Perhaps there are advantages to being an outsider.
— Walker Percy
When Walker Percy died, in May of 1990 — quietly, of prostate cancer, at his longtime home in Covington, Louisiana, less than three weeks shy of his 74th birthday — The New York Times eulogized the Birmingham-born writer as “a complex, ruminative man” whose primary concern as a novelist was “modern man’s search for faith and love in a chaotic world.” The Times obituary quoted numerous assessments of Percy and his work over the years, in which he was hailed variously as “one of our most talented and original authors,” “the satiric Dostoyevsky of the bayou,” who was “unlike any other Southern writer,” and whose books were “artistically and humanly rich, and beautifully crafted.”
Five months later, a crowd of more than 400 gathered at a memorial service for Percy held at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, in midtown Manhattan. Eudora Welty was among the several friends and associates from the literary world who spoke at the service, as was Shelby Foote, who met Percy when they were teenagers in Mississippi and remained his closest friend over the following six decades.
“He was, quite simply, the best we’ve got,” Welty declared to those in attendance. “He’d always say it’s the job of the novelist not to notice how things are, but [to notice] that people don’t notice how awful things are. He said there’s something worse than being deprived of life. It’s being deprived of life and not knowing it.”
As might be expected by anyone who came to know him from his later star turn as a commentator in Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary on the Civil War, Foote was both droller and more florid in his remembrance. He told the story of how Percy once declined an invitation to appear on the Today show because, he said, he didn’t own a pair of socks long enough to cover his calves when he crossed his legs. Then Foote turned serious.
“I will state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in time for what he was in simple and solemn fact,” Foote said. “A novelist, not merely an explicator of various philosophers and divines, existentialist or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them or influenced by them than was Proust, say, to or by Schopenhauer or Bergson. Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors.”
In addition to his six novels, Percy was a prolific writer of essays. He had a keen interest in semiotics — the study of signs and symbols, and their use in communication — that figured into both his fiction and nonfiction, but also wrote originally and provocatively about language, philosophy, religion and morality, metaphysics, life in the South, and, in one of his more whimsical pieces, the pleasures of drinking Bourbon.
This is not written by a connoisseur of Bourbon, he wrote. Ninety-nine percent of Bourbon drinkers know more about Bourbon than I do. It is about the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking in general and in particular of knocking it back neat.
Percy was always sardonically self-effacing about being a writer. He called it an “extremely limited vocation,” and professed to be dubious of its usefulness in the modern world. In one of his later essays, “Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time,” published in 1986, he lamented that “the older I get, the less I seem to know,” and ventured the opinion that “the novelist…is only good for one or two things these days.”
The embarrassment of the novelist, Percy wrote, is that after he masters his one or two tricks, does his little turn, some readers tend to ascribe this success to a deeper wisdom — whereas it is probably the very condition of his peculiar activity that he doesn’t know anything else — which is to say that a person who asks a novelist anything about life and such, how to live it, is in a bad way, indeed.
A distinguished family
Walker Percy was born on May 28, 1916, at Birmingham’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, to the former Martha Susan (Mattie Sue) Phinizy and LeRoy Pratt Percy. Both parents came from families that were well-off and socially prominent, the Phinizys in Athens, Georgia, and the Percys in both Alabama and Mississippi.
Young Walker’s grandfather, for whom he was named, had moved to Birmingham from his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, in 1886 — a time when the self-styled “Magic City” was beginning to boom in earnest. A lawyer by trade, the ambitious young man gained entrée into the city’s elite when he married Mary Pratt DeBardeleben, whose father, Henry, was one of the most powerful men in Birmingham (credited with being the first in the city to produce pig iron, Henry F. DeBardeleben created or partnered in several iron-making and coal mining ventures, and in 1887 founded the city of Bessemer). Unusual for the time, the elder Walker Percy was outspoken in his advocacy of the interests of both blacks and the eastern European immigrants who were pouring into the city to work its mines, mills and factories, and also had close friends in Birmingham’s small but increasingly influential Jewish community.
