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The Walker Percy Project

Walker Percy: Pilgrim in the Ruins (Preface)


Jay Tolson is the editor of The Wilson Quarterly. Tolson is compiler-editor of The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (W.W. Norton, 1996). Re-printed with permission from Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), Preface, pp. 9-16.

When I first approached Walker Percy with the idea of writing his biography, he responded politely but firmly. "The only thing more boring than writing my own memoir," he wrote back in his cryptic doctorly scrawl, "is the prospect of collaborating with somebody on a biography." Collaboration was not what I had in mind, but I decided it was best not to press my case. That was in 1985.

Two years later, in the early spring of 1987, I wrote again. The Thandatos Syndrome, his sixth novel, had just come out, and Percy was in a slightly more receptive mood. "Come on down," he said to me on the phone," and we can at least talk — just as long as we don't discuss my decrepit character."

I went to Covington and we talked, passing most of a warm May morning in the sun-flooded living room of what Percy called his "shotgun" cottage. Our conversation was loose, rambling, and frequently interrupted. There were many phone calls, and Percy's wife, Bunt, occasionally had questions about household matters. The interruptions were not unpleasant. They left me time to reflect and to observe the waterfowl as they paddled by on the tea-brown water of the Bogue Falaya, which flows only a few feet from the Percy's back door.

Assiduously avoiding the forbidden topic, I was struck, first of all, by the appearance of the man, the long, lanky frame, the weathered-looking skin, the wide forehead, the gulf-blue eyes, alternately guarded and piercing. He was dressed casually, in chinos, a plaid shirt, and jogging shoes, and he slumped deep into his chair while he carefully went about the business of determining who exactly I was and what I was up to. But Percy, I quickly saw, was anything but relaxed. In fact, though I had often heard him described as "laid-back," I saw something quite different that morning: a gracious, easy, almost avuncular manner straining against a powerful, nervous intensity, an almost furious energy. This tension occasionally manifested itself in sudden small muscular twitches or spasms, assertions of that inner energy against the composed, placid surface. Simply put, he seemed a man intensely uncomfortable in his own skin and yet, by dint of effort and will, capable of presenting a composed and rather casual persona. This self-control impressed me, though I wondered at what cost it had been won.

Our curious non-interview proceeded unpromisingly until noon, when we decided to take lunch at a place in town, a French restaurant located only a few blocks from his daughter's bookstore, the Kumquat. It turned out to be a cool, quiet place, not too crowded, and best of all, it served a good strong drink. During a long, well-lubricated meal, we both began to loosen up, and I started to see his witty, humorous side, his love of sly caricature, and his fondness for surprising turns of language. (He was still savoring some malapropisms related to him by a doctor-friend in the area: "old-timer's disease" for Alzheimer's disease, "Cadillac arrest" for cardiac arrest, and — Percy's favorite — "fireballs of the Eucharist" for fibroids of the uterus.) Still, it remained my distinct impression that this very private man would have been much happier had I suddenly announced that I had given up my plan to write about him. Near the end of our lunch, though, a bit of luck came my way. A young man seated at the table behind us — though apparently unable to see Percy — began talking to his companion, a young woman, about his favorite author.

"He lives near here," the young man explained, "and keeps an office upstairs in that bookstore down the street."

We knew, of course, whom he was talking about. Trying to maintain our desultory conversation, neither Percy nor I could resist tuning in on what his fan was saying, but soon the strain of eavesdropping and talking at the same time grew too difficult. The young man had come to a subject that Percy and I were most eager to follow in detail, an impromptu review of The Thanatos Syndrome.

"Maybe we should observe a moment's silence," I suggested.

"I think that might be in order," Percy replied, with a smile and soft chuckle that I feared might give our game away.

It didn't, we listened, and the experience was altogether rewarding.

In addition to its illicit pleasures, that fleeting moment confirmed my belief that complicity in vice is one of the better ways of beginning an association. It allows you to see your fellow conspirator at something close to his worst — and that is both a privilege and a revelation. "Yes," Percy as much as acknowledged, "I'm a little vain and almost as much of a snoop as you are. Which you certainly are, by the way." Which I certainly was.

To some extent, that moment in the restaurant established the key of all our further dealings. From that afternoon on, Percy generously provided me with any information I needed. He guided me to friends and relatives. He granted me access to letters, papers, personal records, and on occasion, without my asking, he would talk about his past, freely and sometimes painfully, certainly more freely than I would ever have expected. But indispensable as all this was, our most productive exchanges were those that involved a little game of mutual spying, psychological eavesdropping, in which we both attempted to listen around our conversation in order to pick up clues about what the other was really up to. Needless to say, this was a game at which Percy was a master — as anyone who has read his novels will know. Novice that I was, I felt it was a privilege to be given the chance to play — and more than a privilege. It was to discover something I had hoped but never realistically expected to find: an extraordinary continuity between the man's life and his work.

