Walker Percy: A Courageous Life
Did you ever wake up in the morning and wonder just what has gone wrong?
Yes, I know. The water runs clearly, friendly faces chat about good news, pills slaughter your germs, back seats bulge with mall loot, and chocolate-chip bagels are but a few steps away.
Isn’t it the best of all possible worlds? You’d rather be a sixth-century Visigoth or an Aztec virgin preparing for her sacrificial duty, maybe?
But there it is, nonetheless, tugging at what some still suggest is your soul. A suspicion that something has gone awry, that in this age of the fit, the prosperous, and the wired, someone has neglected to tell you something important.
And the science — oh, that science. It prolongs your life, brings wonders into your home and explains everything that mystified those impoverished ancients. Everything, that is, except for one thing, as writer Walker Percy puts it:
How indeed is one to live in this peculiar time and history and on ordinary Wednesday afternoons?
Yes, you suspect, there is something wrong, for there are those moments when you realize that modern life, culture, and knowledge have left you without something most fundamental: a satisfying understanding of just who you are and why you are here, in this place, watching the sun put one more day of your life in the past. You must be more than a mere organism or an insatiable, endlessly manipulable consumer. You must be. You must.
A haunted childhood
This question of the self is one that absorbed Walker Percy, a physician, novelist, Southerner, and Catholic convert. He picked at it, probed it, and spent his life diagnosing this modern malaise as a philosopher, a writer, and a human being making his own courageous way through life.
Through six novels it was his subject, in settings that ranged from the mild streets of a New Orleans suburb, a mental institution, and near-apocalyptic America. His observations are sharp, his tone sometimes veering toward the “flip-savage” as he details our paradoxical times and the elements of contemporary life that claim the power to bring us closer in touch with ourselves, but in reality whisk us further away, more “lost in the cosmos” than ever.
To psychologize art robs it of its power and the true artist is always at something deeper than a mere indulgent exercise in self-expression. But when you take a look at Walker Percy’s life, it’s hard not to see his interest in the question of why getting up in the morning is possible, much less necessary, as having some connection to the tragic experiences that shaped his early years.
Percy was born a little over 100 years ago, on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, the oldest of three brothers. His family was of renowned Southern stock, prosperous, deeply rooted, yet bearing that inevitable faint scent of romance and loss of the postwar South. His uncle, William Alexander Percy, was a lawyer, a poet, and the author of Lanterns on the Levee, a classic defense of traditional Southern life.
The Birmingham into which Walker was born was a new city with great hopes, and his family was a part of that anticipated rise to greatness. Founded recently — just in 1871 — Birmingham came into being because of a confluence on natural resources: wily planners and entrepreneurs took note of the plentiful stores of iron ore, coal, and bitumen in the long, mountainous ridges of north-Central Alabama and saw an opportunity. Yes, hopes were high that Birmingham would be the Pittsburgh of the South, the American version of the prosperous, industrial British cousin after which it was named.
Walker Percy’s paternal grandfather moved from Mississippi to Birmingham in 1886 and set up a law practice which immediately flourished along with all of the new industry, as his firm came to represent many steel and mining companies as well as banks. His son LeRoy, Walker’s father, followed in those legal footsteps. Sent to the New Jersey private prep school Lawrenceville, he went to Princeton, then Harvard Law, and then returned to Birmingham to practice law himself, soon enough marrying Mattie Sue Phinizy, a daughter of Athens, Georgia society whom he’d met at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia.
Their first son, Walker, was born in Birmingham barely nine months after the wedding, in the Catholic hospital St. Vincent’s, which had been the first, and was then still the only, hospital in Birmingham. The original hospital building is, of course, not standing, but the present complex stands on the same ground, in the center of the city.
I live in Birmingham, and I drive by St. Vincent’s every day. The neighborhoods around, on the north side of Red Mountain, where Percy first lived as a child, are part of my route as well. The roads are circuitous and confusing, and the huge homes of Birmingham’s early elite are mostly still intact, some transformed into apartments for young professionals and college students, but many still in use as private residences.
Except for Walker Percy’s first real home in Birmingham, that is.
It was his grandparent’s home, a huge, rambling, turreted mansion with a wrap-around front porch (of course). Why it is no longer still standing is one thing. Why the young family moved into it the first place is another.
For when we talk about Walker Percy, the southern writer in existential crisis, yes, we talk about the Old South and ghosts on battlefields and the scorched earth and guilt. With Percy, there is more — something more personal and devastating. The facts are plain and almost unbearably sad. In 1917, when Walker was a baby, his father, LeRoy, discovered his own father seconds after he shot himself through the chest in the attic of that castle-like home in the center of life in Birmingham, Alabama.
