Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Will Barrett and "The Fat Rosy Temple of Juno"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Will Barrett and "The Fat Rosy Temple of Juno"

Article excerpt

In 1924 the LeRoy Percy family of Birmingham, Alabama, moved from Five Points south over Red Mountain into a new development in Shades Valley. (1) The family occupied a newly built, modernistic house on Fairway Drive, immediately adjacent to the new site of the Country Club, which opened in 1927. In that house Walker Percy spent his eighth through thirteenth year, until shortly after July 9, 1929; on that date LeRoy Percy shot himself to death in the attic, and soon thereafter his widow Martha Susan took her three sons, Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizy, to live with her mother in Athens, Georgia. Within a year, Mrs. Percy and her three sons moved to Greenville, Mississippi, to live with her husband's first cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later, on April 2, 1932, Mrs. Percy drowned in an automobile wreck that may not have been an accident. It may be fairly conjectured that she had not been able to cope with the loss of her husband back in Birmingham.

Also in 1924 George B. Ward, of Birmingham, Alabama, built himself a dark pink sandstone residence atop Shades Mountain, the next ridge south of Shades Valley. Recently returned from a European vacation, the investment banker, clubman, and several times mayor of Birmingham designed his house as a replica of the Temple of Vesta, in the Forum Boarium, Rome. George Ross Leighton suggests why Ward's house quickly became a popular place to visit:

   [The] mansion, built in imitation of a Roman temple, is cylindrical in
   shape, made of bits of ore cemented together. By the steps of the mansion
   stand two black servants in white jackets. One has a felt hat under his
   arm, the other carries a cap in his hand. Each has pinned to his jacket a
   green felt label embroidered in yellow with the Roman standard, the letters
   SPQR, and his name; Lucullus for one, Caius Cassius for the other. Under a
   tree is an elaborate sort of Roman throne, tinted green and bronze. Above,
   swinging from a branch, is a radio concealed in a birdhouse. Nearby are two
   dog houses, built like miniature Parthenons, with classic porticoes and
   tiny pillars. One is labeled Villa Scipio. There is a pool filled with
   celluloid swans and miniature galleons and schooners. Scattered about are
   more benches, urns, and painted-plaster sculptures. (Leighton 102-103)

Also nearby was a much smaller cylindrical building, the Temple of Sibyl, intended as the burial site of George B. Ward. (2) Forty years later, as he wrote the novel that was published as The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy remembered both the house in the valley and the house on the mountain, when he reached Chapter Four (185), which describes Will Barrett's return to the South with the Vaught family. In his recent biography Jay Tolson asserts that the house in the valley "provide[d] the model for the Vaughts' `castle'" (Tolson 37), himself providing several valuable pages characterizing the life lived there by the Percy family. The house on the mountain is introduced in the text itself with a specificity that leaves no doubt: "Directly opposite the castle, atop the next ridge to the south, there stood a round, rosy temple. It was the dwelling of a millionaire who had admired a Roman structure erected by the Emperor Vespasian ..." (189).

The novel does not begin with Chapter Four, of course, any more than life begins at the moment that one develops the capacity to reflect upon it. For that reason a short summary of the earlier part of the novel must be considered. In the beginning twenty-five year old Will Barrett is living in utter alienation, that is to say, New York City. Deprived of the psychological objects that he needs--his father is dead and his mother is literally unimaginable--Will has accepted Cartesianism as his saviour and embraced the material world as his object. He thinks of himself as an engineer and has recently brought an expensive telescope as an act of faith that technology will reconcile him to the objects that comprise his object. …

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