Walker Percy was one of the most important American novelists of ideas of the latter half of the twentieth century, his rivals being John Updike and Saul Bellow. A traditionalist who lamented the twentieth century’s loss of the perception of sin and its need for grace, Percy created protagonists who search for the source of their alienation and melancholy in the most prosperous country on earth. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916, living a basically idyllic southern childhood until his father’s suicide in 1929. Percy eloquently portrays the effect of his father’s death upon him in the character of Will Barrett, protagonist of his 1980 novel, The Second Coming. After his mother’s death, the teenaged Percy and his two brothers were reared in Mississippi by their father’s first cousin, “Uncle Will” Percy, whose autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1941), was itself a Southern classic, portraying the proud South emerging from the ravages of the Civil War.
Walker Percy did not plan to become a writer. After finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he went to Columbia University Medical School in 1938 to become a psychiatrist. Earning the M.D. in 1941, he attempted to complete his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and there contracted tuberculosis while performing autopsies. This event became pivotal in his career and in his life; while recovering in a sanatorium in upstate New York, Percy read voraciously, particularly existentialist philosophy, including Søren Kierkegaard. The result was a 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 wrote two forgettable novels and eventually turned instead to studying and composing expository articles on language 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 the South, near the quintessential Southern city of New Orleans, Louisiana, subsisting on his inheritance from his uncle’s estate. During the 1950’s, Percy published a number of essays in scholarly journals on linguistic theory and psychology that were later collected and published in the 1975 collection The Message in the Bottle. He continued to dabble in fiction but steered away from the towering figure of William Faulkner toward a more direct, post-Southern genre of fiction. The result was Percy’s first published novel at age forty-five, The Moviegoer, a National Book Award winner of 1961, deliberately patterned after the intense, philosophical novels of ideas by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus that Percy had discovered during his convalescence from...
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