The elder Walker Percy handled much of his father-in-law’s business and personal legal work. In 1891, DeBardeleben Coal and Iron merged with Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), Birmingham’s predominant corporate presence, and Percy became TCI’s general counsel, a position he continued to hold after the company was absorbed by U.S. Steel in 1907. He also represented most of the city’s major banks and corporations, or else sat on their boards.
For all of his success, Percy suffered bouts of severe depression. On an afternoon in February 1917 — a little over eight months after the birth of his grandson and namesake — he ate lunch at home, joined by LeRoy, with whom he discussed a hunting trip to south Alabama on which they planned to leave later that day. He then went upstairs to his room and shot himself through the heart with a 12-gauge shotgun. Likely in deference to the prominence of the family, the local newspapers reported it as an accident, but the Jefferson County coroner ruled the death of the 52-year-old lawyer a suicide.
LeRoy Percy, a successful attorney in his own right, succeeded his father as counsel for TCI. Somewhat strangely, he also moved his family — which would come to include two more sons in addition to young Walker — from their bungalow on what then was known as Caldwell Terrace (near the present-day site of the Garage Café) to the house where his father had killed himself, an imposing stone mansion at the corner of Highland and Arlington Avenues, on a spot just below where the Red Mountain Expressway runs today.
Life in Birmingham
The Birmingham of Walker Percy’s boyhood was an unbridled experiment in Industrial Age capitalism. In addition to the steel mills that had fueled its growth, the city by 1920 was home to factories that produced more than 1,600 types of articles and commodities, as well as, in the words of a longtime business leader who recalled those days eight decades later, “warehouses, office operations, merchants, wholesalers, all thriving.” In May of 1917, local payrolls reached the $1 million per week mark, leading The Birmingham Age-Herald to report that, “There is more money in Birmingham now than ever before in its history.”
That prosperity did not come without a price. The economic and social dichotomies that would come to define the city became ingrained during this period, exacerbated by the steady decline of local ownership of the major industries — typified by U.S. Steel’s takeover of TCI — and the resulting loss of local control over Birmingham’s economic machinery and civic destiny.
The 1920s was also an era of increasingly virulent racism in Birmingham. The local Robert E. Lee Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan had been founded in 1916, and by the mid-1920s, KKK membership in Jefferson County swelled to more than 20,000. According to the late Auburn University historian W. David Lewis, that included “two judges, the county sheriff, most Birmingham policemen…a score of other public officials [and] more than half of the local white Protestant ministers.”
Though the influence of these dynamics would factor significantly into Percy’s personal development and literary output, his youth in Birmingham was what one might have expected from the scion of a well-to-do family of the era. Much of his early life revolved around Highland Avenue, the winding, tree-lined street that snakes two-and-a-half miles eastward from 20th Street South to Clairmont Avenue. Walker rode his bicycle and roller-skated along Highland, and played baseball with his friends in Caldwell Park. He attended the private, all-male Birmingham University School, at Highland and 28th Street (in 1975, BUS merged with the Brooke Hill girls’ school and became The Altamont School, moving to the new campus it still occupies at the crest of Red Mountain). His family went to church on Highland Avenue, at Independent Presbyterian, where LeRoy Percy taught Sunday school and served on the board of deacons.
Walker sometimes caught the streetcar at the stop near the Percy home, riding to the movie theater at nearby Five Points South (a space now occupied by the Surin West restaurant) or, for a nickel, along the entire loop down the length of Highland and back. The street’s far end ran along the edge of the golf course at the Country Club of Birmingham (now the public Highland Park course), where his father was a member and sometimes took Walker along to watch him play. The impressions left by these excursions were strong, as both movies and golf courses would become recurrent points of reference in Percy’s novels.
Always an avid reader, Percy was a good student who excelled in Latin and math. Thin and often sickly as a child, and remembered by classmates as quiet, studious, and somewhat remote, he nevertheless was well-liked, in part for his incisive sense of humor — another trait that came to be a hallmark of his writing. In an interview later in life, Percy recalled himself as “a youth whose only talent was a knack for looking and listening, for tuning in and soaking up.”
