Pilgrim in the Ruins Critical Essays

Jay Tolson

Pilgrim in the Ruins

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In 1942, Walker Percy was in his mid-twenties, interning in pathology at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, when he contracted tuberculosis. By the time he had completed a prolonged convalescence—the disease flared up twice after his initial rest-cure—he was thirty years old and a different person. The young doctor-in-training, an atheist with a strong faith in science but otherwise wary of commitment, became a convert to Roman Catholicism, a married man, and a solitary thinker and writer. Fifteen more years passed before he published his first book, THE MOVIEGOER, in 1961. By the time of his death, in 1990, his books had been read and translated around the world, and were the subject of numerous dissertations and critical studies.

Percy’s admirers have tended to downplay the anger, the angst, and the sheer contrariness that kept him gnawing at the same question: what is it like to be an individual human being in the modern world? While Percy’s answer entailed faith in the ultimate good news of the Gospel, much of his writing began as a howl at the state of things—in the world at large, and in his own heart. Yet just as misleading as the image of Percy as a Southern charmer is the revisionist, politically correct dismissal of him as a misogynist and a bigot with all the prejudices of his class.

Jay Tolson avoids both of these extremes. While unabashed in his admiration and respect for his subject, he gives us the whole man: angry, vulnerable, stubborn, witty, observant, extraordinarily sensitive to the currents of his time. (Again and again when reading Percy, one encounters a familiar experience or emotion with a pleasing shock of recognition.) The result is by far the fullest portrait we have of one of our most acute cultural diagnosticians.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 11, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXIX, November 6, 1992, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, August 1, 1992, p. 979.

Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 65.

National Catholic Reporter. XXIX, November 20, 1992, p. 31.

The New Republic. CCVII, November 23, 1992, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, November 15, 1992, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, August 10, 1992, p. 59.

USA Today. October 9, 1992, p. D5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, October 11, 1992, p. 8.