Foote to Percy, 1949.

“Pushed, you’ll admit that doubt is a healthy thing, closely connected with faith; but you won’t follow it.  I believe that truth lies beyond and I’m willing to step into the mire…because I know I’ll find what I’m after, on the other side – beyond.  You draw back…I seriously think that no good practicing Catholic can be a great artist; art is by definition a product of doubt; it has to be pursued…I said once 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 won’t be God’s.”


  1. As I feared.

  2. Jonathan Potter says

    Sadly, Foote didn’t save Percy’s reply, right? It’s the big sad thing about that collection of letters — that Foote didn’t start saving Percy’s side of the correspondence until 1970.

  3. Cubeland Mystic says

    I wonder what Hunter and Hemingway told the Saints? How about Ginsberg and Burroughs? Apparently he wasn’t acquainted with St Mary of Egypt.

  4. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Well that about wraps it up for Korrektiv.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      But soft: Foote says, ‘I seriously think that no good practicing Catholic can be a great artist.’

      He, Foote, implicitly leaves room for bad practicing Catholics and good nonpracticing Catholics!

      And the Korrektiv Kollektiv consists of ‘bad’ Catholics — says so right on the masthead! And Dr Percy described himself in exactly that way, i.e., as a bad Catholic!

      There’s hope for yall yet. Even by Shelby Foote’s standards!

      • Matthew Lickona says

        It’s no accident that Percy was fond of Jesuits. There’s always a loophole.

        • Matthew Lickona says

          To which you will most likely respond: “Loophole? I just made a distinction – in the manner of the great Dominican, St. Thomas. The only loophole is the one that ought to fit around the neck of every…well, charity prevents.”

          • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

            ‘Loophole’ is my new favorite euphemism.


            O’Connor:’Hillbilly Thomist’::Percy:’Plantation Ignatian’?

  5. Damn you people! Just want to enjoy my cup of coffee. Now you’ve gone made me think.

  6. Laconic Catholic says

    Dante could have been a great artist if only he’d been a bad Catholic. Got it.

  7. I think what Foote really means by “doubt” is “struggle with the ambiguities in life.” Doubt is a decision; struggle is not. We all struggle with life. The difference between the man of faith and the man of doubt lies in a judgment made about the evidence that life has given him.

    I sympathize with Foote to an extent, though. I think he’s right — not about Percy, but about our own generation of post-postV2 Catholics. We are so afraid of being weird and incoherent like our forebears that we have become way too self-conscious about being Catholic. We can’t just live life, like men, with all the pain and beauty of it. For example: Why care what Simcha Fischer says about Walker Percy? Seriously.

    I don’t think Belloc and Chesterton are a help in this regard — they were excessively self-conscious about their religion, too, in part because of the ethnic angle that they got out of it — they could use it to distinguish themselves against the Anglican establishment. Orwell is right when he says (in THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER) that Chesterton and Belloc are too obsessed with their own identity.

    Perhaps it is time to start looking at the French — Bernanos and Mauriac and Claudel. They were a bit more chill, a bit more human.

    Also Eric Rohmer, though he wasn’t a writer but a filmmaker. If Lickona hasn’t seen LAST NIGHT AT MAUD’S he should right away and thank me later.

  8. If you think that my comment seems to have stretched the meaning of Foote’s letter so that I might be able to write down stuff that I had already been thinking about before I even read it … then you would be correct.

  9. Southern Expat says


    “I said once I didn’t think God would be hard on scientists. 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 won’t be God’s.”

    • Matthew Lickona says

      Clever, Expat. But writers reflect on experience, while scientists create it. It seems to me like a real difference.

      • I see your Richard Dawkins and I raise you a Wallace Stevens…


      • Jonathan Potter says

        Huh? How do scientists create experience? I don’t see that at all. Science reflects on experience with a vengeance, sub specie aeternitatis.

        • Jonathan Potter says

          Unless you’re talking about Hiroshima et al.

          • Matthew Lickona says

            Um, IVF? Genetic manipulation? Chemical contraception? Chimeras? Viagra?

