Signposts in a Strange Land

by Walker Percy

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2003

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addresses, book reviews, letters to editors, and interviews taken from magazines and journals or found among Percy’s unpublished papers.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is a book which gives Percy newcomers a rich introduction to his life and thought, and aficionados a gift of several unpublished pieces, including a term paper Percy wrote in college on movie magazines.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 along with each other which the rest of the country does not know.” This statement appears in a piece dated 1965, the time of horrors in the non-Southern Watts and Harlem.

The title of part 2, “Science, Language and Literature,” may prompt a reader new to Walker Percy to wonder what connection exists between science and the humanistic world of literature. For Percy, an admitted admirer of the scientific method and a licensed physician, there is no absolute distinction between the two worlds. He uses “science” in its broad and original sense of knowing and discovery. This definition covers the work of novelists and artists also: “The primary business of literature and art is cognitive, a kind of finding out and knowing and telling, a celebration of the way things are when they are right, and a diagnostic enterprise when they are wrong.”

Several of the pieces in this section, including “The State of the Novel: Dying Art or New Science,” “Physician as Novelist,” and “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” show Percy holding consistently to his art-as-science paradigm. His fiction is comic and satirical, but its purpose is to lance wounds, or at least remove ineffectual bandages so the problem is clear. One problem, which Percy addressed in his earliest work and continued to bring up near the end of his life, was the failed promise of science itself. When he spoke of the “modern malaise” he meant that people living in the twentieth century were depressed due to having all their needs met by science but discovering they still had to live their lives. Science reduced the individual human to just one more organism in an environment, but the organism was killing off large numbers of fellow organisms or committing suicide or going to psychiatrists to “find itself.” The organism- in-environment model was incomplete.

The initial essay in the second section, “Is a Theory of Man Possible,” offers another model. Humans are symbol-users, talkers, dreamers, persuaders, and assertion-makers, and this makes them unique in creation:

There occurred in the evolution of man an extraordinary and unprecedented event which in the scale of evolutionary time was as sudden as biblical creation and whose consequences we are just beginning to explore. A fifty-four percent increase in brain weight in a few thousand years is, evolutionarily speaking, almost an instantaneous event. Anatomically speaking, it is perhaps not too much to say that this spectacular quantum jump is what made man human.

Other essays in this section treat the science of semiotics (the study of signs) and the invisible, immaterial agent inside a person which makes the link between words and things. This is that “you” which connects or fails to connect with other invisible “yous.” The connection between two nonmaterial persons is the mystery of language itself. The mystery is many-faceted. An essay on Herman Melville reflects on how a giant book like Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) is not a private projection to an anonymous public, but deeply a part and development of Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also mysterious is the business of a writer’s breakthrough to his subject. Percy’s description of finding the gold which he made into the National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer (1961) recalls his description of sudden brain growth in Cro-Magnon man. Writing this book, after completing two novels which no one would publish, he wrote as if he was the first man on earth “ever to set pencil to paper.” Here he found his vocation, that of scientist-novelist who, faced with the dead-end hypothesis of man as an organism, must find and state the true nature of man, and do it in a fresh language.

The final section, “Morality and Religion,” contains discussions of Percy’s Catholicism (“Why Are You a Catholic?”, “A ‘Cranky Novelist’ Reflects on the Church”), and his view on the abortion stalemate. Percy says the Judeo-Christian tradition is nothing short of responsible for the art of novel writing. Good Buddhist novels are hard to find, he says, because that tradition doesn’t grant sufficient weight to the ordinary reality which is the substratum of fiction. Only in the Christian tradition would an art develop which makes much of everyday life. Percy’s preference for the Catholic form of Christianity seems based on the Catholic belief that the ordinary things of life are in fact mysterious and sacramental. Judeo-Christianity, he argues, is the most offensive of all religions to the scientific mind, because it proposes that God became an organism, an individual man, in space and time, and even worse, a specific racial type—a Jew.

Percy’s Christianity dovetails with his semiotic concerns. The Jew is a sign. Jews are not mythical—they exist in a country and are dispersed around the world. Percy’s ever-present image of man as wayfarer, castaway, wanderer, defines the contemporary Christian’s plight. Lacking the assurance of old Christendom, where everyone was a Christian and believed the same things, the modern Christian wanders around looking for signs. Most of the messages are worn thin by misuse at the hands of television evangelists, but the Jew remains a viable sign for the new, post-Christendom Christian.

Signposts in a Strange Land ends with two interviews. Both are quintessential Percy in that the reader can’t stop reading them. They are funny, satirical, human, and appealing. Percy talks about how to eat crawfish Louisiana-style, his semiotic studies, writing as an inherited “knack” (“Unless you have it, you’ll never be a writer”), and, in the self- interview, all his shortcomings. The questions in the self- interview demonstrate Percy’s distinctive humor. Question: “You don’t seem to have much use for your fellow Christians, to say nothing of Ku Kluxers, ACLUers, Northerners, Southerners, fem-libbers, anti-femlibbers, homosexuals, anti- homosexuals, Republicans, Democrats, hippies, anti-hippies, senior citizens.” His answer is that, indeed, groups are intolerable, but the people who make up such groups are unique individuals, sinners like himself, and consequently companionable. Uniqueness overrides sociological compartmentalization.

Percy has a knack, a way of formulating things such that a reader recognizes them afresh, and also a uniqueness of focus on the saying itself. Few novelists of the twentieth century have also been theorists of language, as Percy was, and perhaps no literary artist of this period compares with Percy in doggedness of message-bearing. Driving all Percy’s writing is the principle that symbolizing presupposes social connection. His writing is for someone else, and it presents the findings of a search undergone. Some readers may feel uncomfortable with Percy’s writing, its explicit connection to religious faith, but all readers will admit that Percy knew the world he lived in, its strangeness, brutality, and scientific coldness to life; he knew the human animal as well and did much to soothe and affirm his fellow creatures.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, June 1, 1991, p. 1841.

Chicago Tribune. August 11, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Century. CVIII, October 16, 1991, p. 936.

Commonweal. CXVIII, November 8, 1991, p. 666.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, June 1, 1991, p. 716.

Library Journal. CXVI, July, 1991, p. 97.

Los Angeles Times. August 21, 1991, p. E2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, September 8, 1991, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, June 7, 1991, p. 50.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, July 28, 1991, p. 6.

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