In 1924, LeRoy Percy ascended to the presidency of the Country Club of Birmingham. At the time, the club was preparing to move to the other side of Red Mountain, onto nearly 300 acres in largely undeveloped Shades Valley. The move had been in the works for two years, and LeRoy had been instrumental in the planning.
Accordingly, he also moved his family, to a sprawling new house built for them on a site facing onto the wooded meadow that was being transformed into the new golf course. The move put the Percys in the first wave of wealthy “pioneers” to leave Birmingham for what would officially become its most exclusive suburb with the incorporation of Mountain Brook in 1942.
In his definitive 1992 biography of Walker Percy, Pilgrim in the Ruins, Jay Tolson pointed out the many similarities between LeRoy Percy and his father. Beyond their shared occupation and relationship to TCI, Tolson noted, both men enjoyed golf, hunting and playing cards. Both were “unusually intelligent…hard-working, even somewhat driven, and…extremely successful,” but also “known for their charming manner, their ease with people, and their humor.” More ominously, LeRoy was also “prone to depression, a tendency that grew more pronounced with years, to the concern of friends and family.”
All of these points of similarity would have been quite enough to make a son feel that his destiny was tightly entwined with his father’s, Tolson wrote. If anything, the feeling grew even stronger after [the father’s] death. As if driven by fate or a dark inner necessity, LeRoy proceeded to duplicate the pattern of his father’s life.
As Tolson related, LeRoy’s depressions became deeper and more frequent in the years following his family’s move to their new home. Though generally a loving father, his moods were “wildly erratic…warm and upbeat one moment, angry and depressed the next,” a state of affairs that “hurt and frightened” his children and “cast a pall over the household.”
The similarities between LeRoy and his father took a chilling turn in the spring of 1928, when he attempted to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He survived, but the downward spiral continued. On July 9, 1929, the hard-working attorney did not go to his office, staying at home in bed while his wife went into Birmingham to shop with a friend. Late in the morning, the family’s maid heard a gunshot from the attic and found LeRoy lying in a pool of blood, dead from a bullet that, The Birmingham News reported the next day, left “a gaping wound through the chin [and] came out through the top of his head.” He was 40 years old.
Soon after LeRoy’s death, Mattie Sue and her three boys left Birmingham and went to live with her mother in Georgia. With the support of her family and friends there — and that of her husband’s cousin, the lawyer/planter/poet/intellectual William Alexander Percy — she appeared to recover well from her loss.
But in the spring of 1932, while she and the boys were on an extended visit to Will Percy’s home in Mississippi, she was behind the wheel of a car that ran off a bridge and plunged into the creek below; her youngest son, Phin, was in the car with her and escaped. Mattie Sue did not, and drowned. While most — including Percy biographer Tolson — accepted the event as a tragic accident, Walker told more than one friend over the years of his own conviction that his mother, too, had committed suicide.
A novelist of ideas
The broad details of Walker Percy’s biography after being orphaned at age 14 have been well-documented: He and his brothers were adopted by their cousin, whom they called “Uncle Will,” and raised amid the revolving literary salon that was his home in Greenville (among many others, William Faulkner was a friend and occasional visitor, and Walker later recalled Faulkner once showing up to play tennis, so drunk that he never made contact with the ball).
It was also Uncle Will who, observing that Walker would benefit from the presence of a friend his own age, introduced Percy to Shelby Foote, beginning their lifelong friendship. Of Will’s influence on the direction of his life, Percy once said that without his cousin’s intervention, he “probably would have become a car salesman in Athens, Georgia.”
Percy went to college at the University of North Carolina, and then to medical school at Columbia. After earning his medical degree, he contracted tuberculosis while conducting autopsies on derelicts at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He spent several years recuperating at a sanitarium in upstate New York, where he became enamored of classic Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, and the existentialist writings of Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard. He met and married his wife, Mary Bernice “Bunt” Townsend, with whom he converted to Catholicism, a faith to which he would hold devoutly for the rest of his life, and which had tremendous impact on his writing (“Orthodox Christian belief is congenial to my vocation,” he once explained to an interviewer).
