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Elegies for Gentlemen: Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman and Eudora Welty's "The Demonstrators"


Peggy Whitman Prenshaw is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies Emerita at Louisiana State University and Millsaps College Humanities Scholar-in-Residence. She is editor of Eudora Welty: Critical Essays and Conversations with Eudora Welty and author of numerous other books and articles on Southern literature.

Elegies for Gentlemen: Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman and Eudora Welty's "The Demonstrators"

In a special supplement to the April 1965 issue of Harper's magazine, "The South Today," edited by Mississippian Willie Morris exactly one hundred years after the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Grant, Walker Percy wrote one of his most direct responses to the 1960s' civil rights movement in the United States. Entitled "Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise," the essay expressed Percy's analysis of southern history and his response to the contemporaneous violence and social upheaval that characterized the region in the early sixties. "During the past ten years," he wrote, "Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane. The rift in its characters between a genuine kindliness and a highly developed individual moral consciousness on the one hand, and on the other a purely political and amoral view of 'states' rights' at the expense of human rights led at last to a sundering of its very soul" (168).

In Percy's view, the sorry, insane state of affairs represented a desecration of the honor and courage demonstrated by the brave youths of the Confederacy, notably the Mississippi regiment made up of university students who died, to a man, in a charge at Gettysburg. Nowhere is the desecration more visible, he said, than in the uses to which the Confederate flag had been put: "Once the battle ensign of brave men, it has come to stand for raw racism and hoodlum defiance of the law."

Nonetheless, for all his stinging indictment of racism, terrorism, and moral cowardice, he does not wholly remove himself to the high road. "No ex-Mississippian is entitled to write of the tragedy which has overtaken his former state with any sense of moral superiority. For he cannot be certain in the first place that if he had stayed he would not have kept silent — or worse. And he strongly suspects that he would not have been counted among the handful, an editor here, a professor there, a clergyman yonder, who not only did not keep silent but fought hard" (166).

As Mississippians and the rest of the world have been reminded in 1989, the twenty-fifth anniversary not only of the Voting Rights Act but of the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and of countless other acts of terrorism, Mississippi in the mid-1960s was a frightening, violent state that tested the ethics, religion, and common decency of its people. In many ways it was a war zone, in which white moderates were forced to stand either with the white racists or, denouncing them, with the black civil rights activists and their northern supporters. These were days I myself lived through, difficult days that I remember with pain and guilt and, still now, with much of the confusion I felt at the time. It seemed then that one's choices were few: to acquiesce to the racism, that is, to keep the peace with one's neighbors and friends and family, or to join the opposing crusade — or leave. I left Mississippi in 1963, certainly for the reason I gave myself and others — to return to graduate school — but more certainly because I could not face the choice before me.

One Mississippian who did not leave, who shared Percy's revulsion against the hate-filled mobs, the demagogic governor, the murders, assaults, and church burnings — and one who brought at the time more maturity and understanding to the society than I did — was Eudora Welty. Several months after Percy's essay appeared in Harper's, she wrote a short piece in the Atlantic, entitled, "Must the Novelist Crusade?" which directly took up the question of what response should be expected of Mississippi's writers in the face of the civil rights violence. Incited to write by a flip comment, "in some respectable press," calling for a reassessment of Faulkner because he was, "after all, only a white Mississippian," she delivered a sharp, if not quite angry, statement of her view of the moral responsibility of the artist in a society, imperfect or otherwise. Decidedly, it is not to crusade, which nearly always yields bad art, but to take life "as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it, and offer it to the reader. ... Inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader." (Endnote 1)

Three years after the publication of these two essays, Carlton Cremeens opened an interview with Percy by asking him his view of Welty's position. Percy was tactful ("I can't say whether I think Eudora Welty is wrong and that I know what the right answer is"), but he did go on unequivocally to press a different position. "I don't quite agree with her. ... I still think a writer, ... particularly a prominent writer like Eudora Welty, who is influential, highly respected, can do a great deal of good, can have a great deal of influence without compromising her creative endeavors. My own feeling is: I don't mind saying or writing what I think on the social issues or the race issue in the South." (Con., 17).

