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Walker Percy, Obl.S.B. (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an American author from Covington, Louisiana, whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age." His work displays a combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.
Life and Literary Career
Percy was born in 1916 in Birmingham, Alabama, as the first of three boys to LeRoy Pratt Percy and Martha Susan Phinizy. His father's Mississippi Protestant family included his great-uncle LeRoy Percy, a U.S. Senator, and LeRoy Pope Percy, a Civil War hero. In February 1917, Percy's grandfather committed suicide. This seemed to set a family pattern of emotional struggle and deaths that would haunt Percy throughout his life.
In 1929, when Percy was 13, his father committed suicide. His mother took the family to live at her own mother's home in Athens, Georgia. Two years later, Percy's mother died when she drove a car off a country bridge and into Deer Creek near Leland, Mississippi, where they were visiting. Percy regarded this death as another suicide. Walker and his two younger brothers, LeRoy (Roy) and Phinizy (Phin), were taken in by their first cousin once removed William Alexander Percy, a bachelor lawyer and poet in Greenville, Mississippi.
Percy was raised as an agnostic, though he was nominally affiliated with a theologically liberal Presbyterian church. William Percy introduced him to many writers and poets, and to a neighboring youth his own age, Shelby Foote, who became his lifelong best friend.
As young men, Percy and Foote decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. But when they arrived at his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to speak to him. He later recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.
Percy attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he joined the Xi chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He received a medical degree from Columbia University in New York City in 1941. There he had psychotherapy to deal with the legacy of suicides and depression in his family. After contracting tuberculosis while performing an autopsy at Bellevue Hospital Center, Percy spent several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake, New York. At the time, there was no known treatment for TB other than rest.
During this period, Percy read the works of the Danish existentialist writer Søren Kierkegaard and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. He began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. He was influenced by the example of one of his college roommates, and began to rise daily at dawn and go to Mass.
Marriage and family
He married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946. Together the couple studied Catholicism and were received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1947.
Fearing that Percy was sterile, the married couple adopted their first daughter, Mary Pratt. They later conceived their second daughter Ann. She became deaf at an early age. The family settled in the suburb of Covington, Louisiana across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Percy's wife and one of their daughters later had a bookstore, where the writer often worked in an office on the second floor.
Walker Percy died of prostate cancer in 1990, eighteen days before his 74th birthday. He is buried on the grounds of St. Joseph Benedictine Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana. He had become a secular oblate of the Abbey's monastic community, making his final oblation on February 16, 1990, less than three months before his death.
In 1935, during the winter term of Percy's sophomore year at Chapel Hill, he contributed four pieces to The Carolina Magazine. According to scholars such as Jay Tolson, Percy proved his knowledge and interest in the good and bad that accompanies contemporary culture with his first contributions. Percy's personal experiences at Chapel Hill are portrayed in his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), through the protagonist Binx Bolling. During the years Percy spent in his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, he "became known for his dry wit", which is how Bolling is described by his fraternity brothers in The Moviegoer.
Percy's literary career as a "Catholic writer" began in 1956, with an essay about race in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. The essay, "Stoicism in the South," condemned Southern segregation and demanded a larger role for Christian thought in Southern life.
After many years of writing and rewriting in collaboration with editor Stanley Kauffmann, Percy published his first novel, The Moviegoer, in 1961. Percy later wrote of the novel that it was the story of "a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America."
Subsequent works included The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome in 1987. Percy's personal life and family legends provided inspiration and played a part in his writing. The Thantos Syndrome features a story about one of Percy's ancestors taken from a family chronicle written by Percy's uncle, Will Percy. Percy's vision for the plot of The Second Coming came to him after an old fraternity brother visited him in the 1970s. He told Percy the story of his life where he is burnt-out and does not know what to do next. The trend of Percy's personal life influencing his writing seemed to hold true throughout his literary career beginning with his first novel. Percy also published a number of non-fiction works exploring his interests in semiotics and Existentialism, the most popular work being Lost in the Cosmos.
In 1975, Percy published a collection of essays entitled The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. In this collection, Percy attempts to forge a connection between the idea of Judeo-Christian ethics and rationalizing science and behavioralism. According to scholars such as Anne Berthoff and Linda Whitney Hobson, Percy presents a new way of viewing the struggles of the common man through his specific use of anecdotes and language.
Percy taught and mentored younger writers. While teaching at Loyola University of New Orleans, he was instrumental in getting John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980. This was more than a decade after Toole committed suicide, despondent about being unable to get recognition for his book. Set in New Orleans, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which was posthumously awarded to Toole.
In 1987 Percy, along with 21 other noted authors, met in Chattanooga, Tennessee to create the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Legacy and honors
Percy's work, which often features protagonists facing displacement, influenced other Southern authors. According to scholar Farrell O'Gorman, Percy's vision helped bring a fundamental change in southern literature where authors began to use characters concerned with "a sense of estrangement." His writing serves as an example for contemporary southern writers who attempt to combine elements of history, religion, science, and the modern world. Scholars such as Jay Tolson state that Percy's frequent use of characters facing spiritual loneliness in the modern world helped introduce different ways of writing in the south post-war.
Awards and honors
In 1962, Percy was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, The Moviegoer.
In 1985, Percy was awarded the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.
In 1989, the University of Notre Dame awarded Percy its Laetare Medal, which is bestowed annually to a Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity."
Also in 1989, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose him as the winner for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He read his essay, "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind."
Loyola University New Orleans has multiple archival and manuscript collections related to Percy's life and work.
Several of the following texts are mere pamphlets, reprinted in Signposts in a Strange Land (ed. Samway).