That was the other thing that “happened” to Percy during his long recuperation: He decided to give up medicine and be a writer. His inheritance made it possible for him to take the time he needed — roughly a decade, as it turned out — to develop his authorial voice. By the mid-1950s, his essays began appearing in various magazines and literary journals. At the same time, he worked on, but did not complete, two novels (one of them, The Charterhouse, was set primarily in Birmingham; his notes for the book include the image of “Vulcan over the doomed city”).
Finally, in 1961, Percy’s third effort at a novel, The Moviegoer, was published. It won the National Book Award, establishing Percy as what one critic later deemed “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.” Five more novels followed over the next quarter-century, received mostly with critical acclaim.
Mirroring his own “outsider” status as a privileged son of both the Old South and the New who felt at home in neither, each of Percy’s novels is set in the South and features as a protagonist an upper-middle-class white man who is abstracted and alienated from the world around him. As the writer Paul Elie put it in his 2003 book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own — an examination of the lives and works of the prominent Catholics Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothea Day — Percy was “of several minds” when contemplating his home region and its complicated past, present and future.
He saw himself as a Southern moderate, caught in the middle of a war being fought ‘on the battleground of enlightened liberal North versus depraved reactionary South,’ wrote Elie. In his view, the question for a white Southerner like himself was ‘how to oppose segregation and at the same time cherish his heritage.’
Later, through both his fiction and nonfiction writing, Percy bemoaned and satirized what he termed the “Los Angelization” of the Southern culture and landscape. As he wrote in a 1980 essay, “I prefer to live in the South, but on my own terms. It takes some doing to insert oneself in such a way as not to succumb to the ghosts of the Old South or the happy hustlers of the new Sunbelt South.”
On that note, much of Percy’s writing and thinking about the South over the years has turned out to be prophetic. In a “self-interview” titled “Questions They Never Asked Me,” published in 1977, he held forth at length on most of the major themes of his work, including the possible dystopian future of the nation in general and the South in particular:
I visualize a U.S. a few years from now in which blacks and whites have switched roles. The pissed-off white middle class will abandon suburbia just as they have abandoned the cities, either for the countryside…or to move back to the city…while the blacks move out to [the suburbs]. The only danger is that this happy little switch may not happen fast enough and the young blacks in the city who have little or nothing to lose may say the hell with it and shoot up everything in sight.
There is a slight chance, maybe one in a hundred, that blacks and whites may learn the best of each other rather than the worst.
As his biographer Tolson noted, much of Percy’s worldview had its roots in his youth — and his family’s history — in Birmingham, where the “charged symbolic encounter between an archetypal ‘Old South’ family and a prototypical ‘New South’ city…played a crucial role in shaping [his] character and imagination.”
An early product of the suburban New South, Tolson assessed, Percy had seen southern manners acted out in their most baroque form. In the country club subdivision of Birmingham, he got his first intimations of alienation and rootlessness, the conditions that would later engage his philosophical and literary interest. As an impressionable boy, Percy had seen a world where politeness and façade could quite literally drive a person to despair and suicide, even as that person maintained the pretense of happiness and fulfillment.
In the end, of course, it was Percy himself who said it best, for himself and others who lived — and who live still — in the chaotic and disaffected age from which his writing sprang. Asked by an interviewer to reflect on his objective as a writer, and the purpose of art in general, he had a ready reply.
“My theory is that the purpose of art is to transmit universal truths of a sort, but of a particular sort, that in art, whether it’s poetry, fiction or painting, you are telling the reader or listener or viewer something he already knows, but which he doesn’t quite know that he knows, so that in the action of communication he experiences a recognition, a feeling that he has been there before…. And so, what the artist does, or tries to do, is simply to validate the human experience, and to tell people the deep human truths which they already unconsciously know.”