Clive Staples Lewis was a celebrated Anglo-Irish novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, lay theologian and Christian apologist whose impact and influence lives on.

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Walker Percy: An American Apologist

October 13th, 2008 | Skip to comments

Born: Birmingham, Alabama, May 28, 1916.

Died: Covington, Louisiana, May 10, 1990.

Principal Works

NOVELS: The Moviegoer, 1961; The Last Gentleman, 1966; Love in the Ruins, 1971; Lancelot, 1977; The Second Coming, 1980; The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987.

ESSAYS: The Message in the Bottle, 1975; Lost in the Cosmos, 1983; Signposts in a Strange Land, 1991.

Walker Percy is arguably the most important American novelist of ideas writing in the latter half of the twentieth century, his only rivals being, perhaps, John Updike or Saul Bellow. A traditionalist who laments the twentieth century’s loss of the perception of sin and its need for grace, Percy creates protagonists who search for the source of their alienation and melancholy in the most prosperous country on earth. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 28, 1916, living a basically idyllic Southern childhood until his father’s suicide. Percy eloquently portrays the effect of his father’s death upon him in the character of Will Barrett, protagonist of his 1980 novel, The Second Coming. After his widowed mother’s death, the teen-aged Percy and his two brothers moved to Mississippi, where they were subsequently raised to manhood by their father’s first cousin, “Uncle Will” Percy, whose autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1942), was itself a Southern classic, portraying the proud South emerging from the ravages of the civil war.

Walker Percy had no intention of becoming a writer, making his way instead to Columbia University Medical School in 1938 to become a psychiatrist, after finishing his B.A. at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Earning the M.D. in 1941, he attempted to complete his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and there contracted tuberculosis while performing autopsies on cadavers. This became pivotal in his career and in his life; while recovering in a sanatorium in upstate New York, read voraciously, particularly existentialist philosophy, including Soren Kierkegaard. The result was an improbable conversion to Christianity in 1943, and a decision to abandon medicine as a career and seek a vocation as a full-time writer.

Between 1943 and 1946, Percy attempted two forgettable novels, and eventually turned instead to studying and composing expository articles on language and linguistics, developing themes that would later undergird the thematic concerns of his novels. After marrying Mary Townsend in 1946 they both converted to Catholicism, and relocated to the South, near the quintessential southern city of New Orleans, Louisiana, subsisting on his inheritance from his uncle’s estate. During the 1950s, Percy published a number of learned essays in scholarly journals on linguistic theory and psychology, which eventually were gathered in the 1975 collection, The Message in the Bottle. He continued to dabble in fiction, but steered his narrative craft away from the towering figure of William Faulkner and his convoluted regionalism toward a more direct, post-Southern genre of fiction. The result was Percy’s first published novel at age 45, The Moviegoer, a National Book Award winner deliberately patterned after the intense, philosophical novels of ideas by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, which Percy had discovered during his convalescence from tuberculosis. Binx Bolling, a young stockbroker from New Orleans, is the prototypical Percy protagonist: a brooding, alienated thinker, whose despair at the emptiness of modern life sets him on the “search” for God—and true transcendence.

Percy followed The Moviegoer with a longer, even more philosophical novel in 1966, The Last Gentleman, whose plot introduces Will Barrett, a troubled, confused young man in search of himself, who eventually finds meaning in laying down his life for others. As Percy’s reputation as a formidable novelist of ideas grew, he upset expectations with his third novel, published in 1971, Love in the Ruins: a hilarious satire of modern technological life and the sham of modern psychiatry. Its protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is a thinly disguised recreation of Sir Thomas More and Percy himself, who dutifully skewers the false Utopias of Eastern religion, consumer capitalism, and errant liberal Catholicism.

As Percy continued to reap critical plaudits for his fiction, his non_fiction essays were collected and published in The Message in the Bottle in 1975, astonishing his readers with their variety and their expertise in arcane linguistic and psychological theory; one essay in particular, “The Man on the Train,” set forth Percy’s diagnosis of the malaise in American culture and the task of the novelist who wishes to restore a moral center. 1977 brought Percy’s fourth novel, the dark, disturbing Lancelot, the story of a vengeful husband, who murders his wife and her lover. Many critics regarded Lancelot as a too pessimistic diatribe against the values of the modern age: a sermon not a novel.

