Walker Percy, novelist, gained equal fame for his essays. He had something to say, and a way of putting it which strikes a chord in anyone living in the late twentieth century. He said that people living in the century of greatest promise were also living in the deadliest time in the history of man. Science, the source of so much good for men, was also responsible for unprecedented evil. Percy named people living in this time “castaways.” The titles of his three nonfiction books, The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos (1983), and Signposts in a Strange Land, depict humans as marooned creatures, as lost in their supposedly sensible modernity as Robinson Crusoe on his island. Though Percy intended as a young man to be a doctor, he became another kind of diagnostician, a finder of disease in man’s mind and spirit. He claimed not to offer therapy for these illnesses. He thought of himself as a scientist-artist, offering new insights but no cures. Yet his skill in fleshing out his insights in the essays and novels belied his claims of scientific distance. He was a writer readers wanted to hear, almost as someone bearing a message necessary for their continued existence.
Signposts in a Strange Land, a posthumous collection edited by Patrick Samway, includes essays, addresses, book reviews, letters to editors, and interviews taken from magazines and journals or found among Percy’s unpublished papers. Samway arranges the book in three sections: “Life in the South,” “Science, Language, Literature,” and “Morality and Religion.” The result is a book which gives Percy newcomers a rich introduction to his life and thought, and aficionados a gift of several unpublished pieces, including a term paper Percy wrote in college on movie magazines. The book’s epilogue contains an interview and a self-interview titled “Questions They Never Asked Me.”
Among Percy’s many gifts was his ability to tell about place and the relations of people to place. He also focused on displacement, on the difficulty writers, especially, have settling down in a place. The book’s first section, “Life in the South,” tells of Percy’s geographical place and how he made peace with it and a home in it. If anyone felt displaced in this world it was the young Percy, whose father died by suicide when he was thirteen, a family tragedy followed soon after by his mother’s death in a car accident. Two pieces in this section are devoted to his and his brother’s savior at the time, William Alexander Percy. “Uncle Will,” a writer, landowner, cultural enthusiast, and traveler, sacrificed his freedom by taking the Percy boys into his life and home in Greenville, Mississippi. This was a break for the writer-to-be: “For to have lived in Will Percy’s house…as a raw youth from age fourteen to twenty-six, a youth whose only talent was a knack for looking and listening…was nothing less than to be informed in the deepest sense of the word.”
Uncle Will’s house attracted famous visitors. Carl Sandburg played guitar and sang for hours, “not too well.” William Faulkner came for tennis but never hit the ball, the result of too much bourbon or literary distraction. Langston Hughes made an appearance. And the great American psychologist, Harry Stack Sullivan, mixed pitchers of martinis during afternoons studying race relations in the Mississippi Delta.
What comes though most clearly in the “Life in the South” section is Percy’s loyalty to his region and his awareness of its failings. Many of the pieces in this section were written during the 1950’s and 1960’s and address the big Southern issue: race. “The bravest Mississippians in recent years have not been Confederates or the sons of Confederates but rather two Negroes, James Meredith and Medgar Evers.” Percy’s analysis of the South punctures complacent generalities about the region, such as the lumping together of the Southern states in an assumption of equal blame for bigotry. Georgia, it turns out, is not as racist as Mississippi. Mississippi to a Georgian is like the Wild West to an easterner in Baltimore. But Percy will vote for neither against the other, will rather find fault where there is fault and praise what is worthy. Mississippi, he says, suffers from insanity, evident in the state’s simultaneous niceness and incredible violence (the killings of blacks who wanted to integrate colleges and schools). He locates the tension between Mississippi’s “pleasant familial space” and the quite different notion of the “public sector” that had come to be accepted elsewhere in the United States. Nevertheless, Southern comfort and hospitality are not to be dismissed as mere hypocrisy. Percy writes that Southern hospitality, that “manner of grace and a gift for human intercourse,” did and still does work. Southern “whites and blacks do know something about getting...
(The entire section is 2003 words.)