The differences between Welty's and Percy's readiness to take on a public role, to speak with the authority of the "influential writer," may be attributed to temperament, gender roles, or many other influences, but not, I think, to courage or a lack of it. To Welty, the domain of the writer is literary; as she sees it, she has no call on the public other than as readers of her fiction, and only then to the extent that her art warrants their attention because of its power and excellence. In her view, this is a field quite large enough for any writer to display his or her colors. "Morality as shown through human relationships," she writes, "is the whole heart of fiction, and the serious writer has never lived who dealt with anything else" (ES, 148).

On the subject of what makes serious, lasting art, Welty and Percy express few if any disagreements in their essays and interviews of the 1960s and early 1970s. For example, Welty's focus upon the "generality" as the necessary weapon for the crusader-novelist, which turns out to be, ironically, exactly the armament that defeats the fiction, is also a point iterated by Percy. Welty writes, "On fiction's pages, generalities clank when wielded. ... They are fatal to tenderness and are in themselves non-conductors of any real, however modest, discovery of "the writer's own heart" (ES, 148). In the Cremeens interview, Percy echoes her warning about fatal generalities, castigating in that conversation, as he has done elsewhere, fiction that is written to illustrate sociology. "When you start writing novels to illustrate sociology, you are going to write bad novels, because sociology is a simplification, an abstraction from what is the case" (Con., 19-20).

The positions Percy and Welty take during this period concerning what is the main function of the novelist are close, both emphasizing the creation of universal particulars that catch and reflect in fiction the "home truths" of life. As we read such fiction, writes Welty, we "see ourselves in our own situation, in some curious way reflected. ... Truth is borne in on us in all its great weight and angelic lightness, and accepted as home truth" (ES, 152). "My theory," says Percy, "is that the purpose of art is to transmit universal truths of a sort, but of a particular sort. ... What the artist does, or tries to do, is simply to validate the human experience and to tell people the deep human truths which they already unconsciously know" (Con., 23-24).

During the 1960s both writers created fiction set in the contemporaneous South, fiction that embodied their theories about art, the relation of particular experience to universal truths, and the possibilities for mutual respect between the races in the South. Although neither "The Demonstrators" nor The Last Gentleman is concentrated exclusively upon the social milieu — these are not finally fictions of politics or manners — we can recover through these works much of the complex experience of white southerners who remained in the South during this difficult, turbulent era.

In "The Demonstrators," published in the New Yorker in 1966, it was very much Welty's aim to show the complexity of the southern experience of the civil rights movement, as she told Jan Nordby Gretlund in a 1978 interview. In the same year she spoke at greater length about the short story to Tom Royals and John Little, noting that the story reflected "the way we were deeply troubled in that society and within ourselves at what was going on in the sixties. ... The effect of change sweeping all over the South — of course, over the rest of the country too, but I was writing about where I was living and the complexity of those changes. I think a lot of my work then suggested that it's not just a matter of cut-and-dried right and wrong. ... I wanted to show the complexity of it all." (Endnote 2)

"The Demonstrators" takes place in Holden, Mississippi, a fictional Delta town somewhat smaller than Percy's Greenville, or Ithaca of The Last Gentleman, more nearly resembling Yazoo City, on the edge of the Delta, a town Welty had many occasions to visit during a period in the 1960s when her mother was being cared for in a nursing home there. The central figure in the story, Dr. Strickland, moves through the town late one Saturday night, treating the aging, imperious (and impervious) Miss Marcia Pope, the terminally ill mayor, Herman Fairbrothers, one of the ruling white elite who runs the town, and finally, and most centrally and dramatically, a young black woman, Ruby Gaddy, and her lover-assailant, Dove Collins, both victims and perpetrators of a violent Saturday night stabbing. In a brilliantly visual scene, the doctor goes to Ruby Gaddy's house, where family, friends, and casual onlookers crowd in and around the bedroom where the woman lies dying. At first he does not recognize her as the maid who regularly cleans his office, so intently does he focus upon the details of the assault, her wound, her breathing — all the discrete symptoms the physician is skilled at observing. Then, like a chorus, the onlookers ask, "Don't you know her?" — as if "he never were going to hit on the right question." (Endnote 3)

