"The Most Ordinary Life Imaginable": Cold War Culture in Walker Percy's the Moviegoer

By Osborne, Virginia Nickles | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"The Most Ordinary Life Imaginable": Cold War Culture in Walker Percy's the Moviegoer


Osborne, Virginia Nickles, The Southern Literary Journal


There is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o'clock like everyone else.

--Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

In a 1989 interview, just two years before his death from prostate cancer, Walker Percy addressed his reluctance to be identified as a "southern author," explaining that "if you're described as a southern writer, you might be thought of as someone who writes about a picaresque local scene like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gone With the Wind, something like that" (qtd in Lawson & Kramer More Conversations 223). Though most of his protagonists are southern by birth and New Orleans figures prominently in The Moviegoer (1961), the role of the region in Percy's fiction is a far cry from Lanterns on the Levee (1944), the nostalgic memoirs of his cousin and adopted father, William Alexander Percy. Rather than writing to lament the passing of an old southern order or because of some personal connection with the region, Percy explains that, for him, southern settings simply provide the means of writing about specific circumstances, about "a particular fellow living in a particular house and finding himself in a particular concrete predicament" ("Culture Critics" 2.47). Though Binx Bolling lives in New Orleans and muses over his aunt's views of southern society, Percy claims that the novel ultimately focuses on the alienation of the individual in the modern age, the existence of one particular subject in a world transformed by science.

In considering Binx's struggle with alienation, a number of critics reflect on Percy's own interest in Kierkegaardian existentialism and attempt to decode the way it is manifested in his fiction. Such criticism, however, works in something of a vacuum, as it tends to consider Binx's recurrent melancholia and the "search" he resolves to continue in the first chapter of the novel without exploring the specific social or historical context of The Moviegoer. Throughout the interviews collected by Lewis Lawson and Victor Kramer and in his own articles, Percy repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the particular in literature, arguing that if fiction does explore larger social conditions or philosophical concepts, it should do so through the experience of one individual and his specific circumstances. In short, the novel should reflect "the life of its time" (qtd in Lawson & Kramer Conversations 25). Despite Percy's insistence on the primacy of each character's specific circumstances, and regardless of the unique regional, national, and global milieu at the time of The Moviegoer's publication, literary critics have not asked what life or time the novel represents, or in what concrete circumstances Binx Boiling finds himself. Though the novel does deal with alienation, there is also a great deal of time and attention devoted to consumer culture and cultural products such as movies, television, and radio programs. Furthermore, much is made of Binx's life in the 1950s New Orleans suburb of Gentilly and his attention to consumerism and the media. Though Binx lives in New Orleans and his narration is filtered through that particular geographical and cultural lens, his experience nonetheless represents national, social, and economic trends. When the reader first meets Binx Bolling, he is living a life quite typical of young postwar adults.

In his 1995 analysis of the South's modernization, Numan Bartley argues that Binx Bolling's experience points up an increasingly individualized society as southerners joined the rest of the nation in modern-day alienation. By "shedding the values of an older South, the New South had become a place where credit cards defined an individual's identity." In Percy's fictional middle-class world, according to Bartley, "a person lived without values, measured success by money, and alleviated boredom with periodic sexual conquests. …

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