would you believe that I don’t care? I mean the novel is all over with reviews, good and bad, Jesus!

I’m on something else, much more important than making up novels. It is nothing less than the lapsometer. Or its equivalent. A BREAKTHROUGH! When I have hit on is nothing less than A THEORY OF LANGUAGE! WHY HUMAN BEINGS SPEAK! Though I know that this subject mystifies you through its seeming triviality, the fact is after 5000 years of Western learning and 500 years of modern science, nobody can explain how it is that people can talk and animals can’t. BUT PERCY KNOWS!

Yeah, the one-eyed poet came and he was funny—a good poet too He wants to get you and me together at Vanderbilt arguing about Dostoievski-vs-Tolstoy. I told him of course maybe meaning no. 

Also a totally callow young man, age 18, name of Tony Brown from Dallas, appeared one day and camped here for 24 hrs. He was on his way to take pre-med at Duke and for some reason felt obliged to call on all writers in the South. Said he’d been to see you.

Glad to hear the war is going great guns. I keep thinking we might win this time.

Incidentally, the interesting thing about a review like Sissman’s is speculating what it was he didn’t like. I accept what he said as more or less valid, also knowing that there was something else that really turned him off. It could be something as simple as the satire on the Coffin Cabot, the semanticist from Harvard turned anti-Vietnam activist. The orthodoxy on Vietnam in the Northeast is as monolithic as the 13th century papacy.

Or maybe it was the novelty of seeing a Southerner putting down on the yankees (e.g. chickens hit Ohioans) instead of Yankees putting down on the Mississippians, who knows?



Congratulations to you and Gwyn on the 15th. Ours this year is the 25th!


From The correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy. New York: Center for Documentary Studies in association with W.W. Norton, 1997.

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