The central theme of this story, mirrored in the title, concerns the struggle of men and women to wrest separate selves from generic human identities. The pun implicit in the title is elaborated in the story through Strickland's perspective, through his developing sense that, although we are all "demonstrators" — one might say exemplars — of our place and time and family and ideology and all the other shaping influences that compose us as a character-self who goes through the motions of living, we are also demonstrators rebelling against anonymity and interchangeability, demanding to be recognized as a unique self, a phenomenon that cannot be known and described by the banner or headline or family name attached to us.

Patterns of duality reflecting the tension between the outer, stereotypical person and the private self occur throughout the story, but most notably in two major sections, one portraying the doctor's visit to the dying Ruby Gaddy and the other presenting a long news article, ostensibly reporting the details of assault. In this story-within-the-story, which bears the headline "TWO DEAD, ONE ICE PICK. FREAK EPISODE AT NEGRO CHURCH," with the subheading, "No Racial Content Espied," Welty satirizes small-town, white southern newspapers, prejudices, pretensions, ideologies — and, in doing so, suggests the similarity to earlier, briefer mentions in the story of a youthful Vietnam protester who burned his draft card before a camera and of another youth, a civil rights worker entertained by Strickland and his wife. The young man had given out to reporters a story that some of his group had been forced at gunpoint to pick cotton in June in one-hundred-degree heat — a statement false to the facts of cotton growing, as well as false to the facts of his case, but nonetheless true to his politics, as he points out.

As demonstrators, crusaders, racists, defenders of the faith, healers of the sick, or as those enacting any other role, ad infinitum, that men and women perform, they repress if not betray the self, Welty suggests. Living for causes, whether for other people or for ideas, is risky business, so easily can one forget or even lose the self and thus lose the medium by which one apprehends the living of life. The self must exist in the moment, aware of sensation, reflective, remembering and anticipating what is to come, always exposed to loneliness and despair, if it is to exist at all. Welty's Dr. Strickland understands the problematical self, but he is too passive or impotent to mediate successfully the claims of the Other — the transcendent claims of social roles or larger callings — and the needs of the self. He is not, however, paralyzed by despair, despite the fact that his wife has left him, his daughter has recently died, and his town is stricken by division and death. He is wearied, sick, "even bored with the intractability that divided everybody and everything" — but he still makes his calls, can still feel comforted by a kindly act of hospitality, and, in a sudden moment of human connection, can still feel the joy of being alive. Visited briefly by the sensation that "there was still allowed to everybody on earth a self — savage, death-defying, private," he responds with a pounding heart that "was like the assault of hope, throwing itself against him without a stop, merciless" (CS, 618). Here is the problematical condition of Welty's white southerner in the 1960s, in which a man or woman who would possess a self may do so only fitfully and even then, it seems, by means of an indulgent or nostalgic retreat from action.

In his 1980 study of Southern Renaissance writers, Richard King largely excluded women writers from his analysis, because, as he wrote, "they did not place the region at the center of their imaginative visions." (Endnote 4) In the past, I have quarreled with King's assumptions and conclusions about southern women writers, but in one sense he is doubtless correct that a writer such as Welty does not place the South at the center of her imagination. To do so is to privilege ideology and generalization over the sentient and phenomenal — idea over experience — and in her essays and her fiction she clearly rejects this ordering. It is instructive to read "The Demonstrators" along with the two longer works Welty was engaged in writing at the same time in the 1960s — The Optimist's Daughter and Losing Battles — as explorations of the possibility of bridging idea and act, the Cartesian mind and body, or, particularly for Welty, of merging the Yeatsian dance and dancer.

