Since Walker Percy’s death from cancer in 1990, the critical industry surrounding his work has gained momentum. Patrick Samway’s biography of Percy comes second after Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (1992) by Jay Tolson, which received favorable reviews and the Southern Book Award for Nonfiction in 1993. Since Samway has been working on his biography since 1987, one can only speculate on how this competing biography affected his work in progress. While Tolson dramatizes Percy’s struggle to transform himself from a practicing doctor into a successful writer, Samway in contrast seems reluctant to dramatize his subject at all, preferring to let the reader draw his or her own conclusions about Percy’s behavior. In his drive to write a “biography without holding prior theory or thesis,” Samway may be more honest about his findings than Tolson, but his work lacks coherency and continuity as a result. One wishes he had arrived at a thesis after researching to help bind his study together. Too often, this book reads like a collection of inadequately synthesized notes, and for this reason Samway shows up some of the dangers of being overly respectful and selfless when telling the story of another person’s life.
The literary editor of America, a weekly Catholic journal, Samway brings to this project his Jesuit training, which seems to have merited Percy’s approval. When Samway offered to write the biography, Percy replied, “There is no one I’d rather entrust such a project to.” Perhaps Percy felt that Samway could explore Percy’s conversion to the Catholic Church and his faith’s subsequent effect on his fiction with greater exactitude than other biographers. Samway was also able to speak to the Percys frequently during the last three years of Walker Percy’s life, and by doing so gradually amassed a large group of friends, fellow writers, and relatives to help him assemble enough information for the biography.
Despite this large pool of data, Samway resists the biographical tendency to interpret Percy’s fiction in the light of his life’s experiences, even though he does use Percy’s writings to help describe key places and scenes in his life. In turn, Samway’s use of Percy’s descriptions shows up the lack of description in his own prose. For example, while Samway often describes houses well, he tends to leave out physical detail in his descriptions of people, letting the reader learn about them largely through their actions. Thus, most of the supporting cast of Percy’s life seems underdeveloped and at times unclearly related to Percy. Too often, Percy himself seems to slip right through the net of his life story, a feat no doubt made possible by his theories concerning the unknowability of the self and his private, reticent, easygoing personality.
Samway’s thorough biographical method does help us picture Percy’s early years. We learn that Percy came from two prominent, if high-strung, Alabama families. Percy was born during World War I, in 1916, to Mattie Sue and Leroy Percy, his father an up-and-coming lawyer in the Birmingham area. Within a year of his birth, Percy’s grandfather on his father’s side shot himself, perhaps due to manic depression. Later, when Percy was just thirteen, his father shot himself in turn with a shotgun, again seemingly because of depression, leaving his widowed mother with little to do but move back in with family in Athens, Georgia, and finally onto Greenville, Mississippi, where she too mysteriously died when she drove her car off a small bridge into a creek. Although the evidence was unclear, Percy believed that she also had committed suicide. Percy and his two brothers were then adopted by their uncle Will Percy, a poet and writer of the memoir Lanterns on the Levee (1941), and from then on Percy worked hard to settle in with the Greenville community, socializing easily and getting good grades at the local high school. Although not visibly affected by the many suicides in his family, Percy would later characterize his writing as, in part, an argument with his absent parents.
If it were not for his parents’ tragic deaths and his early penchant for writing poetry for the high school paper, one could hardly distinguish Percy as in any way more remarkable than his classmates. He met Shelby Foote in high school and they developed a friendship that would eventually flower into a mutually supportive literary relationship, but otherwise he did not show much notable interest in writing. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied literature, science, and math, Percy was known for his filmgoing and for reading Robert E. Lee’s biography on the front porch of his fraternity house.
Percy might never have written at all if he had not encountered tubercular patients at Bellevue Hospital when studying at Columbia’s...
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