Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Remembrances | Home

Harvard Diary: Remembering Walker Percy


The following remembrance originally appeared in the The New Oxford Review, May 1992, pp. 25-27. Re-printed with permission.

I write these words as the second anniversary of Walker Percy's death approaches, and as my mind still lives intensely with its memories of him, not to mention his six novels, his two books of philosophical reflection, his random essays and interviews — a late 20th-century American with a very special mind, heart, soul. Indeed, many of us came to regard him as a gift of sorts, a messenger, even, from on high: someone graced with a wisdom that was extraordinary; someone, so we sometimes reminded ourselves, given special abilities by the Lord.

I first met Dr. Percy (he was a physician in early life) through some of his essays, especially "The Man on the Train," which appeared in Partisan Review during the middle 1950s, when I was learning to be a psychiatrist. I read that essay many times; it connected with my life — the relatively affluent self-preoccupation and moral drift evoked: plenty of ostensible success, but no real purpose in life other than going through the usual rounds, so to speak, meaning a compliance with every norm and convention around. At that time, and later, when I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, and working at an Air Force psychiatric hospital (all of us had to give two years to the military under the old doctors' draft law), I went to the movies a lot. While in the Air Force I went to New Orleans many times, attended medical and psychoanalytic conferences, visited various fine restaurants, and always took in a movie, or two, or three &mdash ;to the point that when I started being psychoanalyzed in New Orleans (I decided to stay there after I left the Air Force, and study school desegregation: a whole new life, of course) my analyst called me, jokingly, but of course with some interest in my motives, "an apparently compulsive moviegoer."

No wonder, then, that I was stunned one day to see a novel on display in a New Orleans bookstore titled The Moviegoer — a book I quickly bought and eagerly, even hungrily, read, and a book that would become a companion of sorts to me for the rest of my life. I have read it through several times; I go back to certain passages in it constantly. I urge it upon my college students, my medical students, and others I teach elsewhere in the university. I would go on to be a committed fan of Dr. Percy's writing — always on the lookout for his articles, always ready to celebrate the publication of one of his novels, or a book of essays. Eventually, like in a story, the young admiring reader got to do some occasional writing of his own, and one day, when an editor of a magazine for which he was working asked whether there were any "special interests" that might become, in time, "magazine pieces," the writer (his heart beating fast, and a gulp in his voice) mentioned a name: Walker Percy — and connected it to the word "profile." Several years later The New Yorker published a long (two-part) profile of Walker Percy under the title of "The Search" (as in the old existentialist search for meaning in life).

To do that writing meant to get to meet Walker Percy, and the (the greatest luck possible) to become friends with him. So it is that I am writing these words now not to offer an exegesis of his extremely important novels and books of philosophical rumination or speculation, nor to give a chronicle of his achievements, a sort of late obituary to a wonderful life. Rather, I am sitting at my desk and remembering a very special person, and concentrating on the very special message he had for late 20th-century American secularists, whose measure he has taken ever so well. "I tell you," he once remarked to me, "the crazy thing about a lot of us in this here and now is that we sure as hell know how crazy a lot of others are, but we're not on to how deaf, dumb, and blind we can be to ourselves, about ourselves — how lost we sometimes are, no matter how clever we think we've become." Pure Percy — we'd been sitting and talking about schisms in religious institutions, schismd in psychoanalytic institutions, schisms in universities, in various professional associations, and finally we turned away, in relief, to the great music of Benny Goodman, and then Glen Miller, and then Ella Fitzgerald, and then Billie Holiday, all heard to the accompaniment of some good sipping bourbon — and suddenly, in the midst of all that, such a comment, the speaker tilting his head a bit, scratching his head a bit, then lifting his head back to accommodate another swig.

I remember other great times — walks by the bayou in Covington, Percy's home; walks in Baton Rouge, where we were at a meeting; walks in New Orleans; walks into a nice old "country" bar, where we could sit and talk, and, always, laugh it up. He had a wonderfully wry manner of seeing things, Walker did; a sense of humor that hit upon (knocked all the hot air out of) the underlying pretentiousness of so much of our present day life — such pretentiousness, such phoniness, a cover-up, in turn, for the melancholy aimlessness, the moral confusion and drift that characterize a good part of our lives. He knew how to keep hold of his medical skills; he was ever the diagnostician — and, too, the healer. He had figured out how starved we all are, spiritually — so starved, we've forgotten what it's like to break bread the way Jesus and His friends did; and he had tried not only to address our desolate and desperate situation (the ultimate stage of it: we don't know of it, only know how much we know, what big-shots we've become) but to give us a few clues as to a way out. Lord, he never preached, never gave us those dreary psychological and sociological "stages" and "phases," those catchword phrases, that come and go across our cultural screens these days. He did, though, evoke the ironies and complexities and paradoxes and inconsistencies and ambiguities of our contemporary existence, and in so doing, with penetrating, sometimes mordant good fun, helped us to look more directly and fully at what has happened to us. His was an honesty, a clarity of vision, of special distinction; and when coupled with brilliant, well-educated mind, an accomplished, deft storyteller's ways, his was a voice thoroughly special and rare, one much needed, and now achingly absent.

Walker Percy had a vast impatience with the highfalutin, a wonderful down-to-earth eagerness to enjoy the ordinary, to celebrate it. He had a mind just as capable of enjoying food in a local McDonald's or a Waffle House, and enjoying, too, the people who go there, their talk, their manner of being, as it was able to take in the most complicated of Kierkegaard's ideas, the most demanding of moments in Dostoievsky, Camus, Sartre. He searched his soul scrupulously, but with a low-key amusement, too, and he gave many of us a big assist in that direction, mostly by winning us over to the desirability of making such an effort. He had persuaded us, really, to follow suit — done so through his wonderfully suggestive narrative presentations: a lively, discerning intelligence at work ever so shrewdly and knowingly, and in the end, contagiously. I miss him all the time and a lot; and I sure realize, these days, how very much our country needs him, and will continue to need him. His great legacy is his books — and I pray that more and more of us will meet him that way, be touched and edified by his singular presence, which remains with us that way, even as his soul, surely, rests in the final comfort of its Maker.

- Publication Date
All Rights Reserved ©1995-2016
Home | Contact

Top of Page