May 28, 1916|
|Died||May 10, 1990
|Spouse(s)||Mary Bernice Townsend|
Walker Percy, Obl.S.B. (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was a Southern author from Covington, Louisiana whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, 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 unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.
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Percy was born 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 uncle LeRoy Percy, a U.S. Senator, and LeRoy Pope Percy, a Civil War hero. In February 1917 his grandfather committed suicide setting 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; and his mother took the family to her mother's in Athens, Georgia. Two years later, his mother died in a car crash when she drove off a country bridge and into Deer Creek near Leland, Mississippi, an accident which Percy regarded as another suicide. Walker and his two younger brothers, LeRoy (Roy) and Phinizy (Phin), moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where their second cousin William Alexander Percy, a bachelor lawyer and poet, became their guardian and adopted them.
Percy was raised an agnostic, though nominally affiliated with a theologically liberal Presbyterian church. "Uncle Will" introduced him to many writers and poets and to a neighboring boy his own age: Shelby Foote, who became his lifelong best friend. Later, he and his wife would both join the Roman Catholic Church. Percy insisted on being confirmed with the children, as a sign of his new life.
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 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 attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was initiated into the Xi chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He trained as a medical doctor at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1941. He also underwent psychotherapy to deal with the legacy of suicide in his family. After contracting tuberculosis from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue Hospital Center, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in 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; 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 to convert; and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1947.
Marriage and family
He married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946. Fearing that he was sterile, the married couple adopted their first daughter, Mary Pratt. They later managed to conceive their second daughter Ann, who was deaf from an early age. The family settled in Covington, Louisiana. Percy's wife and one of their daughters had a bookstore, where he often wrote 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 was a secular oblate of the Abbey's monastic community, making his final oblation on February 16, 1990, less than three months before his death.
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, more than a decade after Toole's suicide, in part because he was despondent about not being able to get his book recognized. Set in New Orleans, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1987 Percy, along with 21 other noted authors, met in Chattanooga, Tennessee to create the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Legacy and honors
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, for which he read "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind."
- 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.
Several of the following texts are really short pamphlets, and have been 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.
- "National Book Awards – 1962". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
(With essays by Sara Zarr and Tom Roberge from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- Kimball, Roger. Existentialism, Semiotics and Iced Tea, Review of Conversations with Walker Percy New York Times, August 4, 1985. Retrieved 2010-06-12.
- Samway, Patrick. Walker Percy: A Life. (Loyola Press USA, 1999) p. 4
- O'Gorman, Farrell. Extract from "Walker Percy, the Catholic Church and Southern race relations (ca. 1947–1970)", The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter, 1999/2000.
- Elie, Paul (2003). The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- Hanley, Lorene Duquin. A Century of Catholic Converts. Our Sunday Visitor, 2003. 151-53. Print.
- "Remembering Walker Percy as a Benedictine Oblate", Plastic Beatitude blog.
- Andrews, Deborah. Annual Obituary, 1990. St. James Press, 1991. 317. Print.
- Simon, Richard Keller (1999). "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and Repetition in a Confederacy of Dunces". Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press) 36 (1): 99.
- Notre Dame website
- The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind, National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 2010-04-01.
- 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.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Walker Percy|
- 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
- Zoltán Abádi-Nagy (Summer 1987). "Walker Percy, The Art of Fiction No. 97". The Paris Review.
- Walker Percy's library, LibraryThing
- Walker Percy: A Documentary Film