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Walker Percy: A Memorial


The following memorials originally appeared in The Southern Review n.s. 26 (Fall, 1990). Revised, 1996. Re-printed with permission.

Walker Percy was graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in 1941. The following year while doing autopsies as an intern in pathology at New York City's Bellevue Hospital he contracted tuberculosis. Even as the fair courts of life opened before him, it would seem, the promising young physician had been dealt a crippling blow. Yet Walker Percy never considered this ironic stroke of fate to be anything but great good luck. He regarded his two-year confinement in the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York, to be sure, as the seminal moment in his life: the time when a thirty-year-old student of medical science from Greenville, Mississippi, had shattered the mold of the southern patriciate into which he had been born, with its moral requirement that a young man belonging to this class must become either a man of the cloth, a lawyer, a doctor, or a planter. Of course if he had been able to benefit from advances in the treatment of TB that were soon to come, and thus had had a rapid recovery from his illness, the story of the young Dr. Percy might well have been different. He might have honorably pulled at least a partial stint as a medical officer in the World War II American army, and thereafter, obedient to his social responsibility, become a conventional practitioner of medicine. Instead he became first a free-lance philosopher and then a novelist.

Walker attributed his choice of vocation to the privilege he had — it was nothing less than a privilege in his estimation — of "taking the cure" at "an old-fashioned sanatorium," which he compared to the sanatorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. The comparison was somewhat hyperbolic. Yet, although it hardly offered an exotic community of patients and doctors — the exotic emblems of a dying European culture — that Hans Castorp encountered on his Swiss mountain in the years immediately preceding the first world war, Trudeau Sanatorium did afford Percy the opportunity, in the context of life in a community of displaced fellow sufferers, to pursue a personal quest into the mystery of existence.

This quest had a fundamental motive in the disorder, sorrow, and displacement of Walker's early years. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916, he lived there until the age of eleven, when his father committed suicide in the attic of the family home. A year of so later his mother was the victim of an automobile accident. The trauma of the experiences was markedly alleviated when a Mississippi bachelor cousin, William Alexander Percy, adopted Walker and his two brothers. "Uncle Will," whom the Percy boys came to love and revere as no other person, was a veteran of the first world war, a disciple of Marcus Aurelius, poet and memoirist (Lanterns on the Levee), and a lover of classical music, whose home in Greenville was the center of the "high culture" of the Mississippi Delta.

The comparatively early death of W. A. Percy in 1941 meant to Walker the loss of a second father and a second home. The onset of tuberculosis and his admittance to the sanatorium at Saranac Lake was a kind of final displacement for the youth who had heretofore done as he was expected to do.

Afforded the leisure at Trudeau to read what he would, Percy became absorbed in the writings of such students of man in the modern age as Kierkegaard, Marcel, Wittgenstein, Sartre, and Charles Sanders Peirce (the almost unknown American philosopher, who was to become of major importance to Percy). The result was that, not unlike Hans Castorp, Walker became aware of the representational — the symbolic — quality of his own singular existence in the historical culture of which he was an inextricable part. Indeed, his physical illness enabled the ex-Bellevue pathologist to discover symptoms in himself of a disease more insidious than TB, these belonging to that affliction of the spirit Kierkegaard found pervasive in a post-Christian world dominated by the rational, scientific approach to knowledge. Kierkegaard called it "the sickness unto death," defining it as a deadly malaise characteristically expressed in the individual human consciousness by a despair that does not know itself. Pursuing the subtle and devious etiology of the modern malaise, Percy — who actually was allowed by the mild nature of his own case of TB (a lesion on one lung) to do some work as a physician at Trudeau even as he was a patient-diagnosed the cause of the sickness unto death as being not so much a reaction to the experience of Neitzchean death of God as an anxious reaction to a widespread sense of God's displacement in the modern world. He began to be suspicious about his scientific training — especially with respect to the "classical behaviorism" he had been taught as a pre-med at Chapel Hill and the "idea of the mechanicism of disease" he had heard expounded at Columbia. "Science," he would eventually declare, "can say everything about a man except what he is in himself." Questioning more and more the validity of the psychoanalytical quest for the self — which he had personally pursued for three years while in med school by visiting a psychiatrist five days a week — the young doctor-patient at Trudeau found himself profoundly attracted to the Christian concept of the pilgrimage of the soul. But it was 1947 before Percy formally identified himself as a Christian pilgrim. In that year he and his wife "Bunt" (Mary Bernice Townsend of Mississippi, whom he had married in 1946) became converts to Roman Catholicism.

Ending a period of residence in the New Orleans French Quarter in 1947, Walker and Bunt moved across Lake Pontchartrain to establish a home on the Bayou Falaya ("river of mists" or "river of ghosts") in Covington, Louisiana. As might be expected of a Catholic convert heavily influenced by a crucial Protestant thinker like Kierkegaard, Percy came into what was at times a rather tense association with the Church. But in spite of doubts and fears the association was an unbreakable one and became even more so in the last decade of his life, when he became a lay member of the confraternity of Benedictine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey near Covington. Recognized as time went on by the Campion Medal of the Catholic Book Club and by other honors bestowed by the Church, he received the ultimate distinction in 1988 when he was made a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Council of Culture.