In the 1960s Walker Percy was, of course, exploring similar ground, even though his coming to the writing of fiction and his sense of southern identity were very different from Welty's. A physician trained in science, student of existential philosophy, Catholic convert, and son of a powerful and respected Mississippi family, Percy imagined protagonists whose fitful, uncertain sense of self is partly the consequence of the abstracting, objectifying modern age and partly the consequence of their being simply sick, or lost, or abandoned. Distantly separated from trustworthy guides who can help to show them how to live, they exist, at least in Will Barrett's case in The Last Gentleman, not in life but in the state of pure possibility.

There are many interesting points of comparison one might offer in a reading of The Last Gentleman alongside "The Demonstrators." For example, the physician, Sutter Vaught, exemplifies the danger to the self of extreme self-consciousness and of the modern inclination to abstract and analyze life, thus losing the self to transcendence, losing the necessary connection with felt life, immanent life. By contrast, Welty's Dr. Strickland faces the danger of immanence grown lush and choking, an everydayness that numbs and distracts the self. But, as I have noted, Strickland cannot be fairly described as despairing. One might make the case that he lives in bad faith — the story allows for this possibility — but Percy's existential world is not really Welty's world, and it is just as arguable that Strickland occupies the territory William Barrett is trying to reach.

In both "The Demonstrators" and The Last Gentleman, the authors portray a South that is halfway transformed into a generic U.S.A. and halfway holding to a distinctive past that moves increasingly toward self-parody. The prosperous Vaughts, with their Chevrolet agency and a purple castle situated beside Birmingham golf links, would be unremarkable rich Americans were it not for their eccentric children, who redeem them from ordinary consumerism. The remnants of Barrett's family in Ithaca, Mississippi, and Shut Off, Louisiana, along with the rest of the country watch television — the aunts glued to "Strike It Rich" and Uncle Fannin and the black servant Merriam enjoying "Gunsmoke" together. When Percy shows the South consciously maintaining its traditions, it is a scene of violence at the college attended by Will and the younger Vaughts, a scene closely resembling the riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962, when James Meredith was enrolled. Whereas Barrett's great-grandfather had responded to violent racism with a pistol on his hip, "like a Western hero" (LG, 9), Will fumbles and stumbles and finally proves victim to a thrashing flagstaff.

A well-known passage early in the novel summarizes the history of the family that has produced this last gentleman, Will Barrett. It is a family that over the years "had turned ironical and lost its gift for action," losing thereby the means by which a man could define himself — and the community could know him — as a gentleman. Lacking a mode of action, the man who would be gentleman can in no way enact himself and thus can only turn inward and go in search of his soul.

In many respects the racial matter in The Last Gentleman is peripheral to the protagonist's central movement from engineer to pilgrim, though in some significant ways racial identities and relationships give Will Barrett important information about falsity, courage, and human connection. The episodes involving Forney Aiken, the thoroughgoing liberal who proposes to authenticate his photographic series on blacks by darkening his skin, thus transforming himself into a "pseudo-Negro," provide some of Percy's sharpest satire and occasions for Barrett's zaniest bafflement. Forney Aiken's words and actions never match — he is a parody of the doublespeaking media sociologist agent of deceit and disguise, a hail-fellow-well-met hyping "moral causes." Will watches and listens intently to him and his companions, but they seem as hopelessly dislocated as Will, offering no direction. They, along with Sweet Evening Breeze, the black operator of the Dew Drop Inn in Ithaca, do offer, however, a scenario that calls for courage of the order displayed by Will's great-grandfather, facing the KKK grand wizard.

When the town deputy and his sidekick enter the inn, as if from some familiar Hollywood scene, Barrett finally recovers a moment of clarity such as, he imagines, his ancestor might have known. "For once in his life he had time and position and a good shot and for once things became as clear as they used to be in the old honorable days" (LG, 325). In place of the grand wizard there is, to be sure, only Beans Ross, but the conflict is sharp and sufficiently dangerous to galvanize Barrett into action. The episode serves, in fact, as the initiating ritual that allows Will to return to the house of his father, to hear again the Brahms and the poetry, and finally to reenter the painful moment of his suicide. Doing so, he experiences again his father's abandoning him, seeing as an adult that his father had left without giving him any instruction that he could use to live his life.

