Walker Percy Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111200957-Percy.jpg Walker Percy Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916, living a basically idyllic southern childhood until the suicide of his father, who was eloquently portrayed in the character of Will Barrett, protagonist of Percy’s 1980 novel, The Second Coming. After his mother’s death, the teenage Percy and his two brothers moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where they were raised by their father’s first cousin, William Alexander “Uncle Will” Percy, a lifelong bachelor, whose autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1942), was itself a southern classic, portraying the proud South emerging from the ravages of the Civil War.

Walker Percy had no intention of becoming a writer, making his way instead to New York’s Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1938 to become a psychiatrist after finishing his B.A. in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During this time, Percy himself underwent psychoanalysis, whiling away his little free time as a medical student going to films and observing the behavior of other filmgoers, a habit that would profoundly influence his literary career.

After earning an M.D. degree in 1941, he attempted to complete his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and there contracted tuberculosis while performing autopsies on cadavers. This illness became pivotal in his career and in his life. While recovering in a sanatorium in upstate New York, he read voraciously, particularly existentialist philosophy, including the works of Swedish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The result was an improbable conversion to Christianity in 1943 and a decision to abandon medicine as a career and seek a vocation as a full-time writer.

Between 1943 and 1946, Percy attempted two forgettable novels, and he eventually turned instead to studying language acquisition theory and linguistics, developing themes that would later undergird the thematic concerns of his novels. After he married Mary Townsend in 1946, they both converted to Catholicism and relocated to Covington, Louisiana, near the quintessential southern city of New Orleans. There they subsisted on...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Percy once commented that his major novelistic concern was to depict “what it means to be a man living in the world who must die.” In his work, the modern South—the last authentic refuge of American religious faith—is the typical setting for protagonists beset by alienation and the conflicting demands of community and tradition in a hostile modernity. Only a recognition of a transcendent order may provide the basis for recovery of self and a unified vision of the world.

At the center of this recovery, Percy places the mystery of humankind’s origin and the clues provided by language in solving it—specifically, the human ability to make symbol and metaphor. What separates Percy from other, more pretentious writers of philosophical fiction is his keen sense of everydayness, the vivid capturing of the details of modern life.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916. When his father, lawyer Leroy Percy, committed suicide in 1929, the young Percy, his two brothers, and their mother moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where they lived with Leroy’s bachelor cousin, William Alexander Percy. William adopted the boys in 1931, following their mother’s death in an automobile accident. The Greenville home served as something of a local cultural center; the uncle, the author of several works, including an autobiographical memoir of the South titled Lanterns on the Levee (1941), entertained such house guests as William Faulkner, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, David Cohn, and Harry Stack Sullivan.

In the early 1930’s, Percy attended Greenville High School, where he wrote a gossip column and became the close friend of Shelby Foote, who was by then already committed to a literary career. At the University of North Carolina, which was noted for its school of behaviorism, Percy majored in chemistry and received a bachelor of science degree in 1937. He then enrolled in Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and received his medical degree in 1941. In addition to his studies, Percy underwent psychoanalysis and became a frequent filmgoer. The turning point in his life came in early 1942 when, as a medical resident at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Percy contracted tuberculosis. During his two-year convalescence at Saranac Lake, he began reading...

(The entire section is 562 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Walker Percy began to write fiction in his middle years. Originally trained as a doctor, he contracted tuberculosis while doing residency work. While recovering over the course of several years, he began to read widely in philosophy, linguistics, and fiction. Becoming a Catholic in 1947 along with his wife, Percy began writing sophisticated essays on language acquisition and use and on how purely scientific explanations of human behavior and culture making were insufficient to explain the mysteries of being human. Feeling that scholarly articles and book reviews did not adequately express his thoughts, Percy turned to fiction.

His first novel, The Moviegoer, explores such themes as the search for meaning, life in the South, and the uniqueness of human communication. The novel is humorous and philosophical, and it established the direction of Percy’s life. It also won the National Book Award for fiction, although it did not interest many readers when first published.

Although Percy was a Catholic writer, his works are not simple, uplifting stories of a faith that conquers all. His main characters almost always suffer from a variety of mental and physical problems, and belief in Christianity is often far away from them. Their moods are often more depressed than edified.

Percy’s primary characters are almost always male, and they have been raised in upper-class Southern backgrounds, reflecting Percy’s own upbringing. In them and in a variety of other characters, such as African Americans, doctors, and poor whites, Percy wonderfully captures the ambience of a South in transition.

A central concern in all the novels is the mystery of human communication. Percy had early imbibed the scientific-humanistic perspective on communication through studying medicine, but while convalescing in a sanatorium he began to read deeply in existentialism, theology, and modern fiction. These influences recur through each novel. The protagonist is always on a quest for meaning, and it is never certain whether he will find it in the gentrified society in which he lives.

Percy’s father killed himself in 1929. Percy’s mother died several years after in an accident. The trauma, especially of his father’s death, crops up frequently in novels. Self-annihilation becomes one possible response for several of the main characters, showing clearly how religion was, for Percy, not an easy answer for one’s confusion about the purposes of life and love.