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Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, believed in the power of film on many levels — as a means of escape, as the unifier of cultural experience, as a metaphor for all the ways we tell each other stories. And in fact his own life story had the kind of arc that could have been pulled straight from a movie of just about any era. Perhaps that’s why he identified with the medium, perhaps that’s why he found both hope and despair in it.
Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, the oldest of three boys. When he was 14 his father, LeRoy Walker Percy, shot himself — as had his grandfather the year after he was born. His mother took the boys to spend a year with their grandmother before moving on to Greenville, Mississippi, where they all moved in with LeRoy Percy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later Martha Percy was killed when her car plunged into a creek, and Uncle Will, as he was known to the boys, adopted all three brothers: Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy.
Will Percy was something of a Renaissance man; a lawyer, poet, plantation heir, and progressive activist, he was by all reports devoted to the boys and their education. He had an enormous library, which he encouraged them to explore, and it was in Greenville that Walker Percy developed the habit of inquisitive, investigative reading that would shape a lifetime of work. Uncle Will also introduced Walker to Shelby Foote, a neighborhood boy his own age, and the two hit it off immediately. (Foote went on to become a successful writer and historian himself; his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was the basis for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary.) Their deep friendship and mutual encouragement sustained both writers’ careers and lasted until Walker’s death.
Walker attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did Foote, two years behind him. He then went on to New York, to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, to study pathology. There he began to feel the first pricklings — a term he would use often in his fiction — of the melancholia that was the ruin of his father and grandfather. He responded by initiating several years of psychotherapy and the escapist moviegoing habit that would last a lifetime. Years later, describing his love of the movies to Robert Coles in the New Yorker, he pinpointed those days as the beginning of his consciousness as a novelist, even though he had no desire, at the time, to write:
I think at the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does. The movies are not just fantasies; for a lot of people they provide important moments, maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone — a cowboy, a detective, a crook — is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for, or asking if anything is worth fighting for.
Percy’s medical career was cut short in 1942, when he contracted tuberculosis six months into an internship at Bellevue Hospital. He spent the next two years recovering in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks, observant and restless as ever but largely confined to bed. While both his brothers and his best friend were serving their country honorably, he was flat on his back, dramatically detached from action of any kind. Percy had always been somewhat reserved — unsurprising for a boy who had sustained such huge losses so early. In the hospital, cut off from friends and family and any feeling of connection to world events, he turned further inward, and, as always, found escape in books. Rather than medical texts, though, Percy picked up Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and then Camus, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Tolstoy. The answers he was seeking, he realized, were not necessarily to be found in science, and the questions he was forming were new as well. As he would later explain in an essay titled “From Facts to Fiction” in his collection Signposts in a Strange Land,
What began to interest me was not so much a different question as a larger question, not the physiological and pathological processes within man’s body but the problem of man himself, the nature and destiny of man; specifically and more immediately, the predicament of man in a modern technological society.
Percy returned to Columbia in 1944 as an instructor, but relapsed within a couple of months, this time ending up at a sanatorium in Connecticut. He went home to Greenville a year later and looked for a place to settle down, driving out to Santa Fe with Shelby Foote but returning a few months later. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townshend, whom he had met five years earlier while working over the summer at a Greenville clinic, and the two moved to a summer place of Uncle Will’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. Percy had grown up nominally Presbyterian, but for some time had been feeling the need to solidify and centralize his faith. Six months after their marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a decision that would deeply inform his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. In 1947, when Percy was 31 years old, they moved to a furnished house in New Orleans. Its owner, the philosopher Julius Friend, had amassed a large library, and again, Percy was able to further his autodidactic ethical education. He never returned to the practice of medicine, and instead devoted himself to reading: philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and semiotics.
Percy immersed himself deeply in his studies. A modest inheritance enabled him to spend his days reading widely and methodically, living the life of a gentleman scholar. In the fall of 1954, he published his first essay in Thought, the Fordham University quarterly, titled “Symbol as Need.” It posited semiotics as a discipline more dependent on the spiritual than the scientific; that symbolization is not a biological need, but a social activity. He followed it two years later with the dense, technical, “Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism: A Possible Bridge from Empiricism” in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Percy was 40 years old, fascinated by states of consciousness, existential anxiety, ontology and its relation to his faith, and the mystery of what he called “the zone of the other.” He began publishing scholarly articles regularly, but all the while considering other, more accessible ways to frame his thoughts.
Shelby Foote had published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, and in the course of their lively correspondence he never stopped encouraging — and goading — Percy to move on to fiction. Percy did, in fact, complete two novels that would never see print; the first collected a series of rejections, and the second he never bothered sending out. In the meantime he published philosophical essays, book reviews, and articles. But then in 1958, at age 44, he started work on what would become The Moviegoer, and suddenly everything fell into place. As Percy describes it:
I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something… It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope.
The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil… The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western — sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie — that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have:
A good night. Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees — as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softest easiest old Virginian voice: “Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you” — Lonnie is beside himself, doesn’t know whether to watch Clint Walker or me), this ghost of a theater, a warm Southern night, the Western Desert and this fine big sweet piece, Sharon.
He was nearly 45 when the book was published. Sales were initially slow and reviews were scattered, but the following year it went on to win the National Book Award for fiction, beating out Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, and Revolutionary Road. Five years later he published his second novel, The Last Gentleman, which introduced Will Barrett, another of what Robert Coles referred to as Percy’s “anguished pilgrims.” Barrett is also Southern, also chronically detached — the novel’s opening finds him in New York’s Central Park, spying on people through a telescope — and he’s also prone to fugue states, although his are medical in nature, not cinematically induced. He too undertakes an odyssey in the process of connecting with the world, although his covers more physical and less emotional ground than Binx Bolling’s; it’s a good book, but The Moviegoer would have been a hard act to follow.
Still, Percy had become, irrevocably, a novelist. He took the job seriously, sitting down to write in his office over his daughter’s bookstore every day without fail, and when Foote, his original cheerleader, was floundering with his last novel, Percy cheerfully dispensed advice and encouragement. He never stopped writing, going on to publish four more novels — Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and several collections of his essays, including The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), and the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). All his work, fiction and nonfiction, was about seeking in one form or another — seeking connection, seeking involvement, seeking God in the everyday. While he never had another hit like The Moviegoer turned out to be, he was unwavering in his regard for the truth. While he complained to Foote that he had been pigeonholed as a “Christian Existentialist,” it also seemed to please him at least a little.
As the real-life version of an orphan boy from some kind of dark fairy tale, Percy must have loved the promise held by the narrative arc of the movies. You entered the dark theater and two hours later all would be revealed, all would be redeemed, and the lights would go up. In fact, his life did turn out well. He discovered what he loved to do when he was old enough to do it well and realized enough success to keep at it, and was able to stay true to his precepts throughout. Nobody else important left him: he married well, his daughters and grandchildren stayed close by, Foote remained a treasured friend — and was with his family at his bedside when he died — and he seemed to remain on fine terms with his God throughout. Walker Percy’s was a good tale, well told. As he wrote in 1966,
Perhaps the only moral to the story is that a serious writer, or any other artist for that matter, is a peculiar bird who has to find his own way in his own time and who had better be left alone to do so.
Bonus Link: Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty