He devoted his literary life to the exploration of “the dislocation of man in the modern age.” His work displays a combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.
He had a lifelong friendship with author and historian Shelby Foot and spent much of his life in Covington, Louisiana, where he died of prostate cancer in 1990. Two years later, Percy's mother died in a suspected suicide when she drove a car off a country bridge and into Deer Creek near Leland, Mississippi, where they were visiting.
Walker and his two younger brothers, Leroy (Roy) and Chintzy (Pain), were taken in by their first cousin once removed, William Alexander Percy, a bachelor lawyer and poet living in Greenville, Mississippi. Percy was raised as an agnostic, but he was nominally affiliated with a theologically-liberal Presbyterian church.
William Percy introduced him to many writers and poets. After moving to Greenville, Mississippi, in 1930, Percy was introduced by William Percy to a neighboring youth his own age, Shelby Foot, who became his lifelong best friend.
As young men, Percy and Foot decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. However, when they arrived at his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to speak to him.
He later recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foot and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch. Percy and Foot were classmates at both Greenville High School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Foot and Percy went on dates together, made regular trips to nearby Durham, North Carolina, to drink and socialize, and they even journeyed to New York City during one of their semester breaks. When Percy graduated in 1937, Foot dropped out and returned to Greenville.
From Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1941, intending to become a psychiatrist. There, he spent five days a week in psychoanalysis with Dr. Janet Rich, to whom he had been referred by Harry Stack Sullivan, a friend of Uncle Will.
After three years, Walker decided to quit the psychoanalysis and later reflected on his treatment as inconclusive. While he had only a “minimal lesion” that caused him little pain, he was forced to abandon his medical career and to leave the city.
Percy spent several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanatorium in Saran ac Lake, in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. He spent his time sleeping, reading, and listening to his radio to hear updates on World War II.
He was envious of his brothers, who were both enlisted in the war and fighting overseas. During this period, Percy used Trudeau's Mellon Library, which held over 7000 titles.
He read the works of Danish existentialist philosopher Siren Kierkegaard as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gabriel Marcel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann. He began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence.
He was influenced by the example of one of his college roommates, and he began to rise daily at dawn and go to Mass. In August 1944, Percy was pronounced healthy enough to leave Trudeau and was discharged.
He traveled to New York City to see Huger Jersey, dean of Columbia Law School and a friend of Percy. He then lived for two months in Atlantic City, New Jersey with his brother Pain, who was on leave from the Navy.
In the spring of 1945, Percy returned to Columbia as an instructor of pathology and took up residence with Huger Jersey. On April 12, Percy boarded a train for Wallingford, Connecticut to stay at Gaylord Farm Sanatorium.
Years later, Percy reflected on his illness with more fondness than he had then felt at the time: “I was the happiest man ever to contract tuberculosis, because it enabled me to get out of Bellevue and quit medicine.” In 1935, during the winter term of Percy's sophomore year at Chapel Hill, he contributed four pieces to The Carolina Magazine.
According to scholars such as Jay Olson, Percy proved his knowledge and interest in the good and the bad that accompany contemporary culture with his first contributions. Percy's personal experiences at Chapel Hill are portrayed in his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), through the protagonist Bin Bowling.
During the years that Percy spent in his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, he “became known for his dry wit,” which is how Bowling is described by his fraternity brothers in The Moviegoer. He worked on a second novel, The Grammy Winner, which also was never published.
The essay, “Stoicism in the South,” condemned Southern segregation and demanded a larger role for Christian thought in Southern life. After many years of writing and rewriting in collaboration with editor Stanley Kauffman, Percy published his first novel, The Moviegoer, in 1961.
Percy later wrote of the novel that it was the story of “a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America.” Later works included The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanos Syndrome in 1987.
Percy's personal life and family legends provided inspiration and played a part in his writing. Percy's vision for the plot of The Second Coming came to him after an old fraternity brother visited him in the 1970s.
He told Percy the story of his life where he is burned out and does not know what to do next. The trend of Percy's personal life influencing his writing seemingly held true throughout his literary career, beginning with his first novel.
Percy also published a number of nonfiction works exploring his interests in semiotics and existentialism, his most popular work being Lost in the Cosmos. Percy married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946.
Both studied Catholicism and were received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1947. Fearing that Percy was sterile, the married couple adopted a first daughter, Mary Pratt, but later conceived a second daughter, Ann, who became deaf at an early age.
The family settled in the suburb of Covington, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Percy's wife and one of their daughters later had a bookstore, where the writer often worked in an office on the second floor.
Percy underwent an operation for prostate cancer on March 10, 1988, but it had already metastasized to surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. In July 1989, he volunteered his doctors at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, to use experimental medicines.
Although the side effects of the experimental treatment were debilitating, Percy had a revelation when he saw children with cancer waiting in the lounges. Percy's work, which often features protagonists facing displacement, influenced other Southern authors.
According to scholar Farrell O'Gorman, Percy's vision helped bring a fundamental change in southern literature where authors began to use characters concerned with “a sense of estrangement.” His writing serves as an example for contemporary southern writers who attempt to combine elements of history, religion, science, and the modern world.
Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Farrah, Strauss, 1971; reprinted Avon, 1978.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Plasmon Press, 1982 (also in Signposts, 1991.) How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic.
The Correspondence of Shelby Foot and Walker Percy. Symbol and Existence: A Study in Meaning: Explorations of Human Nature by Walker Percy.
Edited by Keener, Kenneth Line, Kara Lea Perkins, Rhonda Renee McDonnell, Scott Ross Cunningham. Percy’s previously unpublished book on his working theory.
With essays by Sara Carr and Tom Robert from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog. Existentialism, Semiotics and Iced Tea, Review of Conversations with Walker Percy New York Times, August 4, 1985.
Extract from Walker Percy, the Catholic Church and Southern race relations (ca. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Farrah, Strauss & Giroud.
The House of Percy : Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family. Listening to the Dead: Marginalia in Walker Percy's Private Library (Masters Paper).
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The House of Percy : Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family.
Pilgrim in the Ruins: a Life of Walker Percy. “John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy : Fiction and Repetition in a Confederacy of Dunces”.
^ ^ Peter Augustine Lawler; Brian A. Smith (19 July 2013). ^ “Remembering Walker Percy as a Benedictine Oblate” Archived 2011-11-11 at the Payback Machine, Plastic Beatitude blog.
“Languages of Mystery: Walker Percy's Legacy in Contemporary Southern Fiction”. “A Visit With Walker Percy : An Interview and a Recollection”.
^ Website of St. Louis Literary Award ^ Notre Dame website ^ Walker Percy, “The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind”, C-SPAN Video, Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities. Special Collections & Archives, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans.
^ “Mississippi Writers Trail markers for Shelby Foot and Walker Percy unveiled in Greenville | Mississippi Development Authority”. Allen, William Rodney, Walker Percy : A Southern Wayfarer.
Cole's, Robert, Walker Percy : An American Search. Desmond, John F. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide (Catholic University of America Press, 2019).
Duty, Edward J., Autobiography in Walker Percy : Repetition, Recovery and Redemption. Harwell, David Horace, Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him.
Smith, Brian A. Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer (Lexington Books, 2017) Tillman, Jane G. “The intergenerational transmission of suicide: Moral injury and the mysterious object in the work of Walker Percy.” Olson, Jay, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy.
Wood, Ralph C, The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. The Literary Percy's: Family History, Gender & the Southern Imagination.