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GREENVILLE: WALKER PERCY & SHELBY FOOTE

  Walker Percy - Greenville, MS

Walker Percy

Shelby Foote - Greenville, MS
Shelby Foote

For to have lived in Will Percy's house, with "Uncle Will" as we called him, as a raw youth from age fourteen to twenty-six, a youth whose only talent was a knack for looking and listening, for tuning in and soaking up, was nothing less than to be informed in the deepest sense of the word. Walker Percy in his introduction to Lanterns on the Levee, Recollections of a Planter's Son by William Alexander Percy.

Walker Percy's early life was sadly Southern Gothic. Before his birth in 1916, Percy's grandfather killed himself with a shotgun - a method of suicide that was repeated by the novelist's father in 1929. His mother drove off a bridge two years later and plunged into a swamp near Athens, Georgia. Percy always counted her fatal accident as another family suicide. William ("Will") Alexander Percy, a 45 year old bachelor cousin in Greenville, agreed to adopt Walker and his two brothers. Greenville became both a refuge from grief

and a looking glass into the world for the Percy brothers. 

"Uncle Will" decorated his home with souvenirs from global excursions: Persian vases, Moroccan rugs, Japanese art, and Mexican wood screens. The attic contained Will Percy's loot of treasures from his service in World War I: German helmets, rifles and bayonets, uniforms and canteens. Most importantly, Will Percy, a progressive writer in the Delta, opened his home
to an impressive parade of houseguests who included Dorothy Parker and Langston Hughes. Perhaps Will's most meaningful invitation for Walker's future was delivered to Shelby Foote at a local country club. Will invited Shelby, a Greenville teenager, to come over and meet the young cousins he had adopted.

  Greenville Writers Historical Marker Courthouse and Square, Greenville. Greenville Courthouse and Square Historical Marker.  
 

Greenville Writers Historical Marker

Courthouse and Square

Greenville Courthouse and Square Historical Marker

 

Foote recalled that he visited the Percys, and they began to come over to my house, and we became good and close friends, which we have been ever since. As young aspiring writers, Percy and Foote sought to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford. They drove up to Rowan Oak, but Walker was so awed by Faulkner that he could not leave the car. He watched from the car as the young Foote and Faulkner chatted on the porch of the mansion. Both of the Greenville writers attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Percy earned a medical degree at Columbia University in 1941. After leaving the service in 1945, Foote returned to Greenville and took a job with a local radio station. But he spent most of
his time writing.

  Blues bar, Greenville. Church, downtown Greenville.
Mississippi River scene, Greenville.  
 

Blues bar

Church, downtown Greenville

Mississippi River scene, Greenville

 

The two became novelists and essayists about life in the South. Percy's first novel The Moviegoer in 1962 won the National Book Award for Fiction. Foote's debut novel Tournament was inspired by his grandfather, a Delta planter, and though he continued to write fiction, he became best known as a chronicler of the American Civil War. While he dedicated twenty years to a trilogy about the Civil War, Foote relied in part on loans from Percy to pay his bills. Interviews of Foote on Ken Burns' documentary film The Civil War brought him a distinguished celebrity status, and sales of his books finally took off. He told Burns: Ken, you've made me a millionaire. Percy died in 1990; Foote died in 2005.

No literary tour of the Delta is complete without a long browse at the McCormick Book Inn, a haven in Greenville since 1965 for book lovers and Southern writers. The Book Inn is the oldest independent bookstore in the Southeast that has remained under the same ownership. The dedication of its current owners, Mary Dayle and Hugh McCormick, is a major reason for the Inn's endurance as a regional icon. They have carefully curated an exhibit of Deltalogy for their visitors: a fascinating collection of books and literary memorabilia that celebrate both the myths and the realities of the inspirational Mississippi Delta.

  
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