One must be careful here, of course. The temptation to read a writer's work through his life can lead to reductivism or even worse distortions. Percy's work, moreover, can be read, understood, and richly enjoyed without the least knowledge of his life story, and I would be the last to suggest otherwise. Yet knowledge of his life story reveals the remarkable extent to which Percy saw his work as a form of knowledge, an essay toward understanding what would help him live his life. Artist though he was, Percy became and remained a moralist who saw the end of art not in formal perfection but in the adequacy of its gesturing toward the truth that would make him free.

* * *

The life story of Walker Percy — physician, novelist, philosopher, moralist — is to a large extent the story of survival against great odds. It is the story of one man's attempt to overcome a fateful legacy of family and culture, place and history. But if that sounds melodramatic, let me qualify. If Walker Percy bore burdens that were heavy, they were by no means uniquely so. One could even say that some of them — including his birth into a wealthy, widely respected, and highly accomplished southern family — were indistinguishable from privileges.

So why write about this person, Walker Percy, if his plight is not remarkable? The answer is simple. His response to his fate was. It was even something of a mystery.

The outline of the mystery is this: An intelligent, attractive man in his early thirties, a man with a promising medical career ahead of him, decides not only to abandon his profession and become a writer but also to embrace a religion, Catholicism, upon which he, an ardent believer in science, had previously looked with respectful but thoroughgoing skepticism. He also decides at roughly the same time to give up the ways of a minor Lothario and marry a young woman he had met a few years before and with whom he had since conducted a fitful on-again off-again relationship.

Just the ordinary stuff of life, one might say. Perhaps. But behind these decisions there seems to have been a gamble, a wager for mortal, and even immortal, stakes. From what little direct testimony we can lay hands on, Percy was at rock bottom in his early thirties. "I'll tell you something," he told a young photographer, Mark Morrow, who came to his home in Convington, Louisiana, "the day I turned thirty was one of the worst days of my life. I just thought I was never going to amount to anything"

In despair, Percy took a gamble. He abandoned the future he had been preparing for (and which had been made somewhat problematic by a mild but persistent case of tuberculosis) and set off on a completely unanticipated course — the life of a writer.

Why should a person come to terms with a difficult fate by embracing an even more difficult solution? That, obviously, is a large question, requiring a long answer. For now, I shall say only that such a decision touches on a kind of heroism, an intellectual and spiritual bravery. And one concern of this book is how, and to what extent, Percy's life constituted a heroic, or at least an exemplary, life.

Some may object that such a concern is entirely contrary to what has become the primary object of biography in our time, which is to expose the feet of clay. Heroism, after all, is an archaic notion belonging to times irretrievably past. To be concerned with it bespeaks a mentality hopelessly unevolved. If such a preoccupation is, in fact, regressive, I freely own up to suffering from it. But I would quickly add that the examination of an exemplary life does not oblige one to ignore flaws. The interest of an exemplary person depends largely on the complexity, and sometimes the enormity, of his or her flaws. The problem with modern biography — or "pathography" as Joyce Carol Oates has aptly dubbed — is its lack of a tragic sense, and a resulting tendency to see the subject's failings against some implied perfectibilist ideal rather than against the limitations of a human fate. The implication always seems to be that the biographer could have done better. It is little wonder that contemporary biography often seems to have no higher goal than, as Elizabeth Hardwick once said, to "diminish the celebrated object and aggrandize the biographer."

But even those who are willing to allow that the exploration of heroism is a legitimate biographical goal may rightly wonder at my choice of subject. Percy, first of all, was a writer, and except for a few notable exceptions of the Byron-Hemingway ilk, writers tend not to lead outwardly eventful lives. Percy, moreover, seems to have been intent on avoiding drama, opting instead for what appears to have been a life of subdued provincial domesticity. But this is only an appearance, for Percy's small-town withdrawal contains within its seemingly placid confines a fierce anchoritic struggle. His life was not short on its own kind of drama, a quieter, less visible sort that might properly be called, in W.B. Yeats's sense of the word, poetic: It was drama that arose out of the quarrel with himself.

There is also a Pascalian dimension to Walker Percy's life, evident in the wager that he made in his early thirties and present in almost all of his novels, in which his characters risk all in order to escape lives of quiet desperation. The source of all human misery, Pascal observed, is man's inability to remain alone and content in his room, and Percy took this formula as a personal challenge. All writers do, to an extent. But few have addressed it so directly or, in doing so, made it seem so centrally the problem of our times. Percy's probing of this question necessarily brought him to consider the core American ideal — the pursuit of happiness — and his critical reflections upon the nature of human happiness are what make him the most important American moralist since Ralph Waldo Emerson, a thinker, not incidentally, with whom Percy was profoundly at odds.

At issue in Percy's plumbing of the soul's restlessness is a large question: Is there an individual, irreducible self that is worth saving? And, if so, how best to preserve it in an age that reduces the self to a problem that is to be solved by one or another therapeutic regime or else subsumed under some progressive ideal of a larger social good? Obviously, such concerns put Percy in that long line of thinkers who have been collectively dubbed "existentialists." Not that this greatly clarifies matters. As Percy often remarked, the label has been so widely used and misused that it has become virtually meaningless. What is interesting, however, is the question of how this scion of a prominent southern family came to be concerned with ideas usually associated with an assortment of marginalized European artists and intellectuals. Existentialism seems more rightly the province of tormented souls like Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky than of affable if somewhat remote southern M.D.'s. It would also appear to be more at home in St. Petersburg or Copenhagen, on the Left Bank or in Greenwich Village, than in America's Deep South.

