Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him
Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him. By David Horace Harwell. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 187 pp. Cloth: $24.95, ISBN: 978-0807830390.)
"I am aware of only one misstatement of fact in [Walker Percy's] writing," Phin Percy began a speech in his law professor idiom to the New Orleans Club back in 1991, not long after his brother's death the previous year. Phin referred to Walker's introduction to William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee, in which Walker writes that he owes his "Uncle Will" a "debt which cannot be paid." But "Walker," said Phin, as though his brother were in the audience, "the debt has been paid in full" (171).
A transcription of this speech and similar gems are found in David Horace Harwell's Walker Percy Remembered, a collection of thirteen interviews "in the words of those who knew him." In his introduction, Harwell points out that his "project has been called a number of things: an oral history, a biographical collage, a community biography." What he says the book is, however, is simply a "glimpse at how Percy lived his life, taken from a number of perspectives" (1). Harwell also attempts to respond to the Jay Toison and Patrick Samway biographies of Percy by presenting his life in the context of his family, friends, and community, but stripped of the requisite "authorial influence" and "process of myth-making" that go into the construction of full-dress biographies. Percy fans will further appreciate Harwell's explanation of what drew him to Percy's life and work in the first place, existential questions and personal obstacles with which many readers have stmggled in one form or another.
As one might expect from a collection that attempts to reach beyond those figures who knew Percy best, the interviews themselves are at times uneven: several say less about Percy himself than they do about the interviewees' lives, while others are wonderfully insightful and underscore that Percy - although he required a substantial amount of time alone each day to write - was a valued member of his community, not so much for his novels, which some interviewees know little if anything about, but for his civil rights work, volunteerism, and regular acts of kindness and good will. The interviews include Covington friends; acquaintances, and employees such as Nikki Barringer, local attorney and neighbor; Rhoda Faust, owner of the Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans; Will Campbell, "bootleg preacher" and civil rights activist; Sister Jeanne D'Arc and Judy Lacour, school teachers; Carrie Cyprian, the Percy's housekeeper; and Lee Barrios, former typist and assistant. Readers will come across a few awkward and odd moments here and there, such as a former priest concluding that Percy was not "really, completely Catholic," a hardware store proprietor remarking that Percy acquired a wood duck from him for the pond behind Percy's home and then had its wings clipped, or Shelby Foote revealing some of their youthful indiscretions. Yet it is precisely in such odd, unexpected moments that the collection finds a welcome place, not when interviewees are recounting memories and events that have been well documented or offering evaluations of their favorite novels.
Harwell's biographical headnotes that precede each interview are helpful, but some readers may be curious about the specific date, or at least the year, during which each interview was conducted. …