Walker Percy (1916 – 1990)

Walker Percy (May 28, 1916- May 10, 1990) was an American Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics.

Percy is best known for his philosophical novels, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age," and his work exhibited a unique combination of existentialism, southern sensibility, and deeply-felt Catholicism.

Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, into a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family whose past illuminaries had included congressmen and Civil War heroes. Prior to Percy's birth, his grandfather had killed himself with a shotgun, setting a pattern of emotional struggle and tragic death that would haunt Percy throughout his life.

In 1929, Percy's father used a shotgun to commit suicide. The Percy family then moved to Athens, Georgia where two years later, his mother died in a car crash when she drove off a country bridge and into a bayou—an accident that Percy regarded as another suicide. Walker and his two younger brothers, Phin and Roy, then moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where his bachelor uncle William Alexander Percy, lawyer, poet, and autobiographer, became their guardian and adopted them. “Uncle Will” introduced Walker to many writers and poets and to a neighboring boy his own age – Shelby Foote, who became Walker’s life-long best friend.

As young men, Walker and Shelby decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. However, when they finally drove up to his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to talk to him. Later on, he recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.

Percy joined Foote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a brother in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and then trained as a medical doctor at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1941. After contracting TB from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During this period Percy read the works of Danish existentialist writer, Soren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. During this time (ca. 1947) Percy converted to Catholicism, as well as deciding to become a writer rather than a physician- as he would later write, he would study the pathology of the soul rather than that of the body.

Marriage and children

He married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946, and they raised their two daughters in Covington, Louisiana.

Literary career

In 1961, Percy published his first novel, The Moviegoer, after many years of work and rewriting in collaboration with editor, Stanley Kauffman. 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."

Subsequent works included The Last Gentleman (1966), Love In the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome in 1987. Percy also published a number of non-fiction works exploring his interests in semiotics and existentialism.

Percy was instrumental in getting John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980, over a decade after Toole's suicide.

The National Endowment for the Humanities chose him as the winner for the 1989 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, for which he read, "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind."
Death and afterward

Walker Percy died of prostate cancer in 1990 just eighteen days before his 74th birthday.

Books by Walker Percy