Letters to My Literary Hero

By Jeff Salter

I could talk about several fan letters – including one to JFK, an unlikely one to Jackie Gleason, and one I’d intended to write to Ginger Rogers (before she passed away) – but since this week’s topic is letters to famous authors, there is really only one person to discuss — my hometown hero, Walker Percy.

I’ve made passing reference to Walker in some previous blogs, including:

https://fourfoxesonehound.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/most-influential-books-which-shaped-me-as-a-writer/  But I don’t believe I’ve detailed, here, much else about him.

I grew up in Covington LA where my parents were friends with Walker and his wife, “Bunt” Percy.  For a time, Walker and my Dad were in a local writers’ group together.  For a while, one of their daughters went to the same ballet class as my sister and my Mom either dropped them both off, or picked them both up … or (perhaps) both.

When Walker’s first novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award in 1961, he was (of course) a celebrity.  But around Covington and St. Tammany Parish, he was just the same as he’d always been — a genuine, down-to-earth, gentleman.

One of my fondest memories was a ride in Walker’s Jon boat, up the Bogue Falaya River which his property fronted.  He showed us several things, including a sunken Confederate gunboat.  I recall several occasions in which I served Walker at the feed/seed store where he shopped and I worked.  I remember going to his house to pick up autographed copies of his novels.

But I didn’t actually read Walker’s novels until I was already married, moved away, and my parents gave me my own copies — also inscribed and autographed, of course.  I eventually read every novel Walker published and read one or two of them twice each.  Great stuff.

Walker wrote in long-hand and apparently revised a great deal.  Over his lengthy literary career, he only published six novels in the 26 years between 1961-87.  Those novels, plus two non-fiction monographs and numerous articles, were critically acclaimed both here and abroad.

Walker Percy

 

Letters to Walker

It was later, when I was in my first full-time library job, that I finally wrote to Walker.  I sent him a copy of a very complete bibliography – of his numerous articles, in addition to his monographs – which I’d compiled as a project in grad school.

Somewhere along the line, I bumped into Walker at a Louisiana Library Association Conference in New Orleans.  He was entering the hotel lobby and I helped him find the restroom and (later) the vendor booth where he was to autograph copies of his current novel.

Around that same time, I wrote a long narrative poem about Walker’s influence on me and that poem won an award.  I sent him a copy of my poem, along with an essay I’d written which had inspired the poem.  He responded graciously to both.

Later, I was appointed to the Editorial Board of the LLA Bulletin – that association’s quarterly journal – and it finally came time for me to write the introductory column.  Usually this was, “Blah-blah, we have a great publication and I’m glad to be on the board.”  But I got to thinking:  “What if I could get Walker to write this column instead of me?”  So I asked.  Walker said, “Sure, what should I write about?”  I replied, “Your column will reach every librarian in Louisiana (and some beyond).  What does an internationally-acclaimed author want librarians to know?”  [Or something like that].

So Walker wrote a wonderful short column expressing concern about the declining proportion of literary classics in local libraries.  As a librarian and English Major, I had to agree.  [Walker didn’t have much stomach for the plentiful paperbacks he grouped as “Barbara Cartland stories”.]

Well, whether readers agreed (or not) with Walker’s opinion of romance novels, his column was a hit … and even got extra national notice for our state association quarterly.  Walker and I had several letters back and forth during this period.

Later on, as other of his novels came out, I had a chance to review it for that same publication.  Walker and I exchanged a few letters about that also.

At one point, I had three of Walker’s letters framed and displayed on my library office wall.  He died in 1990.

Summary:

I grew up bumping into a real-life gentleman who was already an international literary celebrity, but he never put on airs.  In fact, he actually shunned the limelight.  Walker apparently just wanted to write and read … and interact with relatives and a small group of close friends.

In every contact with me, however, he was quite responsive and extremely gracious.  I will always treasure my memories of him and the correspondence he sent in reply to my fan letters.

Note:  Walker is also briefly mentioned in my list of celebrities whom I’ve met:

https://fourfoxesonehound.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/famous-people/

Question:

Which famous author have YOU corresponded with?