As Will is grappling to figure out just what it is that his father had missed, two intrusions interrupt his moment of concentration. They are instructive here, for they signal to Barrett — and the reader — the directions closed off to Will, leading nowhere. The laughter of the television audience, the happy group gathered in the studio of "Strike It Rich," is utterly and transparently fake, and the appearance of a black man, a man his own age, on the street outside the family home occasions no greeting, no exchange at all. "They looked at each other. There was nothing to say. Their fathers would have had much to say: 'In the end, Sam, it comes down to a question of character: 'Yes suh, Lawyer Barrett, you right about that. Like I was saying to my wife only this evening—' But the sons had nothing to say"(LG, 332-33). The old patriarchal and patronizing relation of white to black, the defining action of the southern gentleman, has disappeared.

The disappearance of roles and rules of behavior is manifest throughout the novel, an absence in part attributable to Barrett's amnesia but mainly the result of overwhelming social change and of vast moral uncertainty. Nowhere is the confusion more thorough than in Will's mistaking a group of civil rights demonstrators who have been incarcerated at the old fort on the river for a group of celebrants reenacting a Civil War battle. The spectacle is beyond Will's fathoming: "As unlikely a lot of Confederates as one could imagine — men and women! The men bearded properly enough, but both sexes blue-jeaned and sweat-shirted and altogether disreputable. And Negroes! And yonder, pacing the parapet — Good Lord! — was Milo Menander, the politician, who was evidently playing the role of Beast Banks, the infamous federal commandant of the infamous federal prison into which the fort was converted after its capture" (LG, 336). Shortly afterward, when Will visits his uncle Fannin in Shut Off, Louisiana, there is a brief reprise of the old, easy familiarity between white and black, though Fannin and Merriam's relationship is more nearly that of brothers than of master and servant. They give Will a glimpse of a loving connection, as they hunt and talk and watch television together. Still, an aura of nostalgia frames the scene, as it does when Welty's Dr. Strickland visits the house of the dying black woman. The ease of their friendship rests upon old assumptions about each one's place, and those assumptions disintegrate under the pressure of Barrett's — and Strickland's — self-consciousness, a self-consciousness about race made inevitable and inescapable by the events of the 1960s.

In a 1972 "Firing Line" interview that William Buckley conducted with Welty and Percy, Welty spoke of the increasing difficulty that self-consciousness poses for the southern writer. Pressed to talk about "the southern imagination," she was clearly uncomfortable about trying to abstract life as she has known it and offer up generalizations about the South. "The art of writing as a Southerner would now be a self-conscious thing to do," she said. "It never used to be. When we were coming along, we just wrote because this is where we lived and what we knew. But to write strictly a Southern book now — I think you are quite conscious that you are seeing a segment and that people are going to look at it—" (EW, 96). Here and throughout the interview she was halting, tentative, and defensive. As Albert Devlin has pointed out in Eudora Welty's Chronicle, Percy was a more willing and forthcoming panelist than was Welty in answering Buckley's repeated questions about what composes the southern imagination. Whereas Percy recapitulated Allen Tate's thesis about the southern literary renaissance and Vann Woodward's view of the burden of southern history, Welty resisted any interpretation of the South. 5 Instead, she tried to articulate what for her was most distinctive about southern culture, that is, its localized, personalized, "rooted" way of life, a culture she found particularly congenial for a writer: "If you grew up in the South when things were relatively stable, when there was a lot of talk and so on, you got a great sense of a person's whole life. ... You get a narrative sense of your next door neighbor instead of someone you just meet in the supermarket. ... You watch life and it is happening. Well, that is a novel" (EW, 97).