This seeming anomaly merits an explanation, and I will begin with an extended look at the world from which Percy came. By world I mean both the South that Percy grew up and lived in — which is in itself a fairly broad sweep of territory — and the South of his forefathers. As it turns out, the Percy family has played an important part in the shaping of this region ever since the first Percy arrived in the late eighteenth century. Their roles at various moments of southern history have been almost archetypal — prosperous planters, politicians, military officers, progressive corporate lawyers, and businessmen. And just as the Percys have had a decisive influence on the shape of their region's history, so have the various twists and turns of southern history determined a great deal about the Percys' lives.

Walker Percy's attitude toward this interconnected legacy of family and regional history is itself one of the keys to the man. At times, it involved a stance of repudiation. Like Stephen Dedalus, Walker Percy, and his many fictional self-transformations, from Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer to Dr. Tom More in The Thanatos Syndrome, tend to view history as a nightmare from which they hope to awake. On numerous occasions, Percy rejected the tag "southern writer" as both condescending and irrelevant. ("Was Cervantes labeled an Andalusisn writer?", he once asked at a writers' conference.) Sometimes he would allow that he was a writer of the New South, quickly adding that since the salient feature of the New South is its declining distinctiveness from the rest of the nation, a writer of the New South should be considered as nothing more than an American writer.

Wanting to escape from the nightmare of history and being able to do so are two different things, and for all Percy's efforts to distance himself from the wisteria and mint julep trappings of the Old South mystique and even from the more serious Faulknerian concerns with the tragic shape of southern history (and the rhetoric that inevitably accompanies such concerns), Percy nonetheless remained mired in distinctively southern preoccupation's with religion, race, family, defeat, and honor. Not that any of these is uniquely southern, of course. But in the South, they all come with their own special baggage. And if Percy approached them from a slightly different angle from that of Faulkner, Styron, Warren, Foote, or a dozen other southern tragedians, if he tried to view them with something of a comic-satiric eye, he was still no less engaged by them. If, to paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, Faulkner has given fine literary shape to its first repetition and Percy (among others) to its second.

The great themes of southern history have a way of not going away, and perhaps none of them returns more insistently than what Richard King, in his study of the South's cultural awakening between 1930 and 1955, A Southern Renaissance, calls the family romance. The preoccupation with family in southern letters stems, says King, from an enduring fact of southern life and society from antebellum times to the present — the "absence of strong extra-familial institutions." The white South, at least, has persistently functioned as a loose society of families held together by certain myths and codes. The South's defeat in the Civil War, far from destroying these myths, actually increased their ideal luster. At the center of a highly romanticized family order was the lordly figure of the father, surrounded by loyal and dependent black "retainers," a pure but largely ineffectual wife, and admiring sons and daughters. The father was the standard-bearer of a world that had died with the Civil War but whose ideals were still the only ones worth living and dying for. Evil was all that came in the wake of defeat — greedy Scalawags and Carpetbaggers who exploited the confused black populace for power and gain; Yankee industrialists and financiers who sought to exploit the riches of the South and give it nothing in return; the decline of honor and honorable behavior; uppity subordinates, particularly uppity blacks; moral looseness in all areas of life.

If the Southern family romance seems so much hypocrisy and wishful thinking, it would be callow to dismiss it with a condescending sneer. For one thing, it worked, at least up to a point, by providing a certain order and direction for postwar southern society, and one would have to be very certain of one's certainties to say that it was the worst of all possible arrangements. For another, it embodied some values that are not easily dismissed, including honor, loyalty, and a sense of personal responsibility for others. The ease with which such values were corrupted or distorted for base ends — including the perpetuation of race and class distinctions — should not blind outsiders to the fact that they were not always thus corrupted.

And it is precisely amid the ambiguities of the southern family romance that the Percy family has struggled and sometimes, to use Faulkner's word, "prevailed." They have their roots in the antebellum South, a much rawer world than later myths would imply, lived and fought through the war that brought an end to the old order (at least in its purest form), fought the political wars of Reconstruction, and figured in the economic rise of the New South. But if the Percys have often prevailed, they have also fallen victim to maladies that routinely afflicted southerners of their class and station — above all, to the dark and often suicidal despair that accompanied the maintenance of a highly formalized but essentially lonely social role.

Walker Percy is heir to that tradition of accomplishment and desperation. His work is his attempt to see his way through it, to find the glimmer of comic hope behind the stern tragic mask. But his is not a parochial labor. We are all heirs to complex legacies that seem, by turns, sustaining and death-dealing. What is more, the spiritual loneliness that Percy so artfully limns seems increasingly the problem faced by all people living in a world that has become, or is becoming, modern.