Walker Percy

From New World Encyclopedia

Walker Percy
BornMay 28, 1916
Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America
DiedMay 10, 1990
Covington, Louisiana, United States of America
Religious beliefsRoman Catholic
Spouse(s)Mary Bernice Townsend

Walker Percy (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an American Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is best known for his philosophical novels, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962. In addition to his fiction, Percy wrote many expository essays in which he explored topics in philosophy, religion, and semiotics. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age,"[1] and his work exhibited a unique combination of existentialism, southern sensibility, and deeply-felt Catholicism. Having converted to Catholicism early in his career, Percy helped bring about what has been described as the “Catholic revival” in American literature, alongside such figures as Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Flannery O’Connor.

Early life

Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, into a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family whose past luminaries had included congressmen and American Civil War heroes. Prior to Percy's birth, his grandfather had killed himself with a shotgun, setting a pattern of emotional struggle and tragic death that would haunt Percy throughout his life.

After Percy's own father committed suicide with a shotgun the Percy family moved to Athens, Georgia where two years later, his mother died in a car crash when she drove off a country bridge and into a bayou—an accident that Percy regarded as another suicide.[2] Walker and his two younger brothers, Phin and Roy, then moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where his bachelor uncle William Alexander Percy, lawyer, poet, and autobiographer, became their guardian and adopted them. “Uncle Will” introduced Walker to many writers and poets and to a neighboring boy his own age, Shelby Foote, who became Walker’s life-long best friend.

As young men, Walker and Shelby decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. However, when they finally drove up to his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to talk to him. Later on, he recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.

Percy joined Foote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then trained as a medical doctor at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1941. After contracting TB from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During this period Percy read the works of Danish existentialist writer, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. During this time (ca. 1947) Percy converted to Catholicism, as well as deciding to become a writer rather than a physician—as he would later write, he would study the pathology of the soul rather than that of the body.


Marriage and children

He married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician, on November 7, 1946, and they raised their two daughters in Covington, Louisiana.

Literary career

In 1961 Percy published his first novel, The Moviegoer, after many years of work and rewriting in collaboration with editor, Stanley Kauffman. Percy later wrote of the novel that it was the story of "a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America."

Subsequent works included The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanataos Syndrome in 1987. Percy also published a number of non-fiction works exploring his interests in semiotics and existentialism.

Percy was instrumental in getting John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980, over a decade after Toole's suicide.

The National Endowment for the Humanities chose him as the winner for the 1989 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, for which he read, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind.”[3]

Death and afterward

Walker Percy died of prostate cancer in 1990 just eighteen days before his 74th birthday.



  • The Moviegoer. New York: Knopf, 1961, reprinted, Avon, 1980. ISBN 0375701966
  • The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1966; reprinted, Avon, 1978. ISBN 0312243081
  • Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1971; reprinted, Avon, 1978. ISBN 0312243111
  • Lancelot. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1977. ISBN 0312243073
  • The Second Coming. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1980. ISBN 0312243243
  • The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1987. ISBN 0312243324


  • Bourbon. Winston-Salem, NC: Palaemon Press, 1982.
  • The City of the Dead. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1985.
  • Conversations with Walker Percy. Lawson, Lewis A., and Victor A. Kramer, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
  • The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. Tolson, Jay, ed. New York: Center for Documentary Studies, 1996.
  • Diagnosing the Modern Malaise. New Orleans: Faust, 1985. ISBN 0917905024
  • Going Back to Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia, 1978.
  • How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1984.
  • Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1983. ISBN 0312253990
  • The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1975.
  • More Conversations with Walker Percy. Lawson, Lewis A., and Victor A. Kramer, eds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. ISBN 0878056246
  • Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time. New Orleans: Faust Publishing Company, 1986. ISBN 1141277719
  • Questions They Never Asked Me. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1979.
  • Signposts in a Strange Land. Samway, Patrick, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1991.
  • State of the Novel: Dying Art or New Science. New Orleans: Faust Publishing Company, 1988.
  • A Thief of Charles Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy. Samway, Patrick, ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. ISBN 0878058109


  1. Roger Kimball, Existentialism, Semiotics and Iced Tea, Review of Conversations with Walker Percy New York Times, August 4, 1985. Retrieved September 24, 2006.
  2. Patrick Samway, Walker Percy: A Life (Loyola Press USA, 1999), 4.
  3. Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved September 24, 2006.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Coles, Robert. Walker Percy: An American Search. Little, Brown & Co, 1979. ISBN 0316151602
  • Harwell, David Horace. Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him. University of North Carolina Press, 2006. ISBN 0807830399
  • Samway, Patrick. Walker Percy: A Life. Loyola Press USA, 1999. ISBN 0374187355
  • Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. ISBN 0807844470
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family. Oxford University Press USA, 1996. ISBN 0195056264
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The Literary Percys: Family History, Gender & The Southern Imagination. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994. ISBN 0820316652

External links

All links retrieved April 14, 2015.


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