(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Last Gentleman is Percy’s most ambitious and overtly philosophical novel, one whose “ideas” take precedence over character, plot, or theme. It is as if Percy’s long years of cogitation about language, humankind, and the cosmos and the alienation evident in American culture suddenly coalesced and compelled him to write a series of interesting, though convoluted, monologues to be placed in the mouths of the brooding searchers populating his narrative. Here the reader finds a compendium of Percy’s personal indictments against crass “Christian America,” modeled on the work of his existentialist mentor, Søren Kierkegaard, in nineteenth century Denmark.

The protagonist in his second novel, Will Barrett, has spent five years in psychoanalysis; he is a native southerner serving as a “humidification engineer” at Macy’s department store in New York City. An introspective, educated man vaguely aware of his own despair, Barrett is “dislocated in the universe.” Percy’s opening description of Barrett succinctly circumscribes his character: “He had to know everything before he could do anything.”

Paralyzed by his commitment to abstract knowledge before making decisions, Barrett lives in a world pervaded by ordinariness. He despairs of clear answers to his nagging questions about the purpose of life—both for himself and others—but he has some dim hopes that his quest will eventually bear fruit. One day, as he contemplates his station in life while at Central Park, he opts to become, as Binx Bolling had in The Moviegoer, an observer and not merely the observed. He spots a beautiful young woman, Kitty Vaught, through his newly purchased telescope and sets out to meet her. Smitten, Barrett traces her to a New York hospital, where he discovers that she and the Vaught family are comforting her younger brother, Jamie,...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

The Last Gentleman Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

After five fruitless years in psychoanalysis, Will Barrett decides to become an observer rather than the observed. He is twenty-five years old and subject to frequent fugue states; his only gift is “the knack of divining persons and situations.” One day in Central Park he spots Kitty Vaught through his newly purchased telescope. Suddenly in love, he tracks Kitty to a New York hospital where she and her family are tending to Jamie Vaught, her younger brother. The Vaughts take to Will because he adapts to each of them in the manner of the perfect gentleman: To Chandler Vaught, he is the kind of Southern boy an older man befriends; to Mrs. Vaught, he is all courtesy and lightness; to Jamie, he is a fellow technician. Will’s ability to communicate with Jamie leads first Mr. Vaught, then Rita Vaught, to hire Will to accompany the family as they take Jamie back home. Later, after missed connections, Will strikes out for the South in search of the Vaughts. He spots the family’s Trav-L-Aire parked at a motel on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia. Rita tells Will to take Jamie in Ulysses (her name for the Trav-L-Aire) and find their destiny, but Will does not want to stray far from Kitty, whose kisses he finds are nevertheless “too dutiful and athletic,” as if she were auditioning for the part of a proper Southern girl. Will lives for a time with the Vaughts in their mansion in Atlanta, which overlooks a golf course. Valentine Vaught, Kitty’s sister, enters Will’s life, having sought him out to explain that Jamie’s salvation may well be up to him and that he must see to it that Jamie is...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

The Last Gentleman Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, William Rodney. Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. Allen reads Percy as a distinctly American, particularly Southern writer, claiming that the formative event in Percy’s life was his father’s suicide, not his reading of existentialist writers or conversion to Roman Catholicism. Allen’s readings of individual novels emphasize the presence of weak fathers and rejection of the southern stoic heritage on the part of Percy’s protagonists.

Coles, Robert. Walker Percy: An American Search. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. An early but always intelligent and certainly sensitive reading of Percy’s essays and novels by a leading psychiatrist whose main contention is that Percy’s work speaks directly to modern humanity. In Coles’s words, Percy “has balanced a contemporary Christian existentialism with the pragmatism and empiricism of an American physician.”

Desmond, John F. At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1997. Chapters on Percy and T. S. Eliot; on Percy’s treatment of suicide; on Percy and Flannery O’Connor; on his treatment of myth, history, and religion; and his philosophical debt to pragmatism and Charles Sanders Peirce. A useful, accessible introduction to Percy’s background in theology and...

(The entire section is 532 words.)