Walker Percy, 1916-1990

By Rubin, Louis D., Jr. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1990 | Go to article overview

Walker Percy, 1916-1990


Rubin, Louis D., Jr., The Southern Literary Journal


The death of Walker Percy deprives us of one of the genuinely original voices in that galaxy of literary talent that we know as modern Southern literature. Walker began his career as a novelist comparatively late he was in his mid-40s when The Moviegoer appeared--but he made up for lost time, and the body of his published work--novels, essays--constitutes a distinguished performance indeed.

My own acquaintance with Walker's writing goes back long before I knew him as a person (and I was not a close friend of his). In the late 1950s I came upon an article in the Sewanee Review entitled "Metaphor as Mistake" by an author named Walker Percy. It was an elucidation of the way in which the literary use of language can offer knowledge that is neither logical nor quantifiable--can neither be abstracted nor measured. It seemed to me so brilliant, in the way that it identified and explained the quality of knowledge of our experience that only art could provide, that I ordered extra copies and gave them to some behavioral psychologists I knew--which made about as much sense as offering a recording of The Magic Flute to the late Elvis Presley.

When The Moviegoer was published in 1961, and by fortunate happenstance was called to the attention of the committee appointed to judge the National Book Awards competition, it became evident that a new and important variety of Southern writer had arrived on the scene. And if there were any lingering skepticism about it, the publication of The Last Gentleman in 1967 erased it. For here was a novelist who put behind him both the high tragic mode and the small-town rural comedy and wrote about educated, sophisticated moderns living in urban America and no longer hung up over the Supreme Court decision, the fall of Richmond, dynastic decline, or the inhospitality of the culturally retarded community to the sensitive artist-manque. The South he wrote about was the South that most of us inhabited. The malaise he saw it as suffering from was not a matter of the passing of the heroic virtues of an Age of Gold and the advent of an Iron Time; it was that of a too-smug, too-selfish material prosperity and a loss of spiritual direction.

Walker was a Roman Catholic, and his novels were by design religious fiction, but unlike most of the Southern religious fiction that I have read (and Flannery O'Connor's, for all its accomplishments, is no exception in this respect), Walker's is not Jansenist; it is not written from a position of theological privilege located far above the struggle, judging the poor deluded sinners and consigning them to the fire. Unlike all too much of the religious fiction that I have encountered, when reading Walker's novels I don't ever get the feeling that the author is confusing his typewriter with the flaming sword wielded by the Avenging Angel, because this particular author includes himself among the sinful. His Catholicism is not a charter for smugness or arrogance. Nor is it an authorization of the self-important gesture, the self-congratulatory stance of the public martyr. In a later novel, The Second Coming, Walker's protagonist, Will Barrett, resolves to retreat deep into a cave and there await the ultimate confirmation of the existence of God and the end of the world; unfortunately, he no sooner takes up his desperate vigil that he comes down with a toothache. So much for the notion that God has an obligation to justify Himself to Will Barrett or Walker Percy.

When I look at Walker's fiction as a whole, it seems to divide itself into two groups. The first two novels are richly textured, with much attention given to the documentation of place; the mode is realistic. …

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