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Walker Percy was a highly respected American author who, through more than thirty years of writing, balanced interesting, accessible fiction with serious ideas. After the publication of his National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer in 1961, he established himself as a major Southern novelist with a unique place in American fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youth in the Deep South
Percy was born on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, where he spent his childhood. His youth in the Deep South was far from ordinary; events from his formative years and young manhood often served as the experiences upon which his fiction is based. When Percy was thirteen, his father committed suicide, as had his grandfather twelve years earlier. His mother died two years later in an automobile accident. Percy and his two brothers were then adopted by their father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, a wealthy and learned gentleman who lived in Greenville, Mississippi. Uncle Will, as they called him, was himself a writer whose poetic memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941) was a popular exploration of postwar gentility in the South. As a teenager, Percy encountered intellectuals of all sorts in his adoptive parent’s home—historians, novelists, psychologists, and poets all enjoyed the elder Percy’s hospitality. But though Walker Percy dabbled in writing during his school years (he sold sonnets to less-talented English classmates who needed them for assignments), when he left these stimulating surroundings for college in 1934, he turned to science, planning to pursue a career in medicine.
Career in Medicine Halted by Tuberculosis
Percy studied chemistry at the University of North Carolina and, in due course, was admitted to medical school at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He received his medical degree from that institution in 1941, and that same year he began his residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Working as a pathologist in New York, Percy was called upon to perform autopsies on indigent alcoholics, many of whom had died of tuberculosis. Within a year, Percy contracted the dreaded lung disease himself; he spent most of the following three years in a sanatorium, while World War II raged. While convalescing, he explored the humanistic interests that he had been unable to pursue during his medical training—French and Russian literature, philosophy and psychology. He found himself drawn particularly to the works of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In addition to his reading, Percy’s philosophical outlook was shaped by his uncle, who, according to Percy, instilled in him ”the Greek-Roman Stoic view” that informs much of his fiction.
Pursuit of a Modern Conundrum
World War II saw an exponential increase in the technologies available for human warfare. After people witnessed the destructive power of new weaponry—particularly the atomic bomb, which decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of civilians—many struggled to comprehend the meaning of man’s existence in the modern world. In 1944, Percy had recovered sufficiently to return to Columbia to teach pathology, but he suffered a relapse and decided to quit medicine. The illness was somewhat fortuitous, because Percy had become deeply interested in a whole new realm of intellectual endeavor. After studying the beauty of the scientific method, he told Bookweek, ”An extraordinary paradox became clear: that the more science progressed and even as it benefited man, the less it said about what it is like to be a man living in the world.” Percy searched for a solution to this paradox and began to consider a career, however humble, through which he could expose the unique modern conundrum. Writing provided him the means to that end.
Marriage and Conversion to Catholicism
Percy’s first published works were philosophical essays that appeared in scholarly journals; these essays dealt with self-estrangement in the twentieth century, its causes and ramifications. In 1946, he married Mary Bernice Townsend and, in 1947, converted to Catholicism. Christianity, and Roman Catholicism in particular, figure prominently in all his work as a source of morality and reform.
Interest in Semiotics
Percy and his wife moved to New Orleans, and then to Covington, Louisiana, living on an inheritance from a relative. When one of his children was born deaf, Percy became fascinated by a branch of philosophy that consumed him from that point forward— semiotics, the study of symbols and how they are used in human communication.
Success as a Novelist
Percy wrote two unpublished novels before beginning The Moviegoer. He finally found his fictive niche, however, when he decided to follow Albert Camus’s example and write about a character, a stockbroker named Binx Bolling, who serves as ”an embodiment of a certain pathology of the twentieth century,” to use his own words from the Southern Review. The Moviegoer was published in 1961 when Percy was forty-five, and although the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, did little to promote the book, it was discovered and given the National Book Award.
Despite some surprise and disgruntlement over the awarding of the National Book Award to a new, untested author, most literary critics have, in retrospect, given high praise to The Moviegoer for its tightness and control of the material. Percy’s subsequent works included The Last Gentleman (1966); Love in the Ruins (1971), which won the National Catholic Book Award in the year it was published; Lancelot (1977); The Second Coming (1980); and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987).
Exploration of Semiotics and Existentialism in Non-fiction
In addition to fiction, Percy published several non-fiction works that explore his interests in semiotics and existentialism. The Message in the Bottle (1975) consists of scholarly essays on linguistics, existentialism, and psychology. As in his novels, Percy probes the relationship between alienation and communication. In Lost in the Cosmos (1983), Percy parodies “how-to” manuals and various forms of popular culture with the intention of promoting understanding of the human predicament.
Contributions to the Literary Community
In addition to his direct contributions to American letters, Percy helped found the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He also helped ensure that John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980; posthumous) was published after the author committed suicide. Toole’s book was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Literature.
Percy died of prostate cancer on May 10, 1990, at his home in Covington, Louisiana.
