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Memorial Address on Walker Percy


The following memorial address was presented on October 24, 1990, at a commemoration service open to the public at Saint Ignatius Church in New York. The church was crowded beyond its seating capacity of 1200. Re-printed with permission.

The English essayist E. H. Carr said at the close of his early-thirties critical biography of Dostoevsky: "A hundred years hence, when Dostoevsky's psychology will seem as much of a historical curiosity as his theology seems to us now, the true proportions of his work will emerge; and posterity, removed from the controversies of the early twentieth century, will once more be able to regard it as an artistic whole."

Similarly, I would state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in time for what he was in simple and solemn fact — a novelist, not merely an explicator of various philosophers and divines, existentialist or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them, or even influenced by them, than was Proust (say) to or by Schopenhauer and Bergson. Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors. Like Flannery O'Connor, he found William Faulkner what Henry James called Maupassant, "a lion in the path." He solved this leonine problem much as Dante did on the outskirts of hell: he took a different path, around him. But their subject, his and Faulkner's — and all the rest of ours, for that matter — was the same: "the human heart in conflict with itself."

I will speak briefly. For me, the time since his death — less than half a year — is far too short to allow for any meaningful valedictory, and it probably always will be. Time, I know, will only deepen my sense of loss, my inexpressible grief at all our loss.

Sixty years is a long friendship, and it came to almost exactly that, from our meeting as boys in Greenville, Mississippi, to his death in Covington, Louisiana — incidentally, on the May 10 anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson, which Walker had read of many times in its many versions, with the date of his own death there on the page before him...One secret of the longevity of our friendship was that each of us knew what would make the other angry, and we were careful not to venture into such areas — except on purpose, which would open the matter to drumfire argument and laughter, time and time again, all down the years.

There are many amusing things I could tell you about his life and the way he lived it — including the report that he once declined an invitation to appear on the Today show because he didn't own a pair of those calf-length socks which televisional propriety requires. But I am inclined to consider this account apocryphal, not only because he did in fact appear on the Today show (where they mortified him by calling him Dr. Walker) on the morning after he won the National Book Award, but also because, by any ordinary standards, be simply had no calves.

I can, however, give you some notion of his attitude toward life by quoting from his final letter to me, late last year. Of his wanderings in search of the latest "cure," which he knew was quixotic at best, he wrote: "The worst thing is the travelling and hospitals. Flying around the U.S. is awful, and hospitals are no place for anyone, let alone a sick man...I'll tell you what I've discovered," he went on. "Dying, if that is what it comes to, is no big thing since I'm ready for it, and prepared for it by my Catholic faith which I believe. What is a pain is not even the pain but the nuisance. It is a tremendous bother (and expense) to everyone. Worst of all is the indignity. Who wants to go to pot before strangers, be an object of head-shaking for friends, a lot of trouble to kin?...Seriously, and now that I think of it, in this age of unbelief I am astounded at how few people facing certain indignity in chronic illness make an end of it. Few if any. I am not permitted to."

After that, we used the phone to stay in touch, except such times — including his last eight days — as I managed to ride down and see him. As writers we knew that, writing, we might get carried away and express feelings we'd rather leave unstated. We had never been sentimental about anything, and didn't want to risk ending up that way. Toward the end of April he took to his bed for good. With the help of his local doctor and friend, George Reiser, he orchestrated his dying, though — being tougher than he knew — he miscalculated its reach by more than a week. One night I called, knowing how bad things were, and his brother LeRoy answered on an extension beside his bed. "How is he?" I asked and Roy said, "Wait, he wants to speak to you." Then Walker got on the phone. He sounded removed. "I've got an hour, maybe an hour and twenty minutes," he told me. "Goodbye."

I had more or less expected it, but hearing it directly from him I was unstrung. "My God, Walker," I'm afraid I said, "I'm an only child and you're the closest thing to a brother I ever had."

He wasn't having any of that. "Goodbye," he said again, and handed the phone back to LeRoy.

I went down there for those last eight days, but he was much the same all through them. He wasn't concerned about my piddling grief, any more than he was concerned with giving me any piddling comfort. And he was right. There wasn't and isn't any comfort except the knowledge that his place is secure among the great American writers and that I was fortunate enough to have had him for my closest friend for all that brief and memorable span of sixty years.