During a relatively short period, Walker Percy has had a remarkable career as a novelist. Winner of the National Book Award for his first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), he has subsequently written The Last Gentleman (1966) and Love in the Ruins (1971). With the three novels he has gained the appreciation, respect, and trust of a large number of us for his ability to communicate what it is like to flourish in the contemporary objective-empirical world and yet desperately yearn to transcend that mode of existence.
Before the novels, though, Percy had begun to publish articles in scholarly journals. His targets ranged widely here, from the reviews, Sewanee and Partisan, to Thought, Modern Schoolman, and New Scholasticism, to Personalist, Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and Psychiatry--an accomplishment probably as rare as a triple play. The variety of journals able to tolerate Percy's ideas is all the more remarkable when it is revealed, as The Message in the Bottle so discloses, that all of the essays are basically about the same set of ideas and that these ideas would not be completely congenial with any of the journals. That set of ideas explores the significance of the distinctively human ability to receive and convey symbols through language--the only phenomenon on which to base an anthropology, maintains Percy--although, strange to say, Percy has never published in a journal specializing in either linguistics or anthropology.
In the essays that comprise The Message in the Bottle, in other essays, and in his responses to interviewers Percy's willingness to discuss personal history has provided us with a body of information sufficient to suggest a context for his prevailing ideas. This is not to say, of course, that a knowledge of the data of his life adequately explicates his writing, any more than a knowledge of the ingredients for a recipe conveys the taste of the dish. Rather, it is simply to say that such knowledge should point us in the direction of his work. Which is not at all too modest an accomplishment, for it has been my experience that many a reader (this one included) has missed a Percy novel or essay because he came at it from the wrong direction.
Orphaned by the age of fourteen, Percy was adopted by his father's cousin, William Alexander Percy, the gentleman who wrote Lanterns on the Levee. Percy grew to manhood, then, in the presence of a figure who exemplified the patrician code of traditional Southern culture--"the stern inner summons to man's full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity toward his fellowmen and above all to his inferiors," as Percy describes the value-system in "Stoicism in the South." In time Percy chose his profession, medicine, as a means by which he could please Uncle Will, so he told Martin Luschei, and one can imagine what his life might have become: a lovable, if cranky Lionel Barrymore of Greenville, Mississippi, excused for his outrageous opinions and conduct because of his function as latest incarnation of Percy noblesse.
Whether or not Percy would have found the practice of medicine a gesture which satisfied the stern inner summons, only he can say. It would have served his bent toward science quite well, he has admitted in "From Facts to Fiction," a bent unaffected by his later reservations about most contemporary practitioners of the scientific method. "It struck me then, as now, as an idea of the most revolutionary simplicity and beauty; namely, that even the dis-order of dis-ease, which one generally takes to be the disruption of order, could be approached and understood and treated according to scientific principles governing the response of the patient to the causative agents of disease. This response was the disease as the physician sees it!"
However the active profession of medicine might have met his social or individual inclinations, it was denied him, when he contracted tuberculosis in the laboratory, after graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, in 1941. …