Walker Percy (1916-1990) was an internationally renowned novelist and essay writer who was born and raised in Alabama. He studied to be a doctor, but found his calling as a writer, penning The Moviegoer, an award-winning novel that deals with a young man in New Orleans, Louisiana, attempting to find his place in the world around him. Percy also wrote other noted works that explore the notion that human beings are out of place in the cosmos, that they have become alienated to the world they inhabit, and that they are searching for ways to bring significance into their lives. In short, as the title of one of his works of non-fiction implies, they are looking for "the message in the bottle" that will bring a salvation of sorts.
Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916, to LeRoy Walker and Martha Susan Phinizy. He had two younger brothers, LeRoy and Phinizy. His father was a lawyer who worked for coal and iron companies, an important industry in Alabama during the first half of the twentieth century. The family lived in the wealthy Mountain Brook community of Birmingham, and young Walker attended Birmingham University School, one of the best schools in the state and now known as the Altamont School.
The Percy family was prominent in the South. On his father's side of the family, he was related to LeRoy Pope Walker, secretary of war under Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Walker Percy's grandfather's brother, LeRoy Percy, was a U.S. Senator from Mississippi from 1911 to 1913. His son, William Alexander, a poet and man of letters, wrote Lanterns on the Levee (1941), a book that provides an important study of the southern culture prior to World War II. On his paternal grandmother's side, Walker Percy was related to the DeBardeleben family of industrialists who helped develop Birmingham into a manufacturing center at the turn of the twentieth century. His mother came from a prominent family in Athens, Georgia. On February 8, 1917, Walker Percy's grandfather committed suicide, as did his 40-year-old father on July 9, 1929. One of the greatest trauma's of Walker Percy's life was to deal with his father's death, which his character, Will Barrett, does in a fictional way in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming.
After his father's death, Percy and his family went to live for a year with his grandmother in Athens, before accepting the invitation of William Alexander Percy to live in Greenville, Mississippi. Walker Percy, a budding poet in his own right, did well as a student at Greenville High School, one of the most progressive schools in the state. He befriended classmate and future famed Civil War historian Shelby Foote, and the two remained close friends throughout their lives. While in Greenville, Percy's mother drowned when her car plunged into a small creek (her son, Walker, privately believed his mother, too, had committed suicide). After graduation, Percy enrolled in the fall of 1933 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on chemistry, an academic path that eventually led to the beginning of medical studies in 1937 at the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University in New York City. While there, Percy underwent psychological therapy to help with the stress of the suicides of his father, grandfather, and most likely, of his mother.
While an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Percy contracted tuberculosis and subsequently spent from September 1942 to August 1944 at the Trudeau Sanatorium near Saranac Lake, New York. He required complete bed-rest, and during this time he started reading theology, philosophy, and literature, particularly the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, and Feodor Dostoevsky. After completing his treatment, he suffered a relapse in 1945 and spent four months recuperating at another sanatorium in Wallingford, Connecticut. Realizing that almost no one would consult a physician who had tuberculosis, Percy returned to the South, specifically to New Orleans, where he abandoned medicine as a career. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice "Bunt" Townsend, a medical technician, whom he had known from his days in Greenville. At that point, Percy had no specific plans, though eventually he decided to start writing articles about the origin and theory of language, which he gradually interspersed with the writing of fiction. For Percy, the 1950s were a time of discovery, as he experimented with various forms of writing.
When Percy and his wife arrived in New Orleans, both decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. In addition to the fact that one of his mother's sisters had converted to Catholicism, some of his Catholic classmates in college and medical school greatly influenced him in looking for a spiritual center to his life that had been absent since the deaths of his parents. Though never one to preach about his new-found faith, he did write about it in his essays "Why Are You a Catholic?" and "A 'Cranky Novelist' Reflects on the Church," both reprinted in Signposts in a Strange Land. In addition, Percy's spiritual beliefs would influence heavily the tone and texture of his later writings, not that his characters dramatically depict the tenets of Catholicism, but that some, such as Will and Allie in The Second Coming (a title taken from The Book Revelation), seek signs in the world that can lead to loving, Christian relationships.
