Walker Percy

views updated May 11 2018

Walker Percy

Walker Percy (1916-1990) won the National Book Award for fiction in 1961 for his first published novel, The Moviegoer. In five subsequent novels and numerous essays, he explored his chosen theme of "the dislocation of man in the modern age." His work combined a distinctly southern sensibility with existential philosophy and a deeply-felt Catholicism.

Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916. He was a descendant of a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family that counted congressmen and Civil War heroes among its members. Before he was born, Percy's grandfather killed himself with a shotgun, setting a pattern of tragic death that would haunt the boy throughout his life.

Early Influences

In 1929, Percy's father committed suicide with a shotgun. Percy, his mother, and his two brothers, Phin and Roy, then moved to Athens, Georgia. Two years later, Percy's mother was killed when she drove her car off a country bridge and into a bayou-an accident that Percy later came to consider a suicide. At the invitation of his bachelor uncle, Percy and his orphaned brothers moved to Greenville, Mississippi. There he finished his last three years of high school.

His uncle, William Alexander Percy, would exert a profound influence on his oldest nephew. Percy later called him "the most extraordinary man I have ever known." The urbane Uncle Will was a poet and writer, best known for his 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee. An inveterate romantic, he once advised his nephew to set his poems "in some long-ago time" in order to keep them free of "irrelevant photographic details." William Alexander Percy counted among his friends such "agrarian" poets as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. He shared their resentment of the encroaching industrial and secular North, though he found the modernist technique of their verse unattractive.

Friendship with Foote

When Percy was an adolescent, his uncle invited a local boy named Shelby Foote over to keep him company. Foote, a self-confident young man who had literary aspirations, became one of Percy's closest friends. Their lifelong friendship included voluminous correspondence, the literary record of which was later collected in book form. Foote later became a novelist and historian whose work greatly influenced Percy. His three-volume history of the Civil War is considered one of the definitive chronicles of that conflict.

Foote and Percy both attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There the two undergraduates argued the merits of racial segregation. At the time, Percy favored the policy of separation of the races as true to the traditions of the South. The socially progressive Foote opposed the practice as backward and unfair. Percy was moved by Foote's argument and moderated his views over time. Percy also aspired to match Foote's literary prowess, with embarrassing results. He flunked his placement exam in English composition when he copied the style of William Faulkner.

Life-Changing Illness

After graduating from college, Percy decided to embark on a medical career. He enrolled at Columbia University's medical school. Upon completing his education, he accepted an internship at New York's Bellevue Hospital. There Percy contracted tuberculosis. He spent most of the next four years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Wallingford, Connecticut. During this period of reflection, Percy began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. He read the works of Danish existentialist writer, Soren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. These works proved revelatory and inspired Percy to become a writer rather than a physician-a pathologist of the soul rather than the body.

Percy returned to his native South and lived, for a time, in Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1946, he married Mary Bernice ("Bunt") Townsend, a medical technician, and moved to New Orleans. Supported by a family trust fund, Percy spent the next seven years writing two novels that were never published. He studied semantics under the influence of Susanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key. Percy converted to Catholicism, partly, he acknowledged, because of reading St. Augustine. He wrote scholarly articles for learned journals about existentialism and the philosophy of language, earning some notoriety in these fields. However, he realized that he could reach a wider audience and make more money by writing fiction.

Emerged as Novelist

In 1961, Percy's first successful novel, The Moviegoer, was published by Knopf after long and creative editing and much rewriting in collaboration with editor, Stanley Kauffman. Percy later described the novel as the story of "a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America." The book's protagonist, Binx Bolling, attempts to numb himself from this creeping alienation by attending movies and enjoying casual sex with his secretary, but he suffers an existential breakdown while attending the annual Mardi Gras celebration with his neurotic cousin, Kate. In its structure, the novel owed a debt to Albert Camus' The Stranger, a similar tale of a man confronting the emptiness of his life. But the dry, laconic voice was Percy's alone. He had found the style he would use for all subsequent works of fiction. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and established Walker Percy as a major new talent in American fiction.