Although he had long since given up any thought of practicing medicine, Percy (who was blessed with an inherited income) did not formally signify his adoption of the literary vocation until the 1950s, when in a series of appearances in various journals of limited circulation (Thought, Commonweal, America, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Partisan Review, and others) he began a career as a prophetic essayist. Devoted to the exploration of the critical alienation of the self in post-Christian Western culture, Percy's brilliant periodical essays — among them, "Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism," "The Man on the Train: Three Existential Modes," and "The Message in the Bottle" — are now known to a wider audience than his original one. In fact, his literary career remained obscure until — having discovered that the major treatment of his subject — "man as dislocated, disoriented, uprooted, homeless" — is to be found in "the modern novel," Percy turned from the essay to the novel. This form, eminently suited to his remarkable talent for satire, became his primary means of expression. After a false start or two, he published what on balance may well be his two classic works, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman.

By then it was the 1960s, and Percy had reached his mid-forties, hardly the optimum age for a beginning novelist. But there were two things in his favor. The historical moment was right. In the age of the flower children there was a response to characters like Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, and Thomas More that would not have been possible before the sad, ironic decade of the 1960s, which occurred one hundred years after that other sad, ironic decade in American history, the 1860s, when the citizens of the new Republic had slaughtered each other in a catastrophic civil struggle — a struggle that had been essentially provoked by the same issue basic to the strife of the 1960s: that is to say, the fundamental modern issue, the nature of man. A second thing the average novelist had going for him was the historical fact that he belonged to the autumnal generation of the twentieth-century "Southern Renaissance." He himself would have rejected such an interpretation; in fact, he did explicitly reject it, insisting that he was distinctly different from writers of the preceding generation like Faulkner and the Agrarians in that he used the southern scene only as "a backdrop." In protesting the interpretation of his work as that of a southern author, however, Percy in the act of storytelling in effect denied his own protest. As in Faulkner, in the creation of his characters, Percy implicitly identified his sense of the land and the people of his nativity with his sense of his vocation as a modern novelist. As in Faulkner, Percy conceived the context of stories to be the history of the South, past and present, as an integral representation of the modern world; as in Faulkner, Percy found his deep, underlying motive to be a sense of the novelist's responsibility for dramatizing and interpreting the crisis peculiarly at the heart of the remarkable efflorescence of literature in the twentieth-century South, the modern crisis of self in its relation to human nature and human history.

But there was a difference between Faulkner and Percy in the treatment of this crisis. One of its most memorable novelistic formulations is the story of the displaced young southerner in The Last Gentleman, Williston Bibb Barrett. Like all southerners, Will has "trouble ruling out the possible," tending not to act unless he is acted upon, as when war makes the possible actual. In this respect Will bears a resemblance to all those young Southerners who in one way or another are summed up in the memory-obsessed, suicidal Quentin Compson. Yet Will is different from Quentin. His incapacity for decision-making is rendered total by his recurrent fugue states. Will, who in a fugue state once "wandered around northern Virginia for three weeks,...sunk in thought on old battlegrounds, hardly aware of his own name," is described as having a state of mind and emotion that reflects "more than being southern." But this is a way of saying that his mind reflects the more refined and subtle historical experience of being a young patrician southerner of the post-Faulkner generation. Unlike Quentin — unlike Faulkner — Will knows and accepts the fact that — in the words of Romana Guardini employed as the epigraph to The Last Gentleman — that he lives at "the end of the modern world."

With Walker Percy's death on May 10, 1990, the last generation of southern writers to write with a knowledge of the high culture of the patrician South in their bones — a literary line that had begun with Edgar Allan Poe and been continued in the twentieth century by John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, Faulkner, and others — disappeared. After the celebration of the Mass of Resurrection at the Church of St. Joseph's Abbey on May 12, standing at the gravesite in the cemetery reserved for the Benedictines and the members of their confraternity, I found myself remembering Percy's feeling — as different as the two were in important respects — for a relationship between himself and another physician writer, Anton Chekov. I remembered that Walker had told me once about the experience of giving one of his infrequent lectures, this to the audience at a Chekov festival held at Cornell University. I suppose I recalled this because, following the word of Walker's death, I had — for no particular reason, save perhaps that I might imagine hearing his voice again — started reading randomly in Lewis Lawson's and Victor Kramer's comprehensive collection of his interviews. I had been struck with a comment in a 1977 interview in which he had recalled the title of his Cornell lecture, "The Novelist, Diagnostician of the Contemporary Malaise." Chekov, Walker said, "was a doctor, like me, who also didn't particularly like medicine." Dr. Walker Percy failed to say that Dr. Anton Chekov was also like him in that he was a tubercular — who, possessing the sharp, exquisite sensibility of a cultural patrician and the gifts of the literary artist — lived at the end of a world; and both lived and wrote its death, and the indistinct possibility, at once tantalizing and terrifying, of its transmutation into another world. In the depths of a warm, muggy south Louisiana spring day, amid the lush greenery of the cemetery at St. Joseph's, I seemed to know why Percy said that Chekov "has influenced me a lot." But I am no more able to put this into words than I was then.