Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Life Stranger than Fiction

I have long been taken with Walker Percy.  I am fascinated more by his life than by his novels.  I am not much of a fiction reader, to be honest, but I have learned from his profound essays.  Much of what I write below is drawn from the moving PBS special on his life.

If it were not biography, Tennessee Williams could have written the life of Walker Percy.  He was born into a prominent and tragic Southern family.  His grandfather had committed suicide.  His father was a prominent Birmingham attorney, with wealth and privilege.  He, too, ended his life.  Suicide felt like the family curse to Walker, and he wondered if he were destined to walk that same road.

Walker, his brothers and his mother went to live with his cousin, "Uncle" Will Percy, himself the author of a haunting memoir Lanterns on the Levee (a very worthwhile read).  Will was a Southern gentleman, never married, and a leading citizen of Greenville, MS.  His father LeRoy, whom he lionized, was a United States Senator who stood down the Klan.  Will himself had rather liberal sympathies.  Greenville was anything but a stereotypical Southern town.  It produced a progressive newspaper, edited by Hodding Carter.  It had a prominent synagogue.  It was wealthy beyond imagining and a cosmopolitan oasis in the Mississippi Delta.  Will entertained luminaries of every sort in his capacious estate and Walker was the beneficiary of it.  His childhood friend included another man who would become an equally prominent Southern author --Shelby Foote.

While still a young man, Walker's mother drowned.  She was driving on a treacherous road, her car came around a sharp corner and missed the entrance to a bridge.  She drowned with her younger son in the car.  He lived, but she died.  Walker was soon at the scene --he did not know it was his mother's car until he arrived.

One can understand why a young man might want to leave much of this behind.  The settled philosophy of his early life was agnosticism --he was to be a man of science.  He went to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He settled on becoming a doctor, and studied pathology at Columbia University.  While there, working on cadavers, he contracted tuburculosis, and was forced to lie flat on his back for months in a sanitorium.

At some point, Walker began to realize that science could not account for the deeper, richer things in life --beauty, love, nor could it grapple with man's plight, blindly trying to make his way in the silent universe, sensing there is meaning, but not being able to read what that meaning was.  He awakened to the reality of God, yet not without profound and burning questions.  He had been profoundly influenced by existentialism.  He became a Christian Existential Catholic.  Existentialism prizes the individual acting decisively.  While in the sanitorium, he resolved to marry his long-time fiancee, become a Catholic and move to New Orleans.

Only he didn't quite move to New Orleans.  He settled in the nearby town of Covington, and writes movingly of why he did so.  Though becoming a literary giant through his novel, The Moviegoer, he was a regular citizen, in his later days, found at the waffle house and driving a beat-up Toyota.

He and his wife, Mary Bernice ("Bunt"), had two daughters.  They would take walks down by the river.  Because snakes abounded, Walker carried a rifle.  Once, when the younger daughter was a baby, he shot a snake.  Bernice and the older daughter winced.  The younger daughter didn't make a sound --they had just discovered she was deaf.

Percy's life was marked by tragic and difficult circumstances.  Many people's are.  Is it right to draw lessons from a person's life?  Was it Percy's circumstances that gave him so many things to say?

I wanted to introduce you to Walker Percy because he has some wonderful things to say --perhaps I'll chronicle some of those in a later post.  I am not commending him religiously or philosophically.  I am commending him because he makes me think.  Maybe he will make you think, too.


  1. Percy has saved my life and ministry more times than I can count. Thank you for this.

  2. Have you read Lost in the Cosmos? It's not fiction, and I think you'd enjoy its challenges.