Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Splendor Never Known: Walker Percy and Historic Preservation

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Splendor Never Known: Walker Percy and Historic Preservation

Article excerpt

Did you know that the South and for all I know the entire USA is full of demonic women who, driven by as yet unnamed furies, are desperately restoring and preserving places, buildings?

--Walker Percy, Lancelot, 103

No one, not even Faulkner, wrote more about historic preservation in the South than Walker Percy, a fact that may surprise those more familiar with his reputation as the Sartre of the Sun Belt. If Percy is associated with the South at all it is usually with that new-and-improved South of "superdomes, condos, and high-rises"--a South that Faulkner would have scarcely even considered to be southern. Unlike Faulkner, Percy was no "pious descendant of time"; (1) raised in a "new house on a new golf course" in suburban Birmingham, Percy came of age in a South that, on the surface at least, wasn't all that southern anymore, a South where place was no longer destiny, nor sense of place the virtue that it once was (Signposts 213). Where Faulkner invoked the genius loci, Percy fled from it, imagining that "genie soul of place" perched on his shoulder "like a buzzard" (The Moviegoer 160).

Little wonder then that this most place-haunted of southern writers should have turned a skeptical eye towards preservation. The sacred "covenant with memory and history" so central to the preservationist's creed is precisely the sort of thing that Percy's existential fictions repeatedly challenge (Signposts 209). Where Faulkner took for granted that there was a past worth preserving, Percy questioned just what it was that the South was trying to preserve. In the aftermath of the Bulldozer Revolution, much of the South's architectural heritage had been lost; of the few remaining icons still left standing, none could say for sure just what it was that they stood for, especially now when the South seemed but a parody of its former self, more a creation of the popular imagination and the tourist trade than a distinct identifiable entity. Percy himself was particularly adept at surveying those indeterminate zones in the South where the line between what was real and what appeared to be real had grown ever more indistinct. For one so preoccupied with definitions of reality and authenticity, the world of historic preservation, with its "authentic replicas" and elaborate facsimiles, proved a fertile ground indeed. One comes away from Percy's novels wondering just how much of historic preservation is historic after all, and how much marketing and myth.

Needless to say, what Percy had to say about preservation was often less than flattering. Preservationists are a running joke throughout Percy's novels, most of them mere caricatures and thinly drawn types, "would-be Scarletts" drunk on moonlight and magnolia, all "pantalooned and harlequined" but with none of the piety--or pedigree--of their predecessors (Signposts 185; Lancelot 72.). In The Moviegoer, it's Binx Bolling's Aunt Edna, the druggist's daughter from upstate New York, who transforms the Bollings' humble old homeplace into a "showplace" in "the best Natchez style--adding a covered walk to the outkitchen, serving mint juleps where the Bollings had never drunk anything but toddies, and even dressing up poor old Shad in a Seagram's butler suit and putting him out on the highway with a dinner bell" (140). (2) In Lancelot, it's Margot Lamar, the west Texas debutante turned "assured mistress" of Belle Isle and president of the Landmark Preservation Society. Despite extensive restoration, Margot remains just another Calamity Jane in a hoopskirt, a "callow coltish skittish-mustang Texas girl" who can still "cut loose and swear like an oilfield roughneck" (79, 69). Such portrayals are perhaps the closest Percy ever came to writing local color, but they represent a radical departure from the conventional image of the preservationist as a blue-haired blue-blood standing sentinel before the shrines of the Old South. In Percy's South, those pious dames of old are nowhere to be seen, their ranks having long since been overrun by an upstart class of self-possessed poseurs motivated less by a sense of place than a sense of entitlement, compensation perhaps for not having been "to the manor born. …

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