The Moviegoer, 1961
The Last Gentleman, 1966
Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, 1971
The Second Coming, 1980
The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987
The Message in the Bottle, 1975
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, 1983
Conversations with Walker Percy, 1985 (Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, editors)
The State of the Novel: Dying Art or New Science?, 1987
Signposts in a Strange Land, 1991 (Patrick Samway, editor)
More Conversations with Walker Percy, 1993 (Lawson and Kramer, editors)
A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy, 1995 (Samway, editor)
The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, 1997 (Jay Tolson, editor)
Walker Percy was one of the most important American novelists of ideas of the latter half of the twentieth century, his rivals being John Updike and Saul Bellow. A traditionalist who lamented the twentieth century’s loss of the perception of sin and its need for grace, Percy created protagonists who search for the source of their alienation and melancholy in the most prosperous country on earth. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 28, 1916, living a basically idyllic southern childhood until his father’s suicide in 1929. Percy eloquently portrays the effect of his father’s death upon him in the character of Will Barrett, protagonist of his 1980 novel, The Second Coming. After his mother’s death, the teenaged Percy and his two brothers were reared in Mississippi by their father’s first cousin, “Uncle Will” Percy, whose autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1941), was itself a Southern classic, portraying the proud South emerging from the ravages of the Civil War.
Walker Percy did not plan to become a writer. After finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he went to Columbia University Medical School in 1938 to become a psychiatrist. Earning the M.D. in 1941, he attempted to complete his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and there contracted tuberculosis while performing autopsies. This event became pivotal in his career and in his life; while recovering in a sanatorium in upstate New York, Percy read voraciously, particularly existentialist philosophy, including Søren Kierkegaard. The result was a conversion to Christianity in 1943 and a decision to abandon medicine as a career and seek a vocation as a full-time writer. Between 1943 and 1946, Percy wrote two forgettable novels and eventually turned instead to studying and composing expository articles on language and linguistics, developing themes that would later undergird the thematic concerns of his novels. After he married Mary Townsend in 1946, they both converted to Catholicism and relocated to the South, near the quintessential Southern city of New Orleans, Louisiana, subsisting on his inheritance from his uncle’s estate. During the 1950’s, Percy published a number of essays in scholarly journals on linguistic theory and psychology that were later collected and published in the 1975 collection The Message in the Bottle. He continued to dabble in fiction but steered away from the towering figure of William Faulkner toward a more direct, post-Southern genre of fiction. The result was Percy’s first published novel at age forty-five, The Moviegoer, a National Book Award winner of 1961, deliberately patterned after the intense, philosophical novels of ideas by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus that Percy had discovered during his convalescence from tuberculosis. Binx Bolling, a young stockbroker from New Orleans, is the prototypical Percy protagonist, a brooding, alienated thinker whose despair at the emptiness of modern life sets him on the “search” for God and true transcendence.
Percy followed The Moviegoer with a longer, even more philosophical novel in 1966, The Last Gentleman, the plot of which introduces Will Barrett, a troubled, confused young man in search of himself, who eventually finds meaning in laying down his life for others. As Percy’s reputation as a formidable novelist of ideas grew, he upset expectations with his third novel, published in 1971, Love in the Ruins, a hilarious satire of modern technological life and psychiatry. Its protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is a thinly disguised re-creation of sixteenth century churchman and martyr Sir Thomas More combined with Percy himself; he skewers the false utopias of Eastern religion, consumer capitalism, and errant liberal Catholicism. As Percy continued to reap critical plaudits for his fiction, his nonfiction essays were collected and published in The Message in the Bottle in 1975, astonishing his readers with their variety and their expertise in linguistic and psychological theory; one essay in particular, “The Man on the Train,” set forth Percy’s diagnosis of the malaise in American culture and the task of the novelist who wishes to restore a moral center. The year 1977 brought Percy’s fourth novel, the dark, disturbing Lancelot, the story of a vengeful husband who murders his wife and her lover. Many critics regarded Lancelot as a too-pessimistic diatribe against the values of the modern age, seeing it as a sermon, not a novel.
Attempting to write his first “nonalienated,” optimistic novel, Percy revived the character of Will Barrett for his 1980 book, The Second Coming. Now widowed, Barrett finds true love–and God–in a densely plotted, comic work that revealed a new emphasis on affirmation in Percy and earned back the critical respect he had lost with Lancelot. The critical and financial success of The Second Coming was rewarded by Percy’s publisher by bringing out his quirky nonfiction book, Lost in the Cosmos, in 1983. Lost in the Cosmos was at once a satire of television talk-show hosts, a serious monograph on language and semiotics, and a brief for Christianity delighting some critics and readers and confusing others. In 1987 Percy published what many regard as his greatest achievement, The Thanatos Syndrome. This novel also revives a past Percy character, Dr. Tom More; fresh from a prison sentence for selling drugs to truck drivers, he discovers a fiendish plot to anesthetize the populace by drugging the drinking water of Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. Set in the 1990’s, The Thanatos Syndrome represents Percy’s strongest warning against a potential holocaust in Western culture because of its creeping acceptance of situational ethics at the expense of an eternal moral standard that regards all human life as meaningful and precious.
In 1991 a collection of essays, talks, and interviews, several previously unpublished, was published as Signposts in a Strange Land, collected and edited by Patrick Samway. The book gives insight into Percy’s perceptions of his novels, his craft, the South, and his beliefs; it concludes with a wry self-interview.
In his fiction, Percy attempted to situate the mystery of humankind’s origin and the place of language in solving it specifically, the human ability to make symbol and metaphor at the center of his male protagonist’s search for fulfillment and meaning. What separates Percy from more pretentious writers of philosophical fiction is his keen sense of everydayness, the vivid capturing of the details of modern life. Readers recognize–and are embarrassed by–the familiar icons Percy uses to underscore the affluent, unburdened life many Americans lead. His protagonists are inevitably forced to “find themselves” by supplanting the status quo, shattering the illusions of goodness and mercy built into the twentieth century’s worship of self. Percy’s uncompromising boldness in proclaiming the lost values of loyalty to one’s family and one’s native land–Percy refuses to countenance the blanket charges of racism and sexism consistently brought against the South–strikes many readers as refreshing. Percy has thus become the most widely admired and critically acclaimed Christian writer of the last decades of the twentieth century, sharing with Flannery O’Connor, Shūsaku Endō, and Graham Greene the mantle of orthodox Catholic novelist.