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The Life and Works of Walker Percy (1916 - 1990)

Updated on May 14, 2020
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Ms. Carroll is an amateur photographer & freelance writer who likes to fuse nature and photography with life experiences.

Walker Percy was an orphan turned literary philosopher. His life was nothing short of a quest. Born and raised in a prestigious suburb of Birmingham, Alabama called Mountainbrook - whatever his destiny was then, it changed. He seemed daunted by a past where his grandfather before his birth, and his father after his birth, were victims of suicide, depending on how you view suicide. To make matters more complexing, his mother died two years later (after they moved to Mississippi.) Percy was said to later regard his mother’s death as a suicide also, since she ran off the road while driving. Percy was merely a teenager.

It was against this backdrop of tragedy, that Percy's bachelor uncle, William A. Percy, a lawyer, became a large influence in young Percy’s life. As a result of their new life in Mississippi, Percy met acclaimed southern author, Shelby Foote who became Percy’s best and life-long friend. Many of their letters to each other have been chronicled and are worth the read, in and of themselves.

Percy joined Foote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in 1941, received his M.D. with an interest in pathology. Sadly, his interest in pathology got the best of him and while performing an autopsy, Percy contracted tuberculosis. He subsequently spent years in a sanitorium where he then studied existentialism. Whether as a result of time in thought or the stigma attached to the disease, Percy became a writer until his death. He devoted himself to the reconciliation of existentialism with faith, certain science did not have the answer. Essentially, he tried to explain the unexplainable in his writings.

Percy married Mary Bernice Townsend at the age of 30 and they gave birth to two daughters in Louisiana (where he is now buried.) One of his daughters, Ann Boyd, was hearing-impaired at birth and some Percy fans speculate this fed Percy's desire to express himself in language more than existentialism had. Percy greatly appreciated the writings of Helen Keller and acknowledged her influence on his life and work.

Nearly all of Percy’s works contain characters searching for a reason beyond their existence. He was focused on the alienation of man in his first and most famous novel, The Moviegoer (1961). He wrote about a stock-broker who found more meaning in movies than relationships, instead and until, he embarked on a personal search that led him to define himself in relation to his relationships with others.


Books by Percy

The Second Coming, written in 1980, is a sequel to Percy's 1966 book, The Last Gentleman. Whereas the first book was about an amnesiac, The Second Coming devotes itself to a man who discovers that he suffers, as his father did, from the belief that life is worse than death (and the solution, suicide.) This book, no doubt, is Percy’s attempt to work through the suicide of his own father. In the end, despite being very incomplete, the lead character meets and falls in love with another very incomplete person, and together you are made to feel like they make each other whole.

In one of his last published works, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), Percy said he was trying to show the disaster that stems from one truth prevailing at the expense of another. Percy also wrote two early novels, The Charterhouse, which unfortunately burned, and The Gramercy Winner, which remains unpublished.

Signposts in a Strangeland was published posthumously in 1991 and offers a lot of insight into Walker Percy’s image of himself.

If you, like Percy, are searching for answers, you might enjoy his journey. Be warned, however, as one critic noted,

"existentialism is inner-directed, maintaining that the fact of your own existence is sufficient in itself. Christianity is outer-directed, requiring you to believe in forces and purposes beyond yourself, with your own existence being only a small factor in a massive plan. Percy writes about the predicament of the doubter who wants to believe, but because he never gets entirely past the doubt, his books are all pathology and no cure."

Despite any doubts assigned by critics, Percy was a devout Catholic. His works proffer great food for thought. Walker Percy died from prostrate cancer at the age of 74.


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