One senses in these comments Welty's regret for the loss of a South populated by people who know one another, a South not emptied out of particularity in the service of political positions and moral causes. There is probably more than a little nostalgia in her memory of people sitting on porches talking to one another, which is partly the nostalgia of the adult remembering her youth. Even more evident is Welty's yearning for relationships that connect human beings, yielding narratives that make life, like fiction, coherent. In "The Demonstrators" and the Fannin-Merriam episode of The Last Gentleman, however, both Welty and Percy suggest that old patterns of relations between blacks and whites are irremediably changed by the civil rights movement and so too the writing about these relationships. "The art of writing as a Southerner would now be a self-conscious thing to do," said Welty. What she does not say is that there is no escaping either the southernness or the self-consciousness.

In the 1960s the civil rights movement changed the way white southerners saw themselves. Whatever innocence they might have held about race relations before that decade ended with the bombing of a Birmingham church or the murder of three young men in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And, ironically, whatever goodwill that southern whites and blacks had built up over nearly two centuries seemed jeopardized and compromised. The civil rights movement brought needed and long-delayed societal change, but with great cost and confusion at the personal, individual level, which is the terrain available to the writer. "From a moral point of view," Percy explained in the "Firing Line" interview, "it is very simple. It's either right or wrong, and there was [in the South] a lot wrong. From a novelist's point of view, human relations are much more complex than saying that the white racist is wrong and the black protester is right" (EW, 99). Similarly, as Welty noted in the same interview, "the great complexity of it, how inexpressible some things are," had been the impetus for her writing "The Demonstrators."

For writer and for character alike, one has in this world only one's moment in history. The self is always partly imprisoned by social roles not of one's making and partly abandoned by a feckless past that offers one no useful direction; yet one struggles to maintain the self, struggles to have both a separate self and some transcendent connection that relieves the burden of death. It interests me that for Welty, as for so many women writers, the direct threat to the self nearly always lies in the direction of overly defining social roles and needy dependencies in relationships that overwhelm one, leaving too little of separateness or consciousness. By contrast, Percy suggests that the greater danger lurks for a self grown too solitary and egocentric, lost from daily connections and defining roles. Welty's protagonist ultimately draws upon connectedness and Percy's Will Barrett chiefly upon inwardness and self-consciousness to see them through the social trauma of their age and, at last, the pain of individual death.

In the final paragraphs of "The Demonstrators," Strickland watches the antic movements of a pair of flickers in the garden, showing off their plumage and, like the pigeons of The Optimist's Daughter, "probing and feeding" one another, demonstrating their vitality and their place in the natural chain. Then he thinks of his daughter, who had died the spring before, and of the dying Fairbrothers, and of his town, Holden, barely holding on. In the face of death, everywhere evident in this world, Strickland nonetheless moves toward the world. He picks up his bag and heads out, knowing that "it was all going to be just about as hard as seeing Herman and Eva Fairbrothers through."

At the conclusion of The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett calls out to Sutter Vaught, calls out as a son to a surrogate father, seeking instruction and understanding that will make life livable. Through his many trials he has tested and exposed the used-up forms of an earlier southern society, and he has borne witness to the death of the father and son — his father and the Vaught son, Jamie. All these have prepared Will for the next stage of the search, which will lead not so much toward the world as through it — a soul's progress toward God, or so we infer from The Last Gentleman (The Second Coming will, of course, develop a somewhat different line of action.)

Despite the lamentable, insane state of the South in the 1960s, Percy and Welty both suggest that it yet provides a terrain where life can proceed. Their southern characters recollect the southern past with deep ambivalence, expressing an elegiac nostalgia as well as deep disillusionment, and yet it is through their recollecting the South that they go in search of those things of heaven and earth they hunger for.


1. Eudora Welty, "Must the Novelist Crusade?" collected in The Eye of the Story (New York: Random House, 1978), 147 (hereafter cited as ES).

2. Conversations with Eudora Welty (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 259 (hereafter cited as EW).

3. Eudora Welty, "The Demonstrators," in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980),610 (hereafter cited as CS).

4. Richard King, A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 9.

5. Albert Devlin. Eudora Welty's Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983), 146.