Works in Literary Context
Best known for his first novel, The Moviegoer, Vercy explores such conditions of modern life as alienation, malaise, and conformity. Percy has named Soren Kierkegaard as the philosopher who probably influenced him most. But he was also drawn to Martin Heidegger; he became absorbed in the existentialist ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and the Christian existentialism espoused by Gabriel Marcel. He found that he shared the existentialist view of man as being in a predicament, troubled by uprootedness, estrangement, and anxiety. Like him, these men were interested in what it is like to be a man in a world transformed by science. And it was from these philosophers, rather than from fellow Southern writers, that Percy fashioned his literary credo. Scholars have identified Percy’s two major themes, the problem of existence in the modern age and the hope that one can overcome despair, as the most enduring qualities of his work.
Drawing upon the religious and philosophical ideas of Kierkegaard and Marcel and imbued with his knowledge of semiotics, science, southern history, and popular culture, Percy’s works promote Christian and existentialist values as means for counteracting contemporary psychological and social ills. Percy’s heroes are usually contemplative, affluent, middle-aged men who seek spiritual meaning, identity, and love. These protagonists reject scientific humanism in favor of traditional Christian ideals to overcome despair and to confront an increasingly valueless, chaotic, and swiftly changing world. A major concern in Percy’s work is the relationship between language, identity, and reality. Although some critics fault Percy for creating one-dimensional characters, many laud his insightful probing of social, moral, and philosophical issues.
Recovery from Despair
Percy admits that his main writing motivation is usually a desire to correct wrongs. But he does not think that an author’s philosophy should be imposed on a work; it must be an integral part of the work, as it is of the author’s being. Often the enemy is everyday life, a condition of numbness and devitalized existence resulting from routine. A second cause of modern malaise is in authenticity, the antithesis of meaningful life, involving the surrender of individuality through such habits as conformity. A third cause is abstraction, the absorption of concrete personality into its theoretical shadow through estrangement from the self. Fortunately for troubled mankind, Percy posits solutions to these ills. Man can recover himself through ordeal, such as a shock that disrupts everyday life. Alternatively, he can attempt a rotation, through novel experiences that transcend his expectations; initiate a repetition, a reliving of a past experience; or cultivate intersubjectivity—that is, authentic and compassionate relations with other human beings. All of Percy’s protagonists suffer from at least one of these causes of despair and recover, or attempt to recover, by one of these means.
Works in Critical Context
Critics generally agree that The Moviegoer is Percy’s best novel, with scholars noting, in particular, the tight control he exercised over his material. Also well-received were his next two novels, The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming. Commentators argue that these novels do more than represent Percy’s moral and philosophical ideas; they are also well-told stories with imagination and interesting characters and events. Percy is frequently praised for his poignant satire and his talent for deftly incorporating profound ideas into accessible, well-written stories. Love in the Ruins is cited frequently as his most humorous work; Percy used humor and affirmation to overcome despair.
Lancelot, which received mostly negative reviews, has been criticized for lacking the sense of affirmation common to Percy’s other works and for its confessional format, which, argued commentators, created severe problems with characterization.
Enthusiastic Reception of The Moviegoer
After the publication of his National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer in 1961, Percy ”claimed a position, never relinquished, as not only a major Southern novelist, but as one of the unique voices in American fiction,” according to Malcolm Jones in the New York Times Magazine. As Charles Poore noted in the New York Times, Percy ”shows us the modern world through the distorting mirrors that the modern world foolishly calls reality.” Gail Godwin offered a concurrent description in the New York Times Book Review. ”Walker Percy,” Godwin wrote, ”has the rare gift of being able to dramatize metaphysics.” In the Mississippi Quarterly Review, John F. Zeugner concluded: ”The Moviegoer seems to have been composed in joy—a muted celebration of Bolling’s departure from despair. Written in the first person, shaped with a tranquil irony, The Moviegoer hums with the exhilaration of a man who has argued his way out of darkness.”
- Coles, Robert. Walker Percy: An American Search. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.
- Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
- Hobson, Linda Whitney. Understanding Walker Percy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
- Luschei, Martin. The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.
- Montgomery, Marion. With Walker Percy at a Tupperware Party: In the Company of Flannery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and Others. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.
- Samway, Patrick H. Walker Percy: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
- Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York; Simon & Schuster, 1992.
- Tharpe, Jac. Walker Percy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
- Blouin, Michel T. ”The Novels of Walker Percy: An Attempt at Synthesis.” Xavier University Studies 6 (1968): 29-32.
- Byrd, Scott. ”Mysteries and Movies: Walker Percy’s College Articles and The Movie Goer.” Mississippi Quarterly 25 (Spring 1972): 165-181
- Gaston, Paul L. ”The Revelation of Walker Percy.” Colorado Quarterly 20 (Spring 1972): 459-470.
- Johnson, Mark. ”The Search for Place in Walker Percy’s ” Southern Literary Journal 8 (Fall 1975): 55-81.
- Kazin, Alfred. ”The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy.” Harper’s Magazine 242 (June 1971): 81-86.
- Lawson, Lewis A. ”Walker Percy s Indirect Communications.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11 (Spring 1969): 867-900.
- Lehan, Richard. ”The Way Back: Redemption in the Novels of Walker Percy.” Southern Review 4 (April 1968): 306-319.
- Zeugner, John F. ”Walker Percy and Gabriel Marcel: The Castaway and the Wayfarer. Mississippi Quarterly 28 (Winter 1974-1975): 21-53.
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