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The Walker Percy Project

Walker Percy's Homeward Journey


Patrick Samway is the literary editor of America, the author of a book on William Faulkner, and the editor of many collections, including Signposts in a Strange Land (1991), Percy's uncollected essays and assorted writings. Re-printed with permission from America, Vol. 170, No, 17, May 14, 1994, pp. 16-19. Samway's biography of Percy is forthcoming in 1997 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Image: Map of Louisiana

Eudora Welty, the doyenne of American letters, wrote in her instructive essay "Place in Fiction" that there "may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes &mdash closer to us in some ways, perhaps, than our original homes. But the home tie is the blood tie. And had it meant nothing to us, any other place thereafter would have meant less, and we would carry no compass inside ourselves to find home ever, anywhere at all." Home meant everything to Walker Percy; his six novels represent, from one perspective, an unconscious quest to locate his family roots and to explore those locales that were significant in his personal development.

Percy's first essay, published in the Greenville High School newspaper in Mississippi, entitled "My Autobiography," indicates that even as a teen-ager he was intent on looking to his own life as a source of his imaginative writings. Later, as an adult, Percy incorporated autobiographical references into his fiction, though, at the same time, he rarely spoke publicly about himself or his family's long and distinguished history, thought by some in the Percy family to go back to the fiery Harry Hotspur, celebrated by Shakespeare in "Henry IV, Part One." Perhaps Percy's reticence to talk about his family's history had good reason. The house his parents originally lived in, the house of his paternal grandparents and the house belonging to William Alexander Percy, a cousin who adopted him, were all torn down during his lifetime.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1916, Walker Percy and his mother and two brothers moved to Athens, Ga., in 1929, the year his father committed suicide. The following year, at the invitation of William Alexander Percy, they moved to Greenville, Miss., where Walker finished his last three years of high school. Further education took him to Chapel Hill, N.C., and New York City, where he contracted tuberculosis while working as a physician at BeIlevue Hospital. After recuperating in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Wallingford, Conn., Percy subsequently lived in Sewanee, Tenn., and then in New Orleans after his marriage in 1946 to Mary Bernice ("Bunt") Townsend. Finally, Percy, his wife and eventually their two daughters lived in Covington, La., across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. Covington became their permanent hometown. Percy's first published novel, The Moviegoer, and his sixth and last, The Thanatos Syndrome, both take place in Louisiana, the state he lived in for most of his adult life. It would seem that Percy, no doubt relying on some interior magnet, felt drawn by a sense of place and history that eventually led him in his fiction to link his home in Covington with what is considered the original seat of the Percy family in this country &mdash St. Francisville, La., a few hours from Covington, upriver from New Orleans.

The plot of Percy's first novel, The Charterhouse, which he began writing during his honeymoon and then unfortunately burned, can be vaguely discerned from Percy's correspondence with Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate and Shelby Foote. In this novel, Ben Cleburne, the protagonist, returns to a city (most likely Birmingham) after a year's absence and meets two people: Abbie, a young woman who becomes his wife, and Mrs. Kramer, the mother of his friend Ignatz, who had briefly attended a seminary. The relationship of Ben, Abbie and Ignatz forms the basis of this novel. One of the zanier aspects of this novel concerns a psychiatric nursing home in Sewanee called "The Retreat," where the patients wear strange, donated uniforms &mdash raccoon coats and ski caps! William Alexander Percy owned a vacation home called "Brinkwood" in Sewanee, not far from the Monteagle Assembly Grounds, and Walker Percy and his two brothers would frequently stay at Brinkwood as teen-agers. Furthermore, Percy, still recuperating from tuberculosis, and his wife spent an extended honeymoon at Brinkwood. In effect, Brinkwood and its environs was Percy's temporary home-away-from-a-home-he-never-had. The one house he might have called home at this time, William Alexander Percy's house in Greenville, then belonged to one of Walker Percy's brothers.

In the second &mdash and also unpublished &mdash novel, The Gramercy Winner, which concerns the plight of William Grey in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Upstate New York, Percy creates a situation that in many respects parallels his own bout with tuberculosis and his residency at Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake. When Grey dies of a meningeal infection in August 1943, Percy, from a psychobiographical point of view, releases himself &mdash both as author and T.B. patient &mdash from that place and that existence, and can now start afresh.

Clearly, as these two novels indicate, Percy felt the need to situate his characters in places that were particularly important to him as an adolescent and as a young physician with a life-threatening illness. Since it was Percy's explicit desire that neither of these novels be published, it seems reasonable to assume that he put aside these characters and locales as not corresponding to the demands of his imagination.