It was said to be an accident, but not by all, and the family and the coroner recognized the act as a suicide. Not long after, LeRoy moved his own family into that very house, we suppose to keep his grieving mother company. But it’s hard to avoid connecting future events with this singular step in a ghost’s footsteps.
In any case, Walker spent much of his childhood in that house. He walked to private school — the Birmingham University School — which was just down the block. He rode the trolley a block or two more down to Five Points, which is just what it sounds like — an intersection of five roads that was perhaps just as much a traffic nightmare then, what with trolleys and horses and a few cars, as it is now, with automobiles waiting impatiently to get over to the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus, to one of the area’s many hospitals, or up over the mountain to the leafy suburbs of the city.
It’s still a busy, bustling part of Birmingham, but the Percy house no longer stands. As I said, these areas — Highland Park and Five Points — lie on the north side of the mountain ridge. On the south, or “Over the Mountain,” mostly-white towns developed — Homewood, Vestavia and Mountain Brook — and getting up and across was a chore, made on just a few winding roads. In the 1960s, it became a problem that needed fixing, so the Red Mountain Expressway was conceived, a massive cut through the mountain was blasted, and a quick way through was built. In the process, of course, some things had to go, and one of the things that went in the area’s reconfiguration was the Percy mansion.
But it’s not hard to trace still the young Walker Percy’s footsteps, for the main road that he would have walked to school remains in use, and Five Points is still busy with restaurants and bars and a permanent homeless population you are firmly warned, by signs on restaurant doors, not to help. It is best for everyone, they say.
And so here it was that the child studied with the other children of Birmingham elites, studying Latin and history, the third in line of this privileged background. The third in line for what else?
It is a question one can’t avoid, for in early 1929, when Walker Percy was 13, his father died, and this time there was no ambiguity about the cause.
The question of existence
The family had moved by then, over the mountain, to the beautiful new development called Mountain Brook. Mountain Brook still exists — and flourishes today — having the highest home values and per-capita income in the area, its citizens disparagingly called “Brookies” by some of the rest of us.
The Percy home was — and is — right across from a golf course. The house still stands and is a private residence. Up until his father’s death, Walker had a wonderful childhood there, for he and his friends could have great adventures climbing up the hillside to the woods, exploring caves and old mining sites. He still went to the Birmingham University School, often riding his bike up the south side of the ridge and then coasting down to downtown, something only the hardiest bikers attempt today and nothing any self-respecting parent would allow at all.
But there was that day. Walker and his brother were at summer camp when the news came and they were packed on a train and sent back south. His father, who had struggled with depression — to the extent that he had even been a patient at the Mayo Clinic — had shot himself in the head, and was discovered by the housekeeper. As biographer Jay Tolson relates, Mattie Sue was shopping downtown when newspaper boys started yelling the news that a local attorney had shot himself and died. She turned to her friend and simply said, “It’s LeRoy.”
But there is even more to this, more to the mystery of loss, to unanswered questions. For all of the final goodbyes — the funeral, the burial — happened so quickly that it was all over and done before Walker and his brother stepped off the train back in Birmingham. He left one day for summer camp, and after that, his father just disappeared.
We are not finished, though. Soon after the suicide, Walker’s mother took the boys (there were three by then) and moved back home to Athens; two years later, Mattie Sue died. The car she was driving plunged into a stream. Most agreed it was an accident, for Percy’s younger brother, Phin, who survived, was in the car, too, but other explanations inevitably found their way into town gossip. Another of Percy’s biographers, Jesuit Father Patrick Samway, reports that Percy himself wondered if his mother, too, had committed suicide.
In the context of such a heritage, it is easy to see how the question of existence becomes an urgent one. To put it in Percy’s own words, uttered in an almost casual moment of self-revelation to a graduate student at LSU, “I guess the central mystery of my life will always be why my father killed himself.”
The Percys had been living with their famous Uncle Will in Greenville, Mississippi since their father’s suicide, and upon their mother’s death, Will adopted the boys. It was in Greenville, incidentally, that Percy made one of his closest lifelong friends — Shelby Foote, who also grew up to be a writer, most notably of the epic history of the Civil War.
Although Percy worked on the school newspaper in high school and was an astute observer of all that surrounded him, writing was not his first chosen vocation. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he embraced science, majoring in chemistry. He graduated from Columbia Medical School, and, although with diminishing enthusiasm for the profession, intended to be a physician. But while serving an internship in a pathology lab, that plan ended when he contracted tuberculosis.