Percy's second novel, The Last Gentleman, explored similar philosophical terrain. It told the story of Williston "Bibb" Barrett, an old-fashioned southern gentleman living in New York. Barrett suffers from a recurring sense of deja vu and seems lost in the ultra-modern secular North. He returns to the South and takes a position as tutor to a terminally ill boy. Barrett's return to his roots is meant as an allegory of man's search for identity in an increasingly complicated world, stripped of the traditions and rituals that once gave life meaning. The book won high praise in literary circles and is generally considered Percy's most mature exploration of his core themes.

Darker Visions

In 1971, Percy's work moved toward the surreal with the publication of Love in the Ruins. This was a satire about the descendant of a 16th century English saint living in the hyper-developed consumer society of the South in the near future. Inspired in equal parts by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut, the novel signaled a shift away from semi-autobiography toward a more socially critical fiction. The broad comic strokes of Love in the Ruins pleased some critics, but left others scratching their heads.

Percy continued on in this vein with his next novel, Lancelot, published in 1977. The story of a man fascinated by the courtly traditions of Arthurian romance and obsessed with discovering his wife's infidelity, it was Percy's darkest and most disturbing vision to date. The violent novel ended with a fire that destroyed the murderous narrator's gothic southern plantation house-a symbol, perhaps, of the consumption of the old value system of honor, chivalry, and social convention by the modern world. While this searing tale impressed many critics, it also left some wondering at the state of Percy's mental health.

Last Works

Percy took five years off before producing his next novel, The Second Coming, in 1982. It saw the return of Will Barrett, the protagonist of The Last Gentleman. Now a retired widower, Barret lived in an exclusive North Carolina suburb where he had become "the world's most accomplished golf amateur." When his golf game turned sour, however, "hidden memories" popped up, including the truth about his father's suicide, previously thought to be a hunting accident. While Will is struggling with these revelations he meets Allison, a neurotic young woman who has escaped from a mental hospital and is living in an abandoned greenhouse. This semi-autobiographical novel returned Percy to the style of his earlier works. Its exploration of a father's suicide was perhaps the novelist's most direct attempt to confront his own tragic family history.

Percy's last novel, The Thanataos Syndrome, was published in 1987. It was a follow-up to Love in the Ruins that saw that book's hero, Dr. Tom More, investigating some mysterious personality changes in his wife and children. With the help of his scientist cousin, More discovers that a group of industrialists are releasing heavy sodium into the water supply to "improve" the social welfare. Perhaps Percy's most ambitious novel, The Thanataos Syndrome revisits old themes found in his previous works, while providing a forum for his biting commentary upon the post-modern predicament. The novel moves from existential themes found in his earlier novels to those subjects that most concerned him as a Catholic near the end of his life.

Later Life

In his later years, Percy, his wife, and their two daughters lived in Covington, Louisiana, across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. He once remarked, apropos of the suicide of his father and grandfather, that his longevity made him "the oldest male Percy in history … so what lies ahead is virgin territory; imagine a Percy with arthritis! senility! Parkinsonism, shuffling along, fingers rolling pills, head agoing! I don't know whether I'm looking forward to doing a great thing like Kant and Spinoza and Verdi in the 1980s or whether I'll jump in the Bogue Falaya next week with a sugar kettle on my head." He died at his home in Covington, Louisiana on May 10, 1990.

Over the course of 26 years, Percy published six novels and two collections of nonfiction. He enjoyed both critical and financial success and established himself as America's leading Catholic novelist. Percy's consistent themes were the decline of the old Southern order-with its paternalism, code of honor, and sentimentality-and its succession by the New South: a sterile Hollywood-like pursuit of the American Dream. His work influenced the efforts of novelists as diverse as John Hawkes and Richard Ford, and kept alive the rich tradition of southern fiction dating back through Welty, O'Connor, and Faulkner.

Further Reading

Foote, Shelby et al., The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy: A Life, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Samway, Patrick H., Walker Percy: A Life, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997.

Tolson, Jay, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, University of North Carolina Press, 1994. □

Percy, Walker

views updated May 23 2018

PERCY, Walker

(b. 28 May 1916 in Birmingham, Alabama; d. 10 May 1990 in Covington, Louisiana), physician and author whose novels of alienation and society made him one of the few authors to integrate Christian faith with a coherent view of modern science and technology.