The quest to find a home nevertheless continued. The moment of discovery occurred when Percy began understanding the importance of movies in his life. In an unpublished story in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Confessions of a Movie-goer," taken from a work-in-progress entitled Diary of the Last Romantic, Percy wrote a draft of what would eventually become The Moviegoer, winner of the National Book Award in 1962. The story, which differs considerably from the printed novel, depicts a young medical student attending a John Ford movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The unnamed narrator lives at the West Side Y.M.C.A., just as Walker Percy did when he first arrived in New York to begin studies at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. While watching the cowboy in the movie, the narrator asks: "Who is he? What is his identity in relation to me?' And then the epiphany: "For we live in a meaningful world," the narrator says. "This moment, the moment of the movies, is the Significant Moment." Though we see the medical student enter the theater, we do not see him leave, and thus we are left with the distinct impression that this young man feels most comfortable &mdash most at home &mdash in a dark, cavernous movie theater.

When published, The Moviegoer revealed an entirely new set of characters and a different setting, this time New Orleans. Percy states briefly, in a short introduction to this novel, that it is a work of the imagination and that all the characters, except for the movie stars, are imaginary. In addition, he notes that the geography of the city and the bayous has been changed slightly. "As for 'Feliciana Parish,' there are parishes named East Feliciana and West Feliciana, but I know not a soul in either place" &mdash an honest statement even though Percy had many distant Percy cousins living in St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish. Such a standard disclaimer gives Percy both a literary license to delineate and populate his imaginary parish, reminiscent of Hardy's Wessex, yet draw on the landscape of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Basin and transform this area into a personal mindscape. The protagonist, Binx Bolling, who ultimately goes to medical school himself, resembles his earlier New York City counterpart in that both men find intense satisfaction while watching movies, suggesting, as did Woody Allen later in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," that movies are more "real" than everyday life. In The Moviegoer, Percy poses not only a serious question about the nature and function of art for people who are searching for some type of authentic existence, but about the place where they will find it.

In the foreword to The Last Gentleman, Percy's second and most explicitly autobiographical novel, he adds another note of explanation, which suggests his unwillingness to admit that one of his intentions in writing this novel is to find a suitable, albeit imaginary, home for himself. Though he tells his reader that the characters in this novel are fictional and that no real persons are portrayed, Percy almost trips over himself in discussing the notion of place in this novel: "The places do not necessarily correspond to geography. That is to say, New York is New York, but localities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have been deliberately scrambled. For example, the Southern city herein set forth bears certain resemblances to Birmingham. But the nearby university is more like the state institution in Mississippi. The town of Shut Off, Louisiana, is not across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. These liberties are taken as a consequence of my impression that this region as a whole, comprising parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, shares certain traits which set it apart from much of the United States and even from the rest of the South." Though localities in these states are somewhat scrambled, as Percy admits, he did choose to stay, in these first two novels, relatively close to his own geographical roots.

In the foreword to his fourth novel, Lancelot, Percy more explicitly redefines the contours of his real and fictional worlds, as if placing one on top of the other to form a palimpsest, so that with insight both could be seen simultaneously. Percy notes that New Orleans and the River Road "are used here as place names of an imaginary terrain." There is no Feliciana Parish and no English Coast, although an English Turn does exist downriver from New Orleans. Felicity Street does cross Annunciation Street in New Orleans, but not where Percy says it does in the novel. ' There never was a house named Belle Isle. There was a house named Northumberland in Spanish West Florida but it no longer stands. Nor do the characters bear any intentional relation to real persons living or dead." Though Percy is trying to separate fact from fiction (in the characteristic manner of a filmwriter or writer of detective stories), he never seems successful in untangling the two. And sensing the self-conscious negative emphases in these forewords, as if Percy were trying to hide something, a critic might see Percy as unwittingly inviting a biographical interpretation of his works. It is of interest that Percy has mentioned the name of "Northumberland," an actual plantation in Louisiana once belonging to his ancestors. The name of the plantation also evokes the history of Harry Hotspur. "I like the idea of being a descendant of the Northumberland Percys," Walker Percy once mentioned to me, "because they were recusants and a couple of them lost their heads as martyrs."

But, more and more, it was Covington that served as Percy's imaginative base. As Percy explains in his April 1980 essay in Esquire, "Why I Live Where I Live," Covington is a cheerfully anomalous town with an "admirable tradition of orneriness and dissent." In this essay, Percy notes that, technically speaking, "Covington is a nonplace in a certain relation to a place (New Orleans), a relation that allows one to avoid the horrors of total placement or total nonplacement or total misplacement." If he had lived in a city such as Charleston, S.C., or Mobile, Ala., where families often can trace their roots back 200 years, then he would have been haunted he writes, by the total placement of the locale. On the other hand, he could have moved to a nondescript place in the North, such as Waterbury, Conn., and lived anonymously in total nonplacement. A third option would have been to seek total misplacement by choosing Key West, Fla., or the Ile de Saint-Louis in Paris, or some other exotic place, and expect to participate in the identity of this new locale.

