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.