Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Welcome back to Open Road’s fourth Critical Symposium. Our subject in this month’s series is Walker Percy, author of the classic novel The Moviegoer. Today’s contribution comes from Patrick Samway, who wrote the definitive Percy biography. In an enlightening personal essay, Samway describes his special friendship with the writer The New York Times called “our severest moralist, and one of our most philosophical novelists.” Please feel... free to share with us your thoughts about Percy and the latest Critical Symposium in the comments section below.
In the early spring of 1988, I spent a week in Greenville, Mississippi, interviewing Walker Percy’s relatives and former high school classmates—men and women who had wonderfully clear memories of the 1920s and 1930s. I remember asking one woman if she knew X, and then if she knew Y, and then if she knew Z. She stopped me at that point, put her hands on her hips, and said with a delicious smile: “Honey, everyone in the Delta knows 1,200 people!” Her words turned out to be prophetically correct. Later that spring, Josephine Haxton (aka Ellen Douglas, the author) asked me if I would be her “date” for the annual award ceremony of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, since she would be mistress of ceremonies for the evening. I agreed, knowing that a date with a Roman Catholic priest would not initiate any gossip for her about potential suitors. It turned out that I was seated between Walker, who was receiving the award in literature, and Eudora Welty, who was receiving the lifetime achievement award. It was a marvelous dinner, as I leaned back and listened to Walker and Eudora reminisce about high school parties in Greenville, Rosedale, Indianola, Cleveland, Clarksdale, Greenwood, and Jackson. Not only could they remember the names of their classmates, but the families of each of them, as well as arabesque-like family histories beyond count. I was mesmerized as Walker brought forth names and handled each one tenderly: Uncle Will, Shelby Foote, Mary Elizabeth Yates, Roy, Sarah, Margaret Kirk, Dave Cohn, Hodding Carter Jr., Charles Bell, Lige Collier, Louise Hawkins, Carrie Stern, Nana Pearce, Lelia Warren, Martha Dyer, Gerstle Mack, Margaret England, and Roark Bradford. As his poem, “Twilight of the Lives,” written in his senior year in Greenville, indicates, Walker had a maturity beyond his years, considering that he was then still mourning the death of both parents:
Walker always graced me. He had that knack of making you feel totally comfortable and free in his presence. I tracked his life, from his earliest days in Birmingham, Alabama, to his death in Covington, Louisiana, and grew to know him as only a biographer can do—and, fortunately, in my case, as a friend and admiring critic of his fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes when I would interview him, he would stretch out on the family living room sofa, a sign to me of all those years when tuberculosis was with him, and he would turn on the TV (with no sound, thanks to the years he and his wife spent teaching daughter Ann how to read lips), and he would invariably begin: “Do I have to say ‘testing, testing’?” And then we would launch out into some part of his life. I tried not to interrupt him, just supplying a name or date if needed, always letting him go where he wanted to.
The last time I saw Walker alive was on Palm Sunday, 1990, about a month before his death. I was invited to join the Percys, including Ann and Mary Pratt and their families, for dinner. Afterward, everyone had something to do. Mrs. Percy went to the local nursing home, as she tended to do each week. The boys politely excused themselves and went to play ball and be with their friends. The others had errands to run. And soon Walker and I were alone. After Walker spoke for about an hour into the pin microphone, still nauseous from the cancer therapies, I said I should leave, just as Mrs. Percy came through the front door. I asked Walker if I could give him a blessing and he said, “Yes, please do so.” He got up, went down on his knees as I imposed hands on his head and said a prayer. I then asked if he would like me to help him up. “No,” he replied. “I think I will just stay as I am for a while.” I turned around, greeted Mrs. Percy, and walked out, whelming up with tears.
From our first encounter in 1978, Walker knew I was a Roman Catholic priest (a picture exists of the two of us in which I wear traditional clerical garb). Since I had done graduate work in English (PhD, 1974) at his alma mater, I felt confident that I could discuss the religious dimensions of Walker’s fiction, as I had done with other Southern writers. But how to discuss his personal views of spirituality? There, I needed to triangulate, as the Reverend Simon Smith does in the firetower in The Thanatos Syndrome, as he looks for fires and signs that the Evil One might be about. To this end, I interviewed a group of Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, who all knew Walker. In fact, Walker had once taught at their seminary and would often participate in the liturgy at the abbey. I likewise talked with several of Walker’s priest-friends: the Reverend Elmo Romagosa, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans; the Reverend Val Ambrose McInnes, OP, chaplain at Tulane University, who had counseled Dr. and Mrs. Percy at a time when they were experiencing marital strains; the Reverend Thomas Clancy, SJ, professor of church history at Loyola, and Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, who admired Walker and visited him a short time before he died. In addition, I interviewed religious women, including Sisters Jeanne d’Arc Kernion, OSB, Fara Impastato, OP, and Joan Ridley, OP, all who had known and worked with Walker during the civil rights days of the late 1960s and 1970s. Each termed Walker a “conservative, devout Catholic,” one who tended to accept, without demanding argumentative motivation, the tenets of his faith. In spite of his reserved personality, Walker at times entered the public forum to help those less needy than himself and spoke out on pro-life issues.
