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Although Walker Percy was trained as a physician, he never became active in his profession. During his internship at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City, he contracted tuberculosis. As a result, he was forced to spend nearly three years in convalescence, first at Lake Saranac, New York, and then at a sanatorium in Connecticut, in which he found himself in the bed once occupied by Eugene O’Neill. Percy’s illness caused him to evaluate the sufficiency of the scientific, empirical education which he had received. He decided that it was excellent—so far as it went—but that it simply did not address the subjective experience of the individual. Thus, he began to read those authors—Sren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus—whose ideas constituted the foundations of existentialism and phenomenology. Convinced that research in those fields could best be conducted in fiction, Percy read widely in the nineteenth century Russian and the twentieth century European novel. He also began an extensive study of the philosophy of language, for language, he realized, was the only means by which individuals could communicate their experience of reality. This later study was made poignant by the discovery that his younger daughter had been born profoundly deaf and thus would never have the easiest access to symbolic meaning, sound.

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From 1954 to 1975, Percy published essays in a wide variety of American journals. Several special concerns were represented by these journals: literature (The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review), Christianity, especially Catholicism (Katallagete, Thought, The New Scholasticism, and The Modern Schoolman), and psychology (Psychiatry, The Journal of Philosophy, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research). Despite the diversity of the contexts in which they appeared, all the essays had a common concern: the significance of the symbol as the primary means by which humans communicate. It should be noted that none of the essays appeared in a publication devoted to the study of linguistics.

In 1975 these fourteen pieces and another, previously unpublished one, were published as The Message in the Bottle, a book of 335 pages. The title was taken from an essay which appears as the sixth chapter. The previously unpublished essay, “A Theory of Language,” appears as the fifteenth and final chapter. The essays are not arranged in order of their original publication. The first essay, “The Delta Factor,” appeared only in 1975, for example. All the essays retain their original title, except for “The Act of Naming,” which is retitled “The Mystery of Language.” As the seventh chapter, it is approximately at the center of the book.

Despite the book’s origin as separate essays written over a longer period (resulting in a certain amount of repetition), The Message in the Bottle is intended as a coherent whole. The first and last essays, the last written, are designed to serve as the introduction and conclusion. With its scholarly, though unconventional, footnotes and its five-page bibliography, the book announces that it seeks as its primary audience specialists in the various fields of language studies. Periodically, Percy provides a model of his theory. At first, the figure is that of a triangle; it identifies the observer, the object seen and its name, as well as the mysterious gulf which exists between the latter two. Then the figure is expanded to a rectangle with the addition of a second person, who names the object and thus bridges the gulf, but in so doing he addresses an even more perplexing mystery: language. In the last essay a reversion to the triangular model makes the second person all the more conspicuous by his absence. The book stresses the fundamental significance, both for the race and for the individual, of intersubjectivity, in which one person names for another person some hitherto unknown aspect of their world. Thus, the book presents a radical anthropology: Before man, language was.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

Bigger, Charles. “Walker Percy and the Resonance of the Word,” in Walker Percy: Art and Ethics, 1980. Edited by Jac L. Tharpe.

Poteat, Patricia Lewis. Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age: Reflections on Language, Argument, and the Telling of Stories, 1985.

Poteat, William. “Reflections on Walker Percy’s Theory of Language,” in The Art of Walker Percy: Stratagems for Being, 1979. Edited by Panthea Broughton.

Telotte, J.P. “Charles Peirce and Walker Percy: From Semiotic to Narrative,” in Walker Percy: Art and Ethics, 1980. Edited by Jac L. Tharpe.

Thornton, Weldon. “Homo Loquens, Homo Symbolificus, Homo Sapiens: Walker Percy on Language,” in The Art of Walker Percy: Stratagems for Being, 1979. Edited by Panthea Broughton.

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