Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Memorials | Home

Memorial Address on Walker Percy


The following 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.

Let us for a moment imagine a scene wherein the two Walker Percys confront each other for the first time: the doctor who now intends to desist from practice and the writer who now intends to begin. When the writer presents himself in the doctor's office, the doctor says, "You propose to write, as Walker Percy? Let me advise you, you've had no experience. As a writer you're in your infancy. You think you are ready to take over what I have to say? Let's see you prove it." So the infant climbs up into the doctor's chair, gives it a spin, and writes The Moviegoer.

Of course, the significant fact about Walker's self-initiation to the writer's life is that he didn't begin as a wide-eyed young dreamer setting out to find his way in the literary world. He already knew the world, he already knew its literature, and he must have early begun to heed and to explore what was already a trustworthy insight into himself the man. It would be unlikely that he was not entertaining some compelling thoughts and observations about the rest of us. I suspect that he had prepared for becoming a novelist for as long as he had lived.

Art and science both are ways of exploration; either way, evidently, Walker Percy was a man after the truth. It seems possible that personal truth yields itself more obligingly to art — the indirect way, the allusive, suggestive, and ever-changing route, guided by the imagination.

On first reading a novel by Walker Percy, we might rather soon ask ourselves, "Where are we? Where in the world is he taking us?" We'd set off in a comfortably familiar world, the novel had proceeded civilly, urbanely, on its way, until all at once a Percy thunderclap had shaken us into apprehension. There was some real, everyday, but mysterious happening going on in the country around us — right up our road, in fact. What was until a moment ago a familiar time and place (even, perhaps, "Southern") is signaling "Danger!" In Percy novels, ordinary lives do get subjected to these occasional quick, glancing, comical, or metaphysical jolts. Thereby much goes on to be revealed.

Where is Walker Percy taking us?

But we are still at home. Home lies before us in a different light, and its face is turned toward a new perspective, but it's still where we live. Only we may have altered. We, who had once seen ourselves as comfortable homebodies with our names on the mailbox out front, with a zip code, a social security number, a MasterCard, were signed up with Blue Cross and Medicare and insured against fire, flood, and maybe earthquake — but not, it seems, against the intrusions of fantasy, poetry, or prophecy, which Walker Percy so calmly levels against our calm.

He had elected not to practice medicine, but Walker the novelist was a brilliant, perhaps a born, diagnostician. He knew, for he was always a student of life, the prognosis of a serious spiritual malady; he could read the signs and portents of despair. He could detect how easily a spiritual disorder can overtake a fellow human being, a familiar society, or the nation that we live in and normally take for granted.

The physician's ear and the writer's ear are pressed alike to the human chest, listening for the same signs of life, and with the same hope and with a like involvement in the outcome.

Each listens for the heartbeat with his own heart, scans the brain of his fellow man with his own brain, to find out whether mankind is living or dying at the moment.

Walker declares in an essay, "There's something worse than being deprived of life. It's being deprived of life and not knowing it. The poet and the novelist cannot bestow life, but they can point to instances of this loss, name and record them." Thus, he tells us, "the real challenge to the novelist is not to see things as they are not. What the novelist notices is not how awful the happenings are, but how peculiar it is that people don't seem to notice how awful the happenings are."

His reader is free to conclude — and I do — that Walker's work — novels, essays, all the forms he reached for as needed — is in its strongest intention concerned with truth. I think that only a judicious portion of this truth is the factual kind; much of it is the truth of human nature, and more of it is spiritual. Walker Percy was empowered to deal with this through being — only through being — a writer of fiction. His reader catches sight of a novel's truth through the movements of his characters (sometimes in opposition to their protestations), overhears it in what they say or do to one another or in what they fail to say and omit to do. In a work of fiction, truth has to be not told, or explained, but shown. Walker Percy, showing it, could be as indirect as a magician. Truth appears to act itself out; it is transformed into the believable.

Walker Percy shared with Swift a hatred of human folly and a concern for human souls. In Walker's hands, satire made its passion known, but it never lacked for comedy or for grace.

Good, severe thinker that he was, he allowed nothing hazy into his prose. Yet we see the completed novels, crystal-clear, stand before us filled to the full with mystery. The fact is that they, the novels, are clear, they are consistently lucid — and the subject is mysterious — eternally so: we, human beings, are the subject, and able to read his novels with an enchantment of discovery and recognition.