Percy was born into a wealthy family. His father, LeRoy Pratt Percy, a lawyer, committed suicide in 1927; two years later his mother, Martha Susan (Phinizy), was killed in an auto accident. His father's first cousin, William Alexander Percy, took Percy and two of his brothers to live in Greenville, Mississippi.

By high school Percy was writing poetry, and at Greenville High School he wrote a column for the school's newspaper. He majored in chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduating with a B.A. in 1937. He next attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. After receiving his M.D. in 1941 he interned at New York City's Bellevue Hospital, where he worked as a pathologist.

Dealing with cadavers of homeless people who had died of various diseases, he himself caught pulmonary tuberculosis. He spent two years in Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, and had further recovery time in Wallingford, Connecticut. He found mental exercise in reading the works of the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. These writers stirred in him a process of thought that included the existentialist conundrum of how an individual person may find meaning in an impersonal universe.

Preoccupied by his studies of philosophy and his own efforts to penetrate the mysteries of the human condition, he moved to Sewanee, Tennessee, to think. There he met Mary Bernice "Bunt" Townsend, whom he married on 7 November 1946. They moved to New Orleans. By 1947 he had concluded that, while society may be corrupt and without meaning, the universe had meaning in the presence of a personal God, and that year he converted to Roman Catholicism. After his conversion Percy moved to Covington, Louisiana, where he spent the rest of his life. There he and Bunt brought up their two daughters.

During the 1950s Percy expressed his pondering of the human condition in articles about philosophy and psychiatry. Some of these essays were reprinted in Percy's collection The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (1975). Alienation is an important theme running through these pieces; this idea preoccupied him through the 1960s.

In 1961 Knopf published Percy's novel The Moviegoer, which attracted only modest attention from reviewers, partly because the publisher thought it was a minor work and did not publicize it extensively. The Moviegoer did not win its ultimate place as an American masterpiece easily. Percy had originally submitted a long manuscript about a southern man who was alienated from both southern culture and American society as a whole. Instead of giving up on it, the Knopf editor Stanley Kauffmann, who thought only about forty pages of it were worth publishing, told Percy to revise it. It went through four drafts before Kauffmann found it satisfactory. Both the editors of Knopf and Percy himself were surprised when The Moviegoer received the 1962 National Book Award for fiction and thereafter sold well. The novel eventually became the work on which Percy's reputation primarily rested.

The novel's main character is Binx Bolling, a stockbroker obsessed with the valuelessness of his own life. To Binx, everyone he knows is "dead," even if they do not realize it. He is a "moviegoer" because motion pictures offer him solace, structure, and meaning. This parallels Percy's own experiences while working in New York; he had spent much of his free time in movie theaters. Binx is alienated from everyone, from himself, and from God, and he represents a condition that transcends the era of technology's alienation from self and culture; in the worldview of The Moviegoer, Binx represents the perpetual state of humanity: fallen because of original sin. In The Moviegoer and subsequent novels the central solution to alienation is to reconcile oneself with God; human society has always alienated people, even if they do not realize it, but societies are inherently corrupt and will always fail to fulfill human aspirations, even America's culture of liberty.

In the fiction of Sartre and Camus, Percy had seen a way to pull together the ideas about philosophy he had explored in the 1950s by expressing them in fiction, and there are hints of Camus's Stranger in The Moviegoer. In Camus's novel the protagonist Meursault is alienated by a society that denies his individuality; like Binx, he finds himself set apart, as if observing events around him from an objective distance, as if not truly participating. Whereas The Stranger ends with Meursault refusing to believe in life beyond death, Percy takes his themes in another direction, insisting that there is a life after death and that, through God, a person can have the individual identity society would otherwise deny him or her, as it is denied for Camus's Meursault.

The Moviegoer reflects Percy's effort to present Kierkegaard's ideas and his own about how religious faith can apply to people who are alienated by a society that cannot meet their needs for fulfillment and happiness. The ending of the novel is difficult to understand because it carries Binx from his existentialist misery to his mother's Roman Catholic faith. What Percy seemed to hope to achieve was a revelation in which Binx as an Everyman figure discovers that, in a relationship with God, the imperfections in his personality and his alienation cease to matter because he has transcended the creations of humanity and placed himself philosophically and spiritually in the domain of God's perfection.