            • Jonathan Potter says

              Well, you could argue that all those things are the handiwork not of scientists per se but rather of technicians or engineers or bio-engineers. That’s not science, properly speaking.

              • Matthew Lickona says

                Ah. Was Dr. More not a scientist, then, with his lapsometer? Do you regard science as purely the realm of research? Even so, someone had to figure out that genetic manipulation was possible, and odds are, they figured it out for a reason.

                • Jonathan Potter says

                  Well, then, writers “create experience” just as surely — in the realms of politics, propaganda, advertising, pep rallying, preaching, encouraging, seducing, etc.

                  • Matthew Lickona says

                    Not so. A good novel, I’ll argue, is not a means to an end in the way that genetic manipulation research is a means to an end. A good novel is an end in itself. It does not push a political agenda, it does not preach. If it does, it’s a bad novel. A person might be encouraged or seduced, but that’s not the point.

                    • Laconic Catholic says

                      Percy said he used “every trick in the bag” to preach his message. All writers are preachers.

                    • Jonathan Potter says

                      I agree with Laconic, but I’ll revert to my original argument. Science is a way of knowing reality. Art is another way of knowing reality. Both can be oriented towards the end of manipulating reality, but that act of manipulation is not science or art. It’s something more akin to digging a ditch or paving a road. To take it back to what Foote is saying (and Expat’s riff thereon), a scientist might conduct any number of horrifying experiments or lift the lid off of whatever horrifying human pathology for the greater good of advancing “knowledge” — which a saint (or anyone with a modicum of ethical sense) might eschew. “Where angels fear to tread” comes to mind.

                    • Matthew Lickona says

                      And Foote took him to task for turning his art toward preaching. I rather disagree with your second sentence. The preacher preaches what ought to be, the writer writes what is.

                    • Matthew Lickona says

                      The above is a response to Laconic.

                    • Matthew Lickona says

                      Which is it, Potter? On the one hand, you seem to be saying that scientists are simply pursuing knowledge of reality. Next you’re talking about conducting horrific experiments – which sounds a lot like my original claim that they create experience. A horrific experiment is an experience, no? But that puts the scientist rather closer to the ditchdigger/road paver you mentioned.

                    • Jonathan Potter says

                      Playing the Flannery card, eh? Damn you, Lickona.

                    • Jonathan Potter says

                      I’m mainly just quibbling with your quibble. I think Expat was right that the categories are somewhat interchangeable. A good novel may only address “what is” and not try to effect any alteration thereof; but there is writing and there are writers whose aim is to impact the reader and effectively alter reality. Foote is claiming that a really great writer will venture into the extreme realms of “what is” to discover some disquieting truth or other and reveal it to the reader, thereby also helping out the saint who is presumably committed to Truth but is too skittish to venture out there to make the discovery on his own. There are certainly scientists around who would make similarly obnoxious claims for what they are up to.

                    • Matthew Lickona says

                      “Foote is claiming that a really great writer will venture into the extreme realms of ‘what is’ to discover some disquieting truth or other and reveal it to the reader, thereby also helping out the saint who is presumably committed to Truth but is too skittish to venture out there to make the discovery on his own.”

                      I don’t think this is what Foote is saying. I think the venture Foote is undertaking is an interior one – not an experiential one – and I don’t think he’s seeking disquieting truths like some snot-nosed kid out to tweak Daddy. I think he’s just seeking, and saying that nothing should interfere with the search, not even dogma.

                    • Matthew Lickona says

                      WHICH IS NOT TO SAY THAT I THINK HE IS 100% CORRECT.

                    • Jonathan Potter says

                      Ah! Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. And I wonder … would you say Percy took this missive to heart? Did Percy lift up his skirts and wade out into the mire after this chiding? And hence we have the novels. Or perhaps Percy’s faith was already leading him into the mire, but from a different place Foote failed to see in 1949.

                    • Jonathan Potter says

                      It would be nice to read Percy’s side of the correspondence. On the other hand, maybe his real reply was The Moviegoer. Smack down!

