Pilgrim in the Ruins

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Walker Percy was hardly interested when Jay Tolson—editor of The Wilson Quarterly—inquired in 1985 about writing his biography: “The only thing more boring than writing my own memoir is the prospect of collaborating with someone on a biography.” Tolson bided his time, and in 1987 Percy agreed to meet and discuss the project. Though he died of cancer three years later, Percy lived long enough to open up his life to Tolson—through conversations, manuscripts, personal correspondence—and aid the production of a decidedly non-boring biography. Pilgrim in the Ruins contains as much fact and lore as Percy scholars, readers, and aficionados could expect to have about the figure known throughout his adult life in Louisiana as a man who was prone to drift off during conversations, blankly staring. “That’s Walker,” went the neighborhood explanation.

Such details about the sometimes incommunicado Percy make this a fresh work. The biographer is close to his man and savors the qualities of a person who himself had spent no small effort documenting the peculiarities of people living in what he repeatedly called the bloodiest century in world history. Given the fact that one of Percy’s recurrent themes was how one is to live a life in such a time, Tolson’s inspection of the life lived by that question-poser has a special pungence. Percy’s religious faith directed his life, helped arrange its trajectory, withstood his middle-age questioning. Percy readers will use this biography as a witness to his life of faith. Finally, and this is Tolson’s crucial assertion, Percy’s life makes a heroic contrast to the lives of his father and grandfather and the earlier Percys who fell victim to the family inclination to suicide. Walker Percy lived seventy-four years in the bloodiest century, all the while beset by the family demons—depression and suicide. Staying alive that long in spite of such models is an accomplishment. How Percy’s art figures into the struggle Tolson elaborates, not worshipfully but with an intention to reveal, beneath the relatively undramatic surface of Percy’s life, the personal and cultural conflicts that animated his books.

Refreshing is Tolson’s awareness of the trend of recent biographies to demonstrate all the subject’s failings. (“The implication always seems to be that the biographer could have done better.”) In contrast, Tolson is not ashamed to affirm that Percy’s life was worth writing because it was a good, even heroic life. Percy won his battle with the family legacy simply by dying a natural death. He also conquered his inclination to withdraw from life while living, an option which his privileged birth and career as novelist made possible. Tolson argues his case by demonstrating that Percy’s writing was not art for art’s sake, or self-fulfillment, but a gesturing for truth, a commitment which put Percy at odds with postmodernist writers intent on their various experiments with language and form. To define his sense of Percy’s achievement in the hunt for “Truth,” Tolson calls Percy the most significant moralist in American letters since Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There will be many readers of this biography. It is old-fashioned-academic in format and in its thorough, year-by-year documentation, bolstered by Percy’s ample letters written to friends. Students of friendship between writers will focus on the lifelong relationship between Shelby Foote and Percy. So interdependent were Percy and Foote that Percy’s wife Bunt wondered whether connection to Foote was part of the marriage vows. Tolson also covers Percy’s friendships with Robert Coles, Eudora Welty, Thomas Merton, and Caroline Gordon.

Literary critics will debate Tolson’s assessments of Percy’s novels. Clearly a fan, Tolson nevertheless works them over critically, while documenting the gestations they went through. Tolson’s point about the work seems to be that writing the novels was a heroic act ending in a product usually less than perfect. This may be evidence of the biographer’s detailed awareness of just what it took to bring each book to final form—relations with the publisher, wranglings with editors over revisions, the postpartum depression between works. The miseries of authorship are not withheld. Tolson gives equal time to the stillborn novels which preceded Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), representing an apprenticeship that lasted more than a decade.


(The entire section is 1838 words.)