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Walker Percy

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.

Biography

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.

Literary career

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 also published a number of non-fiction works exploring his interests in semiotics and Existentialism, the most popular work being Lost in the Cosmos.

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

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."

Works

Novels

  • The Moviegoer. New York: Knopf, 1961; reprinted Avon, 1980 — winner of the National Book Award
  • The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1966; reprinted Avon, 1978.
  • Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1971; reprinted Avon, 1978.
  • Lancelot. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1977.
  • The Second Coming. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1980.
  • The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1987.

Nonfiction

Several of the following texts are mere pamphlets, reprinted in Signposts in a Strange Land (ed. Samway).

  • The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1975.
  • Going Back to Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia, 1978 (also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Questions They Never Asked Me. Northridge, California: Lord John Press, 1979 (also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Bourbon. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Palaemon Press, 1982 (also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1983.
  • How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1984 (also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • The City of the Dead. Northridge, California: Lord John Press, 1985 (also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Conversations with Walker Percy. Lawson, Lewis A., and Victor A. Kramer, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
  • Diagnosing the Modern Malaise. New Orleans: Faust, 1985. (Also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time. New Orleans: Faust Publishing Company, 1986. (Also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • State of the Novel: Dying Art or New Science. New Orleans: Faust Publishing Company, 1988. (Also in Signposts, 1991.)
  • Signposts in a Strange Land. Samway, Patrick, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1991.
  • More Conversations with Walker Percy. Lawson, Lewis A., and Victor A. Kramer, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
  • A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy. Samway, Patrick, ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
  • The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. Tolson, Jay, ed. New York: Center for Documentary Studies, 1996.

See also

  • William Alexander Percy

References

Further reading

  • Allen, William Rodney, Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer. University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
  • Coles, Robert, Walker Percy: An American Search. Little, Brown & Co, 1979.
  • Dupuy, Edward J., Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery and Redemption. Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
  • Harwell, David Horace, Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Samway, Patrick, Walker Percy: A Life. Loyola Press USA, 1999.
  • Tolson, Jay, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
  • Wood, Ralph C, The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The Literary Percys: Family History, Gender & the Southern Imagination. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
  • _____. The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family. Oxford University Press USA, 1994.
  • Swirski. Peter, "We Better Kill the Instinct to Kill Before It Kills Us or Violence, Mind Control, and Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome". American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge 2011.

External links

  • Inventory of the Walker Percy Papers, circa 1910–1992, in the Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Works by or about Walker Percy in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Bio, The Fellowship of Southern Writers
  • The Walker Percy Project: An Internet Literary Center
  • Walker Percy: From Pen to Print, a 2002 exhibit at the Rare Book Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • "Walker Percy", Encyclopedia of Alabama
  • Abádi-Nagy, Zoltán (Summer 1987). "Walker Percy, The Art of Fiction". The Paris Review (97). 
  • Walker Percy's library, LibraryThing
  • Walker Percy: A Documentary




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