Unable to practice medicine in the way he had planned, recovering in a sanitarium in upstate New York, then back home in the South, Percy faced yet another crisis, life-threatening on every level. What was he to do?
The decision was a rather astonishing one, as Tolson explains:
“Percy was at rock bottom in his early 30s…in despair, Percy took a gamble. He abandoned the future he had been preparing for and set off on a completely unanticipated course — the life of a writer.”
Conversion, novels, and “the search”
The decision to write was not the only one he made around this time. He also married, moved to Louisiana and, along with his wife, converted to Catholicism. Percy had spent his recovery from TB in intense reading of literature and philosophy, all of which contributed to his interest in unpacking the mystery of what ailed the human psyche, not just the body. His serious reading of the Bible and various philosophers led him to conclude that of all the choices available — scientism, relativism, the romantic stoicism of his Uncle Will — Christianity offered the most realistic assessment of human nature, in all of its weakness and possibilities.
Success was long in coming to Percy. He wrote two unpublished novels during the 1950s, one of which he actually burned. He also spent those years developing his interest in philosophy, particularly semiotics and philosophy of language, a discipline in which he would write extensively as well.
His third attempt at fiction, The Moviegoer, was the charm. Published in 1961, when Percy was 45, it attracted gradual but persistent attention and won the National Book Award the following year.
The Moviegoer reflects all of Percy’s concerns, and in fact was an attempt to write a philosophical novel in the European tradition. It concerns Binx Bolling, a stockbroker in his early 30s who lives in a suburb of New Orleans called Gentilly. Binx awakens one morning, suddenly aware of the possibility of “a search.” The search for what? It is never explicitly defined, only hinted at, and partly through the title. Binx lives in a world in which people are so disconnected from authentic existence they feel most real when they see some aspect of their lives reflected on the movie screen — their neighborhood used as a film set, for example. Or, as we experience it 40 years later, to be “certified,” as Percy put it, by appearing — ever so fleetingly — on television, or documenting your life on a blog, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube.
Percy says that we are more than that. In his National Book Award acceptance speech, he said his book was “a modern restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”
The wayfarer in two of Percy’s most intriguing, comic, and viciously satirical novels — Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World and The Thanatos Syndrome — is Dr. Thomas More, a small-town, unambitious psychiatrist, an admitted “bad Catholic” who says, “I believe in God and the whole business, but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellow man hardly at all.”
In both novels More makes his wayfaring, pilgrim way through political, social, and scientific forces that are either tearing down society or trying to rebuild it (just as dangerous) in times he describes as “these dread latter days of the old violent, beloved USA and of the Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted, death-dealing Western World.”
The South is the setting, the particular and peculiar place where social, cultural, and existential questions are confronted and worked out, to the extent they can be. We naturally associate Percy with Louisiana, where he ended up settling and raising his own family, but the other places he lived play their part — North Carolina, and even Birmingham. Since living here and digging into the history of this place — a history that pointed, not to the glories of a Magic City, light of southern industry, but to a dying and eventually dead industrial base, and then to the terrible years of Civil Rights struggle, to Bull Connor and his dogs and firehose, to four little girls and Martin Luther King, Jr. in a jail cell — as I have lived here, I see the place in Percy’s work.
For his educated, privileged characters live, as his family did here, in comfort, in the best places, and they have the best chances. But they also live with the cost — the social cost, the cultural price, and the existential ghosts and questions that arise every morning with the mist from the golf course, that can’t be shut away no matter how try you to move from them or how busy you try to be, and moreover, that can’t even be answered with most of the information you have at hand. It does indeed, require a search, unless you are to end up sitting alone in a room in conversation with your guns.
Percy’s targets are the shallow pursuits of contemporary life that entertain us into a state of mass misery, and those who seek to raise us from the despair: pop religionists who treat us as irrational, unembodied spirits, scientists and theoreticians who diagnose our ills in purely physical terms, and social planners who would solve human problems by eliminating human beings — the last being the particular subject of The Thanatos Syndrome, a book that I saw for the first time stacked on a display table at a National Right to Life Convention.
The battles Percy describes are fierce, comic, frightening, and, one can’t help reflecting, prophetic. Something has gone very wrong, as we all admit when we are honest about what we see. We seem, simply put, to have forgotten who we are and why we were put here. It is time to let the ghosts take care of themselves and embark on the pilgrimage. We can thank Walker Percy, who left a challenging, fascinating body of work behind him when he passed away on May 10, 1990, for heroically diagnosing our ills and suggesting, however elliptically, a cure.
Originally published at www.catholicworldreport.com on May 27, 2016.