Walker Percy (1916-1990)
Walker Percy, a Southerner, turned to writing as a profession when
he was in his mid-30s, after having completed medical school, spent time in
tuberculosis sanitoria, married a straightforward, intelligent wife endowed
with profound common sense, and joined the Catholic church. From then
on, he worked at his demanding craft with great fidelity, producing six
highly regarded novels and three volumes of philosophical essays.
Percy's medical specialty was pathology. He became a pathologist of
modern and post-modern culture. Like Kierkegaard, he found the people
around him to be in despair without knowing it. His novels explore what it
means to confront this despair and to seek a way out of it. In the end Percy
was convinced that the only sure path out of the morass was to embrace the
Christian (and specifically the Catholic) faith.
Percy was the scion of a very old and honorable Southern family who
had left their distinguished mark on the delta region of Mississippi. Both
his father and grandfather committed suicide, and his mother was drowned
in a car accident when Walter was still a schoolboy. After that Walter was
brought up by his uncle Will, a lapsed Catholic who lived the Southern
gentleman's creed of Stoicism and honor. Uncle Will was also a very
serious reader, who welcomed many famous and not so famous artists and
writers to his home. Percy's father had read aloud to his sons, and Uncle
Will continued the practice.
All his life Walker was a shy person who need a great deal of time by
himself with his thoughts and his pen. Although his strong faith warded off
the family melancholy, he was moody. At two crucial points in his life, it
was a trip to the wide open spaces of the West which helped call him back
from the brink of despair.
Walker Percy and his wife Bunt, and their two daughters, the first
adopted, the second deaf, were a very close and loving family. They chose
to live most of their lives in the town of Covington, across the lake from
New Orleans and near St. Joseph's Abbey, where Percy was buried. Percy's
wide circle of relatives and friends included his childhood pal, Shelby
Foote, novelist and author of an acclaimed three-volume history of the Civil
War, and Robert Cole, the Harvard psychiatrist.
All of Percy's writings are permeated by his faith. His primary
quarrel was with scientism, the view that science held the key to human
happiness. He was not sure that happiness was something one should hope
for or expect in this life, and he was sure that science could not provide it.
He wrestled all his life with melancholic inheritance and with the Southern
code of honor, particularly as these were embodied in his father and uncle
respectively. He might easily have shared Cormac McCarthy's apparent
nihilism, had it not been for his religious faith. He championed liberal
causes, but denounced liberal ideology.
Percy was fascinated with the nature of language. He felt that it was
a socially given capacity, without which one could not think the real. His
explorations into semiotics were enriched both by his devoted efforts to
teach his hearing-impaired daughter to read and by some studies he did on
communication in the families of schizophrenics for a friend in the National
Institute for Mental Health.
Percy won many awards for his novels. He was certainly one of the
best American novelists of the second half of the twentieth century, but it is
not clear that his works will become an enduring part of the canon. About
his philosophical essays there is even less certainty.
Walker Percy has been well-served by secondary works. One of the
most comprehensive (it critiques not only Walker Percy's works but the
existing works about him) studies of Percy is the biography of Jay Tolson.