Walker Percy

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Walker Percy
Born May 28, 1916(1916-05-28)
Birmingham, Alabama, United States
Died May 10, 1990 (aged 73)
Covington, Louisiana, United States
Cause of death Prostate cancer
Occupation Author
Religious beliefs Catholic
Spouse(s) Mary Bernice Townsend

Walker Percy (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an American Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is best known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age."[1] His work displays a unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.


[edit] Biography

Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, into a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family whose past luminaries had included a U.S. Senator and a Civil War hero. Prior to Percy's birth, his grandfather had killed himself with a shotgun, setting a pattern of emotional struggle and tragic death that would haunt Percy throughout his life.

In 1929, Percy's father used a shotgun to commit suicide. The Percy family then moved to Athens, Georgia, where two years later, his mother died in a car crash when she drove off a country bridge—an accident that Percy regarded as another suicide.[2] Walker and his two younger brothers, Phin and Roy, then moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where his bachelor uncle William Alexander Percy, a lawyer, poet, and autobiographer, became their guardian and adopted them. "Uncle Will" introduced Percy to many writers and poets and to a neighboring boy his own age – Shelby Foote, who became Percy's life-long best friend.[3]

As young men, Percy and Foote decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. However, when they finally drove up to his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to talk to him. Later on, he recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.

Percy joined Foote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a brother in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, as was Faulkner (University of Mississippi), then trained as a medical doctor at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1941. After contracting tuberculosis from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in the Saranac Lake, New York in the Adirondacks. During this period Percy read the works of the Danish existentialist writer, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. Having been influenced by the example of one of his college roommates to rise daily at dawn and go to Mass, Percy, decided that he would become a Catholic (1947) and decided to become a writer rather than a physician—as he would later write, he would study the pathology of the soul rather than that of the body.

He married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946, and they raised their two daughters in Covington, Louisiana. Walker Percy died of prostate cancer in 1990 eighteen days before his 74th birthday. He is buried on the grounds of St. Joseph's Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana.

[edit] Literary career

In 1962, Percy published his first novel, The Moviegoer, after many years of writing and rewriting in collaboration with editor Stanley Kauffman. 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.

Percy was instrumental in getting John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980, over a decade after Toole's suicide.

In 1987 Percy, along with 21 other noted authors, met in Chattanooga, Tennessee to create the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

The University of Notre Dame awarded Percy its 1989 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."[4]

The National Endowment for the Humanities chose him as the winner for the 1989 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, for which he read "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind."[5]

[edit] Works

[edit] Novels

[edit] Nonfiction

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

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Kimball, Roger Existentialism, Semiotics and Iced Tea, Review of Conversations with Walker Percy New York Times, August 4, 1985, Accessed September 24, 2006
  2. ^ Samway, Patrick, Walker Percy: A Life. (Loyola Press USA, 1999) p. 4
  3. ^ The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie, Copyright 2003, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  4. ^ Notre Dame website
  5. ^ Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities National Endowment for the Humanities, Accessed September 24, 2006

[edit] Further reading

  • Coles, Robert, Walker Percy: An American Search. Little, Brown & Co, 1979.
  • 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. House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family. Oxford University Press USA, 1996.
  • _____. The Literary Percys: Family History, Gender & The Southern Imagination. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

[edit] External links

NAME Percy, Walker
SHORT DESCRIPTION Southern philosophical novelist
DATE OF BIRTH May 28, 1916
PLACE OF BIRTH Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America
DATE OF DEATH May 10, 1990
PLACE OF DEATH Covington, Louisiana, United States of America
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