I suppose that after William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy (1916-1990) has been for the last three decades the most widely read of Southern writers. He has been known as a social observer as well as a novelist, and as a philosopher as well as a Roman Catholic. And he has been known particularly by readers of these pages, if only because he was given The Ingersoll Foundation’s T.S. Eliot Award m 1988. He has been known, I mean to say, not only because of that award but also and even more because of the reasons for which he received it. Jay Tolson has put the case very well:
Percy was a thinker and artist at odds with his time, both with the various and local Zeitgeists of postwar America and, more generally, with the spirit and intellectual tenor of what might crudely be called modernity. Percy, moreover, was uncomfortable with the dominant ethos of his culture, occasionally even at war with it.
It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that such a shrewd and sympathetic study as Tolson’s should emerge of the politically incorrect Percy—who once pointed out on the op-ed page of the New York Times that there is no scientific doubt about when life begins: at the moment of conception. Characteristically of Percy, his point was true, simple, precise, and unwelcome though much needed. As with much that he said, he was in a unique position to say it.
Walker Percy was the product of one of the most distinguished of Southern families. He had in his background not only a strong sense of noblesse oblige and of the moral imperatives of leadership, but also a predisposition to melancholy and even suicide. And there was too the imposing presence of his “Uncle Will,” William Alexander Percy—poet, lawyer, bachelor, adoptive cousin, and author of one of the best books about the South, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941). Much of Walker Percy’s creative work was a response to and even a loving rejection of the tradition of the Percys, and of Uncle Will’s stoicism and aestheticism as well. Percy’s conversion was perhaps the most important but not the only way in which he responded to his heritage and transcended it.
Walker Percy’s preparation for the career no one could have foreseen consisted not only in his training as a medical doctor but also in his self-imposed study of the Continental tradition of philosophy and fiction—the existential line of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus; the tradition of Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger; the line of logical positivists, Thomists, Gabriel Marcel—you name it, he read it. And he read it as a convalescent, as a man who had felt the brush of death’s wing: a father’s suicide. World War II, tuberculosis. After his recovery, conversion, and marriage, he still had not found himself and pushed on through false starts toward The Moviegoer (1961). This first book won national acclaim, and his path was set, though it was not without travail. Even so, Percy continued with his diagnostic work—his fictional and existential demonstrations that despair is the preparation for revelation. I sometimes think that The Last Gentleman (1966) is his best book, Love in the Ruins (1971) is lighter and lesser, but also a much needed satire of a nation that had undergone a self-administered lobotomy in the 1960’s. Lancelot (1977) is a dark and intriguing experiment that was misread when it came out—a strong work, and an exorcism of some personal demons. The Second Coming (1980) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) have their incidental felicities, but they are a falling-off from Percy’s best days.
Jay Tolson’s account of Percy’s life is an accessible and admirable chronicle of an off-beat career. Tolson has managed to understand a novelist who was a philosopher, a Christian who was a satirist, a conservative who danced with liberalism, and a moralist who was funny. After all. Southern aristocrats who study German phenomenologists and win the National Book Award their first time at bat don’t come down the pike every day. Southern conservatives who convert to Catholicism and are active in the civil rights movement don’t either. Jay Tolson has surprised at least one reader with his nimble excursion through a minefield of conflicting ideologies, confusing philosophies, unlikely assumptions, and quirky personalities. His graceful negotiation of decades of turbulence, confusion, and passion is a lucid tour of change and folly, a useful review of modern history, and a pleasure to read.
One of those pleasures comes in thinking of Tolson’s life of Percy spatially rather than chronologically. It is a vivid recreation of places: Greenville, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; Chapel Hill; New York City; Saranac Lake; New Orleans; Sewanee, Tennessee; Covington, Louisiana; the Schwarzwald in Germany; the American desert. Another pleasure is discovering the biographies—of William Alexander Percy, of Shelby Foote, of Walker Percy’s wife and children and brothers—within the biography. Actually Tolson’s book is so good that I started to wonder: there must be some flaw that a critic can pick at. The account of Gone With the Wind on page 129 misses that novel’s irony altogether—I think it’s the only time we catch Tolson napping.
But this reader’s reflexes notwithstanding. Walker Percy is the center of attention, and he was a man of ideas. Jay Tolson excels in his exposition of the threads of continuity in Walker Percy’s life and in his accounting for the dialectic of life and art as Percy lived it. He has shown Percy in the round and as he related to his family, his community, and the world of ideas in his time. And he has shown him as an individual engage, even a knight of faith, one who maintained his integrity to the end and who sustained the tradition of family honor in a wholly new way.
Jay Tolson has caught the particular watchfulness of Percy, his reserve, even his pride and accedia, and rendered a convincing portrait of an idiosyncratic, thoughtful, and sometimes indignant gentleman. At the end, Percy’s is a noble leave-taking, the capstone of a good life. This compelling biography of an intellectual conveys drama of thought and agony of composition while filling in the impression of flesh and blood. Relaxed, persuasive, nuanced, and balanced, Tolson’s life of Percy is a moving and even morally challenging biography of a moralist in an immoral world. What more can we ask of such a book?
[Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, by Jay Tolson (New York: Simon & Schuster) 544 pp., $27.50]
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