A Visit with Walker Percy: An Interview and a Recollection (1)

By Underwood, Thomas A. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Visit with Walker Percy: An Interview and a Recollection (1)


Underwood, Thomas A., The Mississippi Quarterly


FROM THE MOMENT I COMPLETED READING WALKER PERCY'S 1961 NOVEL THE Moviegoer, winner of the National Book Award the following year, I could see why some readers might wonder whether Percy's fiction provided the missing link between post-World War II American literature and the Southern Literary Renaissance, that golden era of beaux arts in the South after World War I. But if Percy's novels offered a bridge from the South to the United States as a whole, what sort of Southern writer did that make Percy, who lived from 1916 to 1990? Did he extend the Southern literary tradition of the generation that preceded him or inaugurate a kind of post-Southern, more Oedipal art form? On the one hand, Percy, a cousin of William Alexander Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee (1941), and a descendant of a literary family that, as historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown has shown, was steeped in Southern traditions, seems a likely heir to the progenitors of the Southern renascence. (2) On the other hand, the image Percy created in The Moviegoer of his protagonist, Binx Bolling, speeding around Louisiana in his red MG, makes Percy equally plausible as the antidote to the anti-modern authors who dominated the first Southern Literary Renaissance. The truth may reside, as with most problems, in the middle. As Percy's biographer, Patrick Samway, has argued, "Throughout his career, Walker disliked being labeled a 'Southern Writer': yet, except for sections of [his 1966 novel] The Last Gentleman, his writing was decidedly Southern, but with an originality that gave a distinctive flavor to his work." (401) (3)

During the early stages of my own research into the life of an equally contradictory Southern writer, Allen Tate, the tradition-minded Southern poet and critic whom many acknowledge as the grandfather of the Southern Literary Renaissance, I was intrigued to discover that Tare and his first wife, novelist Caroline Gordon, were mentors to Percy early in his career. Once I began scheduling scores of interviews to supplement my Tare research in archives, it seemed both logical and alluring to ask Percy for an interview. To my surprise, he wrote back a cheerful note in which he agreed to see me, although he promised little. Undeterred, I made plans to detour from a major research trip I had planned throughout the South and to visit Percy at his home in Covington, Louisiana.

On August 12, 1987, I arrived in Covington, where I had been instructed to rendezvous with Percy in his daughter's shop, The Kumquat Bookstore (Associated Press). As I wandered through the charming little store, a tasteful commercial manifestation of her father's literary sensibility, I overheard the proprietress, a young deaf woman with a melodically muted voice, speaking with an older man about some signed books. Peering around a display, I saw Walker Percy in conversation with his daughter. Although cancer would take his life in just a few short years, his mortality was nowhere evident. He had a sort of relaxed vigor about him; he was dressed casually but his lean figure and dark complexion almost made him look like he had been plowing fields and riding horses rather than laboring over a writing desk. I introduced myself, he grinned infectiously, and we were off! Would I mind, Percy asked, accompanying him on an errand of mercy? Of course not, I replied. We jumped in Percy's careworn pick-up truck--much more an Agrarian vehicle than Binx's MG--and we were soon barreling down the streets of Covington to see a friend of Percy's who was ill. A bowl of soup in a cardboard bowl sat precariously between us on the seat. As Percy navigated the town as if he were a taxi driver, he began interviewing me. "Are you married?" he asked. "Not yet," I replied, embarrassed and feeling as if I should be if Walker Percy asked. "Not yet," he repeated with a chuckle.

Presently, we turned into a driveway that looked more suburban than bayou, got out of the car, and waited to be admitted into his friend's modest house. …

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