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 scienceoh, 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
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 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 100 years ago this
Saturday, 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 recentlyjust in 1871Birmingham 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
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
moresomething 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 schoolthe Birmingham University
Schoolwhich was just down the block. He rode the trolley a block or two more
down to Five Points, which is just what it sounds likean 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
It’s still a busy, bustling part of
Birmingham, but the Percy house no longer stands. As I said, these areasHighland
Park and Five Pointslie on the north side of the mountain ridge. On the south,
or “Over the Mountain,” mostly-white towns grew upHomewood, Vestavia and
Mountain Brookand 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
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
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 existsand flourishes todayhaving 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 wasand isright 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 leftovers. 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 depressionto the
extent that he had even been a patient at the Mayo Clinichad 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 goodbyesthe
funeral, the burialhappened 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 friendsShelby 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
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 coursethe life of a
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 availablescientism, relativism, the romantic
stoicism of his Uncle WillChristianity 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 screentheir neighborhood used as a film set, for
example. Or, as we experience it 40 years later, to be “certified,” as Percy
put it, by appearingever so fleetinglyon 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 novelsLove in the Ruins:
The Adventures of a
Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World and The Thanatos Syndromeis
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 partNorth Carolina, and even
Birmingham. Since living here and digging into the history of this placea
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 cellas 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 costthe 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
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 beingsthe 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.