"For me [Walker Percy] was the writer who told me ... that everything can be magic--a trunk in an attic, the ninth green of a golf course. We all go through hating the South, even though Quentin said, `I don't hate it, I don't hate it, I don't, I don't.' Oh yes we did, a lot of us, for a long time.... Then Walker walked out on a golf course and the South--our South--came alive. An old greenhouse became a castle. A cave became not more than a cave but the true cave of man's self-deception and death.... This is such reality, and this is how I've always thought Walker Percy taught me to write--not the mundane thing of learning to write, but simply learning that the work is too hard to do anything but try to tell the truth and see its lights and see its magic." (1) --Mary Lee Settle, "Walker Percy"
In 1975 the authors of Southern Literary Study: Problems and Possibilities posed the following query: "Is the introduction of `alien' philosophical concepts into recent southern literature--O'Connor's Catholicism, Percy's existentialism--indicative of a significant change in the orientation and motivation of southern writing?" (235). Twenty-five years later, the answer to such a broad question seems both more readily within reach and perhaps--given Fred Hobson's assessment of O'Connor and Percy as, along with Eudora Welty, the dominant influences on southern writers in the two last decades of the twentieth century--even more significant (8-9). The answer, I believe, is yes. My aim here, however, is not to address this question fully but rather to consider it briefly as a prelude to demonstrating just one way in which Percy's example seems to have affected the "orientation" of some recent southern fiction. In doing so I will ultimately concentrate at length on his legacy for two particularly keen observers of the contemporary regional landscape: Josephine Humphreys (whose work has been linked to Percy's before, though not in the manner I wish to suggest here) and Padgett Powell.
A comment O'Connor made to Louis D. Rubin, Jr. in 1960 is useful in establishing the broader context of my analysis: "Walker Percy" she said, "wrote somewhere that his generation of Southerners had no more interest in the Civil War than in the Boer War. I think that is probably quite true" (75). (2) Rubin--who, following Allen Tate's lead, had recently defined southern literature as the literature of the "backward glance" and the southern writer as characterized by a "peculiarly historical consciousness"--was not entirely pleased with the remark. O'Connor's observation seems even more incisive in retrospect, because while so many of the writers of the Renascence had written at least some fiction or poetry that not only meditated directly on regional history but was actually set in the past, neither she nor Percy would. But they refrained from doing so neither merely because of generational differences nor because the historical mode had passed out of vogue by their time. In the 1940s Welty wrote The Robber Bridegroom and stories such as "A Still Moment" and "First Love," capturing the frontier history of the Natchez Trace; in the 1950s Robert Penn Warren wrote World Enough and Time and Band of Angels; William Styron would not only persist in the Faulknerian mode of tragic family history in Lie Down in Darkness (1951), but would also in the 1960s return outright to the historical mode--albeit in a new and controversial manner--in The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).
By contrast, Percy and O'Connor alike came to write a new kind of southern fiction by capturing their contemporary world with a vision shaped largely by their intense religious and philosophical interests. Those interests were shaped as much by the philosophers and theologians of the transatlantic Catholic Revival at mid-century as by fiction writers, southern or otherwise: their libraries were stocked with such works as Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, Romano Guardini's The End of the Modern World, and Gabriel Marcel's The Mytery of Being. The last title is perhaps the most telling, as the two "religious writers" would be most clearly distinguished from their predecessors by their ultimate concern with not a tragic regional history but rather the radically comic mystery they saw permeating every aspect of the contemporary world they so often critiqued. (3)
One way to understand Percy's particular vision and its distinctive place in twentieth-century southern literature is by contrast with that of his lifelong friend Shelby Foote. In 1952, Foote, another longtime emulator of Faulkner, published Shiloh--a seemingly classic Renascence text in both form and subject matter, recounting a tragic moment in regional history through the voices of multiple narrators--before beginning a twenty-year immersion in the history of the Civil War. Ironically, Shiloh was dedicated to Percy, then struggling in obscurity. The irony was heightened when Foote--a lover of Proust and James and Shelley who endlessly praised the aesthetic vision of the high modernists and longed to be the next Faulkner--became best known as a historian, while the former doctor whom he often chided for his religious and existential interests became one of the foremost novelists of his generation precisely by bringing his own interests to bear on the postwar South he found himself living in.
Foote's correspondence with Percy from the 1950s on reveals his belief that no novel focusing on an individual living in a deracinated contemporary society could be very worthwhile. At about the time he published Shiloh, he wrote to Percy that what any good novel needs "is a sense of proceeding from generations of knowledge. This may come from my being Southern, I guess it does.... There has to be a family and a past, or else the book is like a freeflying balloon being carried whichever way the wind blows." Hence in the big novel he is attempting now (Two Gates to the City), he writes, "the time is the present: yes, it must be: but all the past is behind it, you know it's there" (71-72). Foote does not state here that preoccupation with religious mysteries necessarily detracts from this historical sense, but he repeatedly makes clear in other letters that he sees faith in general as detrimental to the novelist--not only attacking Graham Greene as "banal and morose" (59) but also dismissing O'Connor as "a minor-minor writer"(136). The Mississippi Delta he and Percy alike grew up in--its people and the land itself--are, Foote suggests, in a manner largely consistent with Renascence tenets, sufficient unto themselves for the generation of great fiction.
Percy would resist such advice, and twenty years later--when he had established himself as a major novelist during the lengthy detour Foote took into the labors of the historian--still spoke of his literary vision as being consistent with and inextricably linked to his religious faith. Often enough that faith led him to satirize his own late twentieth century society relentlessly; but at the same time his sacramental view of reality fostered his conviction that mystery and meaning (for Percy, the two are not opposed but necessarily bound together) could be found even in the most seemingly empty corners of the postmodern world he captured in his fiction. That conviction is suggested in a letter he wrote to Foote as the latter neared completion of The Civil War. What Percy is working on, he tells his friend, is not a novel about the past, but instead a supposedly "futuristic" one that, in fact, satirizes a contemporary American society rent apart "worse than the Civil War." Yet Love in the Ruins will also be a celebration
of the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass at the usual silo-and-barn, the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys (the good white maple and plastic balls), coming home of an evening, with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky. (129)
Such a superficial postmodern world holds as much meaning as Anti-etam--or Yoknapatawpha--precisely because, as Percy tells his relentlessly agnostic friend, it is the setting of "what we Catholics call the Sacramental Life." The "here-and-now" is worth writing about, Percy suggested elsewhere, precisely because God is present in it, and his characters--seekers whose connections with the past seem to have been largely severed--are essentially struggling to glimpse such a presence in a world where every moment is indeed "dense" with meaning (Signposts 277-278). In his fiction the modern world indeed seems to have come to an end, and there is much to fear, but also much to celebrate: for his seeking protagonists, the apocalyptic somehow culminates with the Edenic, and accordingly the locus of his fiction is not a present overwhelmed by a tragic past, but rather one which is paradoxically hopeful and carries within it the signs of an ultimately comic mystery.
Because Percy's understanding of "mystery" is finally bound up with the terms of the Catholic faith he so fervently embraced--he once wrote that he understood "dogma" not pejoratively but rather as "a guarantee of the mystery of …