During the 1960s Percy was impressed by the civil rights movement, as were many American writers. His view seems to have been that slavery had denied the American South the fullness of God's blessing. "One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all," he wrote. "One little test: you flunk!" (Dr. Thomas More, in Love in the Ruins [1971]). This may be one reason for the alienation Percy's characters feel as they try to reconcile their upbringing in the Old South with their experiences in the new America.

On the basis of his one published novel Percy became a celebrity, and his next novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), was greeted with much serious critical attention as well as a large audience. The events in The Last Gentleman occur amid the racial upheavals of the 1960s, with protagonist Williston Bibb Barrett ("Will") moving through the conflict while trying to understand what he sees and relate it to his personal life. He falls in love with Kitty McVaught and moves with her to Alabama, where he is to tutor her sixteen-year-old brother Jamie, while trying not to run afoul of her dysfunctional, socially alienated family. The book is religious in the sense that Will senses God's hand in events; through his belief in God he finally perceives his own unique identity, which allows him to feel, absorb, and comprehend the craziness taking place around him rather than just observing without understanding. The ending is meant to be a triumph, a turning of literary convention on its head by having the dying Jamie baptized: the death is sad, but Jamie's conversion and blessing mean that he has triumphed in the great conflict of good versus evil and has, by dying, transcended death.

The Last Gentleman did not disappoint many readers, even though it lacked the revolutionary punch of its predecessor. Will's search for his identity, complicated by bouts of amnesia, was the means whereby Percy looked at the American South of the 1960s while placing events in the larger context of the United States as a whole. Love seems to be crucial in the story of death and hardship, and the novel, more overtly than The Moviegoer, examines religion in a society that is without life or hope. In the end, death becomes grace.

Will Barrett reappeared in The Second Coming (1980), a novel in which the ideas are tough and demanding. Unsatisfied with what he has experienced, Will decides to force God to manifest Himself in person. It seems that Will has failed to understand the lessons of faith, although he embodies the doubts about God that logically arise out of the modern world.

Percy proved remarkably consistent in the quality of his work. Each subsequent novel seemed worthy of its predecessors. In Love in the Ruins (1971), alienation is again explored, although, curiously, the main character seems fine, and it is society that seems alienated from him. In Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), alienation is still present, but the narratives involve ideas about how society may be improved, with the understanding that full redemption may not be possible.

Percy died of cancer at the age of seventy-three and is buried in the Saint Joseph Abbey Cemetery (Saint Tammany Parish) in Covington. He is considered the greatest southern writer of the second half of the twentieth century, but he transcended southern literature by creating novels that spoke to the fundamental human condition that crosses cultures and ages, offering answers for the problem of individual human needs that conflict with social demands.

Percy's Signposts in a Strange Land (1991) is a posthumous gathering of essays that provide information about his early life and the inspirations for his novels. A biography of Percy is Patrick H. Samway, Walker Percy: A Life (1997); Samway also discusses Percy's search for a home in his fiction and the role Covington, Louisiana, played in his creative development in "Walker Percy's Homeward Journey," America 170, no. 17 (14 May 1994): 16–19. Edward J. Dupuy examines the relationship between Percy's life and his fiction in Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery and Redemption (1996). In the obituary "Walker Percy, RIP," in National Review 42, no. 11 (11 June 1990): 17–18, Ben C. Toledano argues that Percy's work is mostly misunderstood because people have failed to recognize the depth of its themes.

Kirk H. Beetz

Percy, Walker

views updated May 23 2018


Novelist, essayist; b. Birmingham, Alabama, May 28, 1916; d. Covington, Louisiana, May 10, 1990. After the suicide of his father, LeRoy Pratt, in 1929 and the death of his mother, Martha Susan Phinizy, in an automobile accident in 1932, Percy and his two younger brothers were adopted by their father's cousin, William Alexander Percy, the lawyer-planter-poet of Greenville, Mississippi. Percy always respected "Uncle Will" for his noble ideals and romantic appreciation of the arts, but he ultimately rejected the mournful stoicism to which his relative gave classic expression in his memoirs, Lanterns on the Levee (1941).

