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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 on Walker Percy
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.