Attempting to write his first “nonalienated,” or optimistic novel, Percy revived the character of Will Barrett for his 1980 book, The Second Coming. The now widowed Barrett finds true love—and God—in a densely plotted, comic work that revealed a new emphasis of affirmation in Percy that earned him back the critical respect he had lost with Lancelot. The critical and financial success of The Second Coming was rewarded by Percy’s publisher by bringing out his quirky, non-fiction book, Lost in the Cosmos, or The Last Self-Help Book in 1983. Lost in the Cosmos was at once a satire of television talk-show hosts, a serious monograph on language and semiotics, and a brief for Christianity—delighting some critics and readers and confusing others.

In 1987, Percy published what many regard as his greatest achievement, The Thanatos Syndrome. This novel also revives a past Percy character, Dr. Tom More; fresh from a prison sentence for selling drugs to truck drivers, he discovers a fiendish plot to anesthetize the populace by drugging the drinking water of Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. Set in the 1990s, The Thanatos Syndrome represents Percy’s strongest warning yet against a potential holocaust in Western culture because of its creeping acceptance of situational ethics at the expense of eternal moral standards that regard human life as meaningful and precious. Percy’s last work, published posthumously, Signposts in a Strange Land, is a compendium of his no-fiction essays, talks, and some letters to the editor that capture the favor of his public persona, and confirm his commitment to an ethics of fiction that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.

In his fiction Percy has attempted to place the mystery of mankind’s origin and the place of language in solving it—specifically, man’s ability to make symbol and metaphor—at the center of his male protagonists’ search for fulfillment and meaning. What separates Percy from other, more pretentious writers of philosophical fiction is his keen sense of everydayness, the vivid capturing of the details of modern life. Readers recognize—and are embarrassed by—the familiar icons Percy trots out to underscore the affluent, unburdened life most Americans lead when compared with the less fortunate. His protagonists are inevitably forced to “_nd themselves” by supplanting the status quo, shattering the illusions of goodness and mercy built into the twentieth century’s worship of self. And Percy’s uncompromising boldness in proclaiming the lost values of loyalty to one’s family and one’s native land—Percy refuses to countenance the blanket charges of racism and sexism consistently brought against the South—strikes many readers as refreshing and liberating in a time of doctrinaire liberal posturing. Percy has thus become the most widely admired and critically acclaimed Christian writer of last decades of this century, sharing with such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, and Graham Greene, the mantle of orthodox Catholic novelist.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES: The best single biographical resource on Percy’s life and work is Jay Tolson’s new biography of Percy, Pilgrim in the Ruins, 1992. Also notable is the contribution of his friend, Robert Coles’s Walker Percy: An American Search, 1978, and the collection of Percy interviews, Lewis Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, eds., Conversations with Walker Percy, 1985. Likewise, Percy’s The Message in the Bottle, 1975, provides uncanny insights into his view of the would-be Christian novelist’s responsibility. In the interim, while Percy scholars await a full-scale critical biography, the following studies will prove valuable and insightful: Jerome Taylor, In Search of Self: Life and Death and Walker Percy, 1986, is perhaps the single best expository introduction to Percy’s fiction and main themes; Martin Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise, 1972, an early critical study, and William Rodney Allen, Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer, 1986, a more recent one, both focus on Percy’s use of the “wayfarer” theme in his novels; Panthea Reid Broughton, ed., The Art of Walker Percy: Stratagems for Being, 1979, a compendium of rich, informed criticism on Percy’s fiction. For further study consult Patricia L. Poteat, Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age, 1985, a _awed but provocative inquiry into the alleged “dualism” operating between Percy’s fiction and his linguistic theories; Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace, 1983, offers a lucid discussion of Percy’s narrative strategies in presenting grace to a secular audience; “Special Issue on Walker Percy,” Renascence, XL (Winter, 1988), containing six important essays on Percy’s later fiction and his language theorizing, including my “The Linguist as Castaway: Walker Percy’s Semiotic Apologetics.”

Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
Professor of English and Africana Studies
Bowling Green State University

1 Comment

  1. […] the “argument from desire,” and I call it “the gospel of homesickness.” (Walker Percy understood this too, and anyone who reads his Lost in the Cosmos and The Message in the Bottle will […]

    Pingback by A C.S. Lewis & Inklings Resource Blog » Blog Archive » Jack’s Heavenly GPS — 13 October 2008 @ 9:59 AM

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