Soon after, Percy, his wife, and adopted daughter, Mary Pratt, moved to Covington, Louisiana, a quiet town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. He lived there for the rest of his life. Covington and the surrounding areas served as Percy's imaginative base. In an essay entitled "Why I Live Where I Live," Percy described Covington as a cheerful, out-of-the-ordinary town with an "admirable tradition of orneriness and dissent." He noted that, technically speaking, Covington is a nonplace in a certain relation to New Orleans that allowed him to live and work in relative peace. He could have chosen to live somewhere else, such as Charleston, South Carolina, but he would have been overwhelmed and preoccupied by the history of the city. On the other hand, he could have moved, he said, to a nondescript place in the North, such as Waterbury, Connecticut, and lived anonymously, something that likewise had little attraction for him. In short, according to Percy, he could breathe clean air in Covington, eat boiled crawfish, enjoy his family life, visit friends—and write fiction while looking out his study window. Like his friend and fellow writer, Eudora Welty of Jackson, Mississippi, Percy wanted to live as normal a life as possible.
He wrote two early novels: The Charterhouse, which he began writing during his honeymoon and then purposely and, for his readers, unfortunately burned, and The Gramercy Winner, which remains unpublished. Both works paved the way for what is undoubtedly his most famous novel, The Moviegoer, which he finished in the spring of 1959 and was published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf. It won the National Book Award for fiction the following year. Drawing on the landscape of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Basin, Percy depicts the main character Binx Bolling struggling to find his identity in a world into which he seemingly does not fit, but is, in fact, the world in which he chooses to live. Influenced particularly by Camus and Kierkegaard, Percy stresses in this novel the interrelated notions of freedom and responsibility as Binx makes a series of decisions that seemed to lead him to a marriage and career that just might succeed. In a sense, Binx is an anti-hero, unsure of himself and reluctant to plan for a future that might lead, if he is not careful and does not follow his better instincts, to one personal detour after another.
Percy went on to write five other novels— The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)—as well as two works of nonfiction, The Message in the Bottle (1975) and Lost in the Cosmos (1983). Though all his novels take place in the South, he believed that his fiction had more than regional appeal, though many critics have tended to label him as a "Southern writer."
In each of his novels, Percy explored a different, yet related, theme, though it is possible to say that, in general, he integrated a philosophical, linguistic, and religious sensibility as he portrayed people who live in a disordered twentieth century. His essay entitled "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind" in Signposts in a Strange Land provides an excellent summary of his desire to integrate the various facets of human knowledge and expression. He particularly wanted to show relationships between science and the arts by demonstrating that human beings are unique in their ability to symbolize the world about them through the use of language and philosophy since the view of the world we get from science alone is radically incoherent. He believed that people who seek answers to life's basic questions by relying on science alone will be deceived in the long run. In his quest to discover and portray reality in his fiction and non-fiction, he incorporated the insights of the nineteenth-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Though Percy is less well read today than during his lifetime, his literary legacy is indisputable in that among American novelists he is the rare author who depicts characters, often resembling modern-day wayfarers or pilgrims, who might achieve happy endings if their lives continue to fall into place correctly. His novels tend to conclude with a sense of hope as his protagonists co-create the world about them.
Walker Percy died from prostate cancer on May 10, 1990, and is buried in the cemetery of St. Joseph's Abbey outside Covington.
Works by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer (1961)
The Last Gentleman (1966)
Love in the Ruins (1971)
The Second Coming (1980)
The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)
Non-Fiction and Letters:
The Message in the Bottle (1975)
"Why I Live Where I Live" Esquire (April 1980)
Lost in the Cosmos (1983)
Signposts in a Strange Land (1991)
A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy (1995)
The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Wal ker Percy (1996)
Patrick Samway, S.J.
Saint Joseph's University
Published August 20, 2007
Last updated June 23, 2011