"My own suspicion," Percy explains, "is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn, who get sent to the Gulag camps for their writings, keep writing on toilet paper, take on the whole bloody state &mdash and win. The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom &mdash even freedom for atrocities like 'MacBird' ! &mdash but, like 95 percent of Americans, couldn't care less what we write." Percy sought a place where the terrors he faced as a writer would not be neutralized, but "rendered barely tolerable." What attracted Percy to Covington was what repelled one of Covington's former residents who said, "My God, you could live back in those pine trees for twenty years and never meet your neighbor &mdash it's as bad as New York." In short, Percy could sniff clean air in Covington, eat crawfish etouffe, drink an occasional Jack Daniels, enjoy his family life, visit friends, feel about as good as one may on this green earth and write fiction while looking out his study window.

Knowing the area of north-central Louisiana as he did and eventually having visited his relatives in St. Francisville, Percy studied and absorbed the history of this region of the South. In The Thanatos Syndrome, his sixth and last novel, he takes a further step beyond his previous fiction and acknowledges Feliciana, as he likewise did in his essay "Why I Live in Feliciana," as an actual historic locale, "a strip of pleasant pineland running from the Mississippi River to the Perdido, a curious region of a curious state." Percy relished the history of Feliciana; it had a marvelously wry, almost zany, character about it that Percy found appealing. Unlike other parishes in the state, Feliciana originally had no particular identity, and served over the years to house all sorts of malcontents, such as "American Tories who had no use for the Revolution, disgruntled Huguenots and Cavaliers from the Carolinas, New Englanders fleeing from Puritanism, unionists who voted against secession, Confederate refugees from occupied New Orleans, deserters from the Confederate Army, smugglers from both sides, criminals holed up in the Honey Island Swamp." The Spanish originally welcomed these malcontents, who eventually united and threw out some of their hosts and then started their own republic, complete with a Declaration of Independence, flag, military forces and capital. In short, this parish could provide myriad real and invented stories for one who would but seek them out and write them down.

In The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy depicts Feliciana like a Miltonic hinterland east of a modern Eden: "It still harbors all manner of fractious folk, including Texans and recent refugees from unlikely places like Korea and Michigan, all of whom have learned to get along tolerably well, better than most, in fact, who watch L.S.U. football and reruns of M*A*S*H, drink Dixie beer, and eat every sort of food imaginable, which is generally cooked in something called a roux." Despite the pollution in the Mississippi River, Lake Ponchartrain and other nearby waterways, as well as the suburban blight of malls and condos, the inhabitants of this area still have affection for one another, Percy maintains, as if they share some common secret. Yet, Percy informs the readers of this novel that he has scrambled (as he did in The Last Gentleman) the geography of Feliciana and created totally fictional characters, except for the German and Austrian professors and physicians who were active in both the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. In Percy's mind, the world of Nazi Germany, and the horrors it represented for those who are not vigilant, had been partially assimilated into and merged with Feliciana.

If one had to identify a specific center for Feliciana Parish, the town of St. Francisville, mentioned by Percy in this foreword, would be the most appropriate and logical choice. It could be argued, too, that Percy's hometown of Covington served as the focal point of the novels that take place in Feliciana, and there is good reason to think that Percy imaginatively drew on several locales at once, but St. Francisville and its immediate environs seem to embody more the situations and personae mentioned in this last foreword. Most likely, the family plantation in St. Francisville was the home that Walker Percy had been searching all his life to find.

Slowly and quite deliberately in the course of writing his novels, Percy integrated verifiable local historical events and places into his fiction. As he moved from)m Covington to the area of St. Francisville in his last novel, Percy imaginatively explored the region where the first Percys in this country got their start. When the United States signed the agreement to purchase Louisiana on April 30, 1803, the boundaries of a section along the Gulf Coast in what was then West Florida remained in dispute, and this section was retained by Spain, its previous owner. Since there was confusion about the exact territory involved, President Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Zebulon Pike in 1805 to explore and clarify the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike was arrested by the Spanish authorities and escorted to the United States boundary near Natchitoches and released. Spain at that time insisted that the United States owned only the Isle of Orleans that lay east of the Mississippi and the land extending to the Calcasieu River to the west.

The history of this disputed territory is linked to the history of the Percy family. Robert, the son of Charles and Margaret Percy who was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, on Sept. 1, 1762, sailed again to the United States in 1802 (he had been there once before in 1794) and eventually moved to West Feliciana Parish, where he acquired a 2,200-acre plantation called "Beech Woods," located on the west bank of Big Bayou Sara, about 12 miles from St. Francisville on the old Percy Road, northeast of Weyanoke. Created a Spanish alcalde (mayor or officer of the state) by Governor Don Carlos de Grand Pre, Robert Percy participated in the West Florida Rebellion against Spanish rule and became a member of the first high judiciary of West Florida. In September 1810, St. Francisville formally became the capital of the Free and Independent Republic of West Florida, a small, spunky, and short-lived nation, under the presidency of Fulwar Skipwith. Imaginatively, Walker Percy became a citizen of a country his ancestors helped to create.

Thus, in The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy went home. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there," Robert Frost wrote in "The Death of the Hired Man," "they have to take you in." But with a congenial broadbased grin, Walker Percy might not have actually seen it that way; after all, he was the one who maintained that he had always been lost in the cosmos.