Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 646 words.)