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Walker Percy, 1916-1990


The following memorial originally appeared in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXIII, No. 1 (Fall, 1990), pp. 5-7. Re-printed with permission.

The death of Walker Percy deprives us of one of the genuinely original voices in that galaxy of literary talent that we know as modern Southern literature. Walker began his career as a novelist comparatively late — he was in his mid-40s when The Moviegoer appeared — but he made up for lost time, and the body of his published work — novels, essays — constitutes a distinguished performance indeed.

My own acquaintance with Walker's writing goes back long before I knew him as a person (and I was not a close friend of his). In the late 1950s I came upon an article in the Sewanee Review entitled "Metaphor as Mistake" by an author named Walker Percy. It was an elucidation of the way in which the literary use of language can offer knowledge that is neither logical nor quantifiable — can neither be abstracted nor measured. It seemed to me so brilliant, in the way that it identified and explained the quality of knowledge of our experience that only art could provide, that I ordered extra copies and gave them to some behavioral psychologists I knew — which made about as much sense as offering a recording of The Magic Flute to the late Elvis Presley.

When The Moviegoer was published in 1961, and by fortunate happenstance was called to the attention of the committee appointed to judge the National Book Awards competition, it became evident that a new and important variety of Southern writer had arrived on the scene. And if there were any lingering skepticism about it, the publication of The Last Gentleman in 1967 erased it. For here was a novelist who put behind him both the high tragic mode and the small-town rural comedy and wrote about educated, sophisticated moderns living in urban America and no longer hung up over the Supreme Court decision, the fall of Richmond, dynastic decline, or the inhospitality of the culturally retarded community to the sensitive artist-manquá. The South he wrote about was the South that most of us inhabited. The malaise he saw it as suffering from was not a matter of the passing of the heroic virtues of an Age of Gold and the advent of an Iron Time; it was that of a too-smug, too-selfish material prosperity and a loss of spiritual direction.

Walker was a Roman Catholic, and his novels were by design religious fiction, but unlike most of the Southern religious fiction that I have read (and Flannery O'Connor's, for all its accomplishments, is no exception in this respect), Walker's is not Jansenist; it is not written from a position of theological privilege located far above the struggle, judging the poor deluded sinners and consigning them to the fire. Unlike all too much of the religious fiction that I have encountered, when reading Walker's novels I don't ever get the feeling that the author is confusing his typewriter with the flaming sword wielded by the Avenging Angel, because this particular author includes himself among the sinful. His Catholicism is not a charter for smugness or arrogance. Nor is it an authorization of the self-important gesture, the self-congratulatory stance of the public martyr. In a later novel, The Second Coming, Walker's protagonist, Will Barrett, resolves to retreat deep into a cave and there await the ultimate confirmation of the existence of God and the end of the world; unfortunately, he no sooner takes up his desperate vigil than he comes down with a toothache. So much for the notion that God has an obligation to justify Himself to Will Barrett or Walker Percy.

When I look at Walker's fiction as a whole, it seems to divide itself into two groups. The first two novels are richly textured, with much attention given to the documentation of place; the mode is realistic. His third novel, Love in the Ruins, is transitional; although the "world's body" is still present, there is a sense of the fantastic, the comically bizarre, as if objects were being made to assume an emblematic existence and to function as the visible signs of ideas. Beginning with Lancelot, the three later novels move decisively away from a realistic mode and into a realm of ideas. There is just enough documentation to make the human situation plausible and keep it from turning into allegory. It is as if, beginning with Melville, the author moved into Hawthorne.

My own preference, I have to say, is for the earlier mode; The Last Gentleman still seems to me Walker's best, and one of the great American works of fiction. Yet it also seems to me that given Walker's objectives and concerns, the move toward the so-called novel of ideas was necessary if he were to continue to develop as a novelist. For once he had more or less compIeted his re-creation of the particularities of his own Southern time and pIace — involving his family, his interest in the social and political changes and continuities in his community, and so on — the realistic mode, if continued in use, would have forced him more and more into satire. And for the satiric mode to work, it requires a firmly fixed point of reference within the social context against which human foibles can be measured and weighed. But Walker's whole approach to experience was that of the explorer, the wayfarer; he didn't presume to know all the answers. To engage honestly and with humility in his search, the satirical mode was too one-sided, too limiting; he had to be, imaginatively, the creatures of his fiction, and it was the moral, ethical, and theological implications inherent in their situations that most concerned him, not their social and historical context. His last three novels, therefore, were decisively dedicated to making those implications imaginatively explicit. I know of no similar quest, certainly in Southern writing, that was brought off with anything like a comparable brilliance and distinction.

We have lost a great man. It may be recalled that Walker Percy's parents died when he was a child, and he and his brothers were adopted by his cousin, William Alexander Percy, poet, public man, and author of a notable memoir, Lanterns on the Levee. Walker presented a beautiful tribute to Will Percy in the edition of Lanterns on the Levee published in 1973. But much that Will Percy was also appears, memorably and probably more lastingly, in the characterizations of Binx Bolling's Aunt Emily in The Moviegoer and of Will Barrett's father in The Last Gentleman. Certainly Walker Percy was only too well aware of the life-denying limitations of the creed of aristocratic stoicism voiced by those two remarkable fictional characters, modeled as they are on the attitudes of Will Percy. Yet in The Moviegoer Aunt Emily, in expressing her disappointment in Binx Bolling's conduct, delivers herself of the following observation:

I did my best for you, son. I gave you all I had. More than anything else I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women — the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life. Ah, well.

I do not believe she would have been disappointed in Walker Percy.