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 Percy’s inheritance from his uncle’s estate. During the 1950’s, Percy published a number of learned essays in scholarly journals on linguistics and its connections with psychology, and he continued to dabble in fiction.
When he finally settled on a set of characters and an appropriate theme, he deliberately steered his narrative craft away from that of the towering figure of William Faulkner and his convoluted regionalism toward a more direct, post-southern genre of fiction. The result was Percy, at the age of forty-five, publishing his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), a National Book Award winner clearly patterned after the intense, philosophical “novel of ideas” written by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, which Percy had discovered during his convalescence from tuberculosis. In essence, Percy created a peculiarly American genre of existential fiction but with this difference: Percy wrote as a Christian whose characters were haunted as much by the presence as the absence of God in the modern world.
Percy followed The Moviegoer with a longer, even more philosophical novel in 1966, The Last Gentleman, whose plot introduces Will Barrett, a troubled, confused young man in search of himself. Barrett eventually finds meaning in laying down his life for others. As Percy’s reputation as a formidable novelist of ideas grew, he upset expectations with his third novel, published in 1971, Love in the Ruins. It is a hilarious satire of modern technological life and the sham of modern psychiatry. Its protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is a thinly disguised evocation of Sir Thomas More who dutifully skewers the false utopias of Eastern religion, consumer capitalism, and errant liberal Catholicism.
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continued to reap critical plaudits for his fiction, his nonfiction essays were collected and published inThe Message in the Bottle in 1975, astonishing his readers with their variety and their expertise in arcane linguistic and psychological theory. Percy’s fourth novel, the dark, disturbing Lancelot (1977), is the story of a vengeful husband who murders his wife and her lover.
Attempting to write his first “nonalienated,” or optimistic, novel, Percy revived the character of Will Barrett for his 1980 book, The Second Coming. The now widowed Barrett finds true love—and God—in a densely plotted, comic work that revealed a new emphasis of affirmation in Percy that earned him back the critical respect he seemed to have lost with Lancelot. Percy’s publisher rewarded the critical and financial success of The Second Coming by bringing out Percy’s quirky nonfiction book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, in 1983. Lost in the Cosmos was at once a satire of television talk-show hosts, a serious monograph on language and semiotics, and a brief for Christianity—delighting some critics and readers and confusing others.
In 1987, Percy published what many regard as his greatest achievement, The Thanatos Syndrome, This novel also revives a past Percy character, Dr. Tom More. Fresh from a prison sentence for selling drugs to truck drivers, More discovers and thwarts a fiendish plot—engineered by a coterie of prominent and respectable lawyers and doctors—to anesthetize the populace by drugging the drinking water of Feliciana Parish in Louisiana.
Percy died on May 10, 1990, after a battle with cancer. He will long be remembered for his poignant warnings against a potential holocaust in Western culture because of its creeping acceptance of situational ethics at the expense of an eternal moral standard.
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.
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 extensively in philosophy and literature (Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Fyodor Dostoevski, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka). What he discovered was that as a medical doctor he knew much about people but had no idea how to define a human.
Following a relapse and further convalescence in 1944, Percy seemed sure of only two things: He was a doctor who did not wish to practice medicine; he was literally as well as existentially homeless (his uncle having died in 1942). In 1945, he traveled with Foote to New Mexico and then stayed on alone for a time. On November 7, 1946, he married Mary Bernice Townsend, and less than a year later they both converted to Catholicism. (The decision to convert was, Percy said, in large measure the result of their reading of Kierkegaard’s essay, “The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.”) Soon after, the Percys moved from Sewanee, Tennessee, to New Orleans, Louisiana, where Percy continued his contemplative life. Financially secure—thanks to his uncle’s estate—and intellectually rich, his landlord, Julius Friend, a professor of philosophy, introduced him to the writings of Charles Saunders Peirce, whose triadic theory of language formed the basis of Percy’s own linguistic speculations. (Percy’s interest in language had another and more personal source: The younger of his two daughters was born deaf.) In 1950, the Percys moved to Covington, Louisiana, “a pleasant non-place,” Percy said, where it is possible to live as a stranger in one’s own land; it is neither the “anyplace” that characterizes mass society nor the “someplace” of New Orleans or a Richmond, where the past haunts the present.
In the 1950’s, Percy began publishing essays in such journals as Thought, Commonweal, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. After discarding two early novels, he began writing The Moviegoer in 1959, revising it four times before its publication two years later. Until his death on May 10, 1990, Percy lived quietly in Covington, a serious and meditative novelist pondering the world in thought, fiction, and an occasional essay.