Percy turned away from such a melancholy heritage by pursuing a secular faith in science. He majored in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1941. Then Percy faced what he called "the cataclysm." He contracted tuberculosis while interning at Bellevue Hospital in 1942 and confronted a spiritual crisis. During a two-year rest cure at Trudeau Sanatorium (which formed the basis of an early, unpublished novel, "The Gramercy Winner"), Percy read his way to better health. He learned from the work of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Mann, but found the most salutary understanding of his own dilemma through discovering the religious philosophy of Soren kierkegaard. He discovered that science could speak about humanity in the abstract, yet it could say nothing about what it meant to live and die as Walker Percy. In seeking to appreciate that mystery, Percy discontinued his career in medicine, married Mary Bernice Townsend in 1946, converted to Catholicism in 1947, and began writing fiction as well as scholarly articles about language and Southern culture.

Although Percy published a collection of his essays on semiotics (The Message in the Bottle, 1975) and a parody of self-help books for an age near semiotic catastrophe (Lost in the Cosmos, 1983), he made his most distinctive contribution in his novels about quests to understand the perplexing signs of the spiritual life. Percy's fictional Southerners live out their faith through sharing in the same kind of despair, wandering, discovery, and return to daily work that marked the story of his own religious search. The Moviegoer (1961), for which he won the National Book Award, chronicles how Binx Bolling is drawn to stoicism, scientism, and aestheticism before accepting the Catholicism of his mother's family as a way of placing himself in the everyday world. As Percy shifted from such wryly understated comedy to the picaresque adventures of The Last Gentleman (1966) and the satiric science fiction of Love in the Ruins (1971), he portrayed religious faith as a scandalous alternative to lives and worlds that increasingly seemed on the verge of disaster.

The crisis of modern life exploded in a vitriolic tour de force, Lancelot (1977). While Percy's knight of the unholy grail tells of how he pursued the mystery of his wife's infidelity, he reveals his own more horrifying faithlessness as a vengeful champion of a morallypurified America. After such a bleak apocalypse, Percy wrote his most joyous novel, The Second Coming (1980), in which Will Barrett of The Last Gentleman discovers that his romance with Allie Huger may be the unexpected sign of God's presence in his life. Percy looked to the future with greater anxiety in The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). As Dr. Tom More of Love in the Ruins investigates a mysterious plague, he learns to oppose the scapegoating and social engineering that seek to undermine a semiotic understanding of humanity.

Percy repeatedly maintained that fiction must not preach, yet he viewed his Catholic faith as central to his artistic vision. The Judaeo-Christian understanding of humanity as fallen but engaged in a search deepened his conviction that the novel should focus on people in trouble in particular places, moments, and predicaments. Percy's fiction embodied this faith through its rootedness in the physical world, commitment to historical time, and exploration of spiritual wayfaring. Renouncing the fatalism of the Old South and the naive optimism of the New South, Percy's seekers may come to themselves and to others as they discover how they may finally come to God.

While Percy has been criticized for his moralizing, muddled plot details, and reductive portrayals of women, he is recognized as one of the pre-eminent novelists of the South. His writing combines philosophical depth, linguistic resourcefulness, wide-ranging comedy, clinical powers of observation, and trenchant social criticism as it explores the religious vision of a constant seeker. Percy's fiction contemplates not only the sadness and craziness of humanity's spiritual isolation but also the surprising possibility of overcoming that aloneness by living with others under God.

Bibliography: w. r. allen, Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer (Jackson, MS 1986). r. h. brinkmeyer, Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South (Jackson, MS 1985). g. m. ciuba, Walker Percy: Books of Revelations (Athens, GA 1991). r. coles, Walker Percy: An American Search (Boston 1978). j. e. hardy, The Fiction of Walker Percy (Urbana, IL 1987). l. w. hobson, Understanding Walker Percy (Columbia, SC 1988). m. d. howland, The Gift of the Other (Pittsburgh 1990). l. a. lawson, Following Percy (Troy, NY 1988). m. luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer (Baton Rouge 1972). p. l. poteat, Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age (Baton Rouge 1985). p. samway, ed., Signposts in a Strange Land (New York 1991). t. r. spivey, The Writer as Shaman (Macon 1986). j. taylor, In Search of Self (Cambridge, MA 1986). j. tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins (New York 1992). r. c. wood, The Comedy of Redemption (Notre Dame 1988).

[g. m. ciuba]

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