            • Cubeland Mystic says

              Jumping in the middle M-Lick, sorry if out of context, those things you are describing (IVF, Viagra, …) is not science, but Mordorism.

  10. Laconic Catholic says

    Expat, you are right. Fill in Foote’s blank with any category. Same damn difference.

    • I was going to write ” interior decorators”.
      But ummm with a novel the point is to experience something isn’t it? Even if just some sort of emotional response isn’t Foote saying that he’s willing to sin? To feel despair? That artists need to feel fear and despair to create? To move others? He’s willing to be damned in order to get what he thinks artists need to be artists. Practicing Catholics are playing it too safe. They won’t take the risks necessary for the creative process to work. Question… Is what he says true? I think JOB is a good example of it not being true. And maybe you too Matt and Cubeland ( I don’t know enough about the others…..). Meaning that you all seem to be creating something akin to art without also risking hell….. Well except for Matt. Haha. tHAT WAS A JOKE just to be be clear!

      • And I use the word akin simple to say info not consider myself a worthy judge of such. So I use it to be safe….

      • Matthew Lickona says

        Right, I’m risking hell without even creating anything akin to art!

      • I think JOB is a good example of it not being true.


        I think no truer words were ever written.

        so much depends
        on it

        ching red finger

        glazed with pen

        beside the white

        I still think that, whether right or wrong, Wallace Stevens is the Lion in the Path for the writer who claims that he doesn’t to some extent create existence. The particular huzzah and individual hoo of every rhyme and rhythm necessarily means you’re creating a new experience – and I think, I’m not sure, but I think Hartford’s VP would say in so doing you’re also creating reality.

        At the very least, Stevens makes it clear that reality is not a zero sum game; that the particular wrinkle each poet puts into his writing is going to add to the sum total of experiences and in so doing affect our view of reality, thereby in some small way recreating it.

        That said, I don’t know if the scientist, come to think of it, can do the same. Although Mendel and Archimedes would tempt me to think so.

  11. I DO NOT consider is what that should say stupid auto correct

  12. Laconic Catholic says

    “The writer writes what is.”
    Most writers completely ignore the realty of God, the Saints, the Sacraments, and nearly everything else that is real.

    • Matthew Lickona says

      Laconic, O’Connor’s point is that the writer must begin with what he or she sees and hears, and not with some abstract notion of how things ought to be.

  13. Southern Expat says

    I only understand about 82% of this conversation, so with that disclaimer.

    It seems to me that a great deal of creating a story consists of entertaining various thoughts and weighing their narrative possibilities, letting there be some play in the line, seeing what happens. But then we Catholic folk have this caution about not entertaining impure thoughts, and I do not mean purely in the carnal sense that is often alluded to around these parts. So there is the question of is it okay if I let myself think about such-and-such scenario – the comely intern over by the snack table, the best way to murder my landlord, etc. – if I am doing so as part of the creative process? Are you supposed to pull yourself up short from time to time and say “remember, this would be totally wrong if it happened in real life?” This may not be what Foote was talking about at all but it’s something I myself think about. Not the intern and the murder plot, but the general question.

  14. “We are the outriders for the saints; we go beyond (where they won’t go) and tell them what we’ve found. ”

    I think Foote is simply wrong in his perceptions of where saints dare not go.

    I’m no saint scholar, but considering the Church has canonized people who had illegitimate children, abortions, dark nights of the soul, multiple exorcisms, terrible marriages, eye-ball plucking rebellions against authority, etc…Foote, in his easy chair up there, is the one who looks annoyingly safe. To say good Catholics never doubt is a huge misassumption.

    Whether or not they can write honestly about their doubts is another question.

  15. Cubeland Mystic says

    This is a pretty good post. It seems like it has taken off in many different directions.

    I think the Saints are outriders for the rest of us. They go beyond where most of us won’t go and tell us what they have found.

    I think within the context of fiction writers go where most of us will go within that context. We will doing saintly things and unsaintly things in our own minds. There is a reality to it.

    Hope you guys didn’t already say all this above. I am falling asleep.

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