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About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Twelve completed novels and five completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015, "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015, "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015, "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014, "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014, "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014, "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014, "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013, "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013, "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013, "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012, "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012. Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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20 Responses to Letters to My Literary Hero

  1. Iris B says:

    What a great author to know and to “respect”. Wonderful memories and what a treasure to actually have been able to not “just” write a letter, but communicate on a sort of regular basis. Really enjoyed reading todays post, Jeff!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thank you, Iris. Knowing Walker Percy over all those years and seeing how consistently genuine he was … has definitely shaped the way I act and interact. He was a fine man, a true gentleman.

      Like

  2. How fortunate for you,Jeff.He sounds like a fine gentleman and one after my own heart! I certainly have nothing against up-and-coming writers,(!), but I, too, have been very upset over the lack of decent,proven writers and literature in our libraries.
    I will be going to our local library possibly this afternoon, positively tomorrow, perhaps both.I will be looking for his works.
    btw…you have a lot of great background!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Tonette.
      Let me know if your libraries have his books. I’m guessing — since he’s been gone these 24 years — that most public libraries won’t have many (or any) of his titles.

      Like

      • My battery cable came loose and I never made it into the library today.I looked up the catalog online and they have “The Moviegoer”. Recommend some more titles and I will have them do inter-library loans for me.

        Like

      • Iris B says:

        I checked, too, but there’s nothing in our local library. Probably a stretch, cos we’re a small town 😉
        Melbourne has a few books “about” him, but none written by him 😦

        Like

      • jeff7salter says:

        All six of Walker Percy’s novels are listed in the TAGS above (right below the main blog).

        Like

  3. Mr. Walker sounds like a true gentleman and I can understand why you are proud to have known him. As far as famous authors with whom I’ve corresponded: there’s this fellow from a place called Possum Trot…

    Like

  4. Grace says:

    Wow. Walker Percy is also a fav of mine. To have grown up with that kind of proximity… cannot imagine it. Thanks for this. Question – Did you also meet Shelby Foote? If you did… I need to come down there and shake hands so I can claim the official “one degree of separation”.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Great to have you visit, Grace.
      No I never met Shelby Foote. From their published correspondence, I gather Shelby F. had visited in Covington at some point, but (knowing Walker) there would NOT have been any PUBLIC hoopla. Also Walker and his wife seem to have visited Shelby wherever he lived (Miss., I believe).
      Shelby was divorced (perhaps more than once) during their long friendship, so I’m not clear on whether any of his wives were ever in the mix when the Percy’s met the Foote’s.

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      • Grace says:

        Yes. Mr. Foote was married three times I believe (quite the lady’s man!) They were quite close and their correspondence is enlightening as well as funny as all get out. Ah… to have been a fly on the wall during some of their conversations. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet either of these gents. I hold out hope that there’s some afterlife out there somewhere, where I’ll be able to host a large soiree for all the brilliant minds I never got to encounter in this life. It’ll be an open bar, a big b-b-que pit, and carousing all night long. I’m looking forward to it.

        Like

      • jeff7salter says:

        Absolutely. And what emerges in their published correspondence is how DIFFERENT they were — in terms of personality and what I guess you’d call “stability”. Walker was a low-key, conservative family man and Shelby was a carousing party guy. It can’t be a secret since it’s covered in his published letters, but Shelby also dated some of the young female students at the college(s) where he lectured. I’m not clear whether he had regular classes or was a visiting professor. Perhaps you know.

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      • Grace says:

        I think he was always an adjunct – he never actually graduated from college… so technically I doubt they could put him on tenure track. That said – I’d have taken his classes. I don’t think Shelby Foote was a man who cared much for convention – or the “hoi polloi’s” opinions of him. He was a true eccentric, a genius… but certainly not the easiest guy to get along with. His last wife – I believe – was a saint (by his own estimation.)

        Like

      • jeff7salter says:

        Well, somebody in his family (whoever controlled the estate, I guess) signed off on those letters being published — warts and all. Of course, there were prob. some they held back!

        Like

      • Grace says:

        I think his son has been quite busy in that regard. There’s been at least one book with Foote attributed as co-author issued since his death (a pretty coffee table book of old southern homes)… I have a feeling that poor Shelby didn’t leave a huge estate… given his penchant for collecting rare books and collecting trophy wives. The kids have probably got to figure out how to pay the bills.

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  5. Pingback: Favorite Authors and/or Books | fourfoxesonehound

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