I also tracked the three-day retreats (twenty-three in all!) that Walker had made, mostly at the Jesuit-run Manresa Retreat House in Convent, Louisiana. Though he had troubles with certain aspects of Roman Catholicism (as do most Catholics, I might add), he remained faithful to these retreats. He usually went with a parish group, listened to “points for meditation” from a retreat director, and prayed both privately and communally. These retreats, I maintain, were important for Walker’s continued spiritual growth, because they afforded him a chance to evaluate, almost yearly, his relationship with God, his family, his friends—and the ongoing task of writing. In addition, whenever he had specific problems, he could seek counsel and put his private behavior into a larger theological framework. One has only to read the opening reflections of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which offers a prayerful mode for one seeking to understand one’s relationship to God, to appreciate the significance of Walker’s determined loyalty to these annual retreats.
Once his reputation as a novelist and man of letters had been established, Walker wrote several essays about what it meant to him to be a Catholic in the latter part of the twentieth century. These essays include “Why Are You a Catholic?,” “A ‘Cranky Novelist’ Reflects on the Church,” “The Failure and the Hope,” “Foreword to The New Catholics,” “If I Had Five Minutes With the Pope,” and “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” all included in a collection of his essays and talks, entitled Signposts in a Strange Land. In “Why Are You a Catholic?,” for example, Walker wrote with utter directness and conviction, reflecting a spirituality that did not attempt to convert others: “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true. I’d as soon let it go at that and go about my business. The Catholic faith is, to say the least, very important to me, but I have not the least desire to convert anyone or engage in an apologetic or polemic or a ‘defense of the Faith’” (see Signposts in a Strange Land 304-5). Walker struck a chord in many of his readers that resonates with a region of their spiritual lives inaccessible to the discourse of professional theologians. He used language even a local redneck could understand, and thus achieved enormous credibility as he explained his own brand of spirituality. Though some scenes in his novels are religiously unconventional, his personal spirituality reflects, in my estimation, wise, deep-seated convictions.
Walker Percy, a man of great probity, who was both winsome and discerning, in addition possessing a mighty intellect and exceptional literary talent, continues to grace me and all who knew him.
Patrick Samway, SJ, Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is the author of Walker Percy: A Life (1997) and editor of Signposts in a Strange Land (1991) and A Thief of Peirce: The letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy (1995). You may purchase his books through the following retailers: Amazon, Google, and Barnes and Noble, or learn more about him here.
Open Road’s Critical Symposium returns this week with a new series focusing on the great Southern novelist Walker Percy. The central theme of Percy’s work was the decline of religion and spirituality in modern society. We’ve therefore asked our contributors to discuss this aspect of Percy’s work and how he handled questions of faith in his own life.
We begin with an essay by Brent Short, who conducted an in-depth interview with Percy in 1990 after the publication of... The Thanatos Syndrome. In his essay, Short describes how he became interested in Percy’s work and what it was like to meet him in person. What follows is a lucid examination of the profound spiritual questions that haunted Percy’s writing. As always, we invite you to join the discussion in the comments section below.
In 1989, the year before Walker Percy’s death, I interviewed him at the Henley Park Hotel in Washington, DC, the day before he was to give his Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment of the Humanities. I previously had briefly met him at a book signing at Kramer Books on DuPont Circle in Washington, DC, where I was living at the time. I was immediately struck by how shrunken and frail he looked the second time round—at first I actually wondered if I had the right person. He didn’t look entirely well. To me he already had “that look,” but as soon as he spoke, that Southern-inflected voice that came through in his writing was right there.
With people queued all the way out into the street, in the fifteen seconds I had to say something catchy or clever at the book signing, all I could come up with was that I had already read the book (twice actually) and liked it. As he was signing my copy of The Thanatos Syndrome he seemed almost surprised and pleased to hear that, and when I remarked that his hand must be cramping from all that book signing, he told me that his handwriting, like that of most doctors, was pretty bad to begin with. I heard one of the other people, a young woman who stood in line ahead of me, remark to him that along with Bob Dylan, Percy was her biggest hero. That got him out of his chair to give her a big hug.
I couldn’t tell you why I was sitting on the couch across from one of America’s most celebrated authors of high seriousness in the Henley Park Hotel. As an interviewer I knew there had to be a lot of literary types out there that would love to trade places with me and were certainly a hell of a lot more qualified to do so—nevertheless, there I sat with my notes, and my questions, and my little black tape recorder. On the other hand, I guess I could tell you how it ended up being me sitting there. Like a lot of things that end up being lifelong interests, it started out as someone else’s interest. The very first person to tell me about Walker Percy and Thomas Merton (neither of whom I had even heard of) was a young woman graduate from Trinity, a small Catholic college in Washington, DC. Like the young lady in the bookstore, she had a contagious enthusiasm and I caught it. So there I sat across from Percy, ready to discuss his latest comic apocalyptic depiction of the contemporary malaise, The Thanatos Syndrome.
I’ll give myself some credit: I was well prepared. I had tried crafting a series of questions that addressed themes in Percy’s work overall, as well as those more specifically focused on what ended up being his last novel—a novel saturated in death. And while most readers would probably agree that Thanatos is not his strongest novel, it is without a doubt his most blatant address of what he called the century of death—and overtly “pro-life,” if you will. It was a novel that definitely had a message to go along with a warning, as all of his novels did, but this one had a Christian humanism that plainly showed through, and that opened its author up to criticism. This was a novel that he probably did well to wait to write until after his reputation was already firmly established. That in and of itself made it an interesting novel to talk about, and when you go back and read the interview you can see that he was certainly more than aware of the chances he was taking as a novelist, and the choice he made. It dawned on me that he felt this was a book he wanted to get out there as a cautionary tale, for no other reason than to make sure he got it out there before it was too late . . . for everybody.
I tried following Percy’s lead by making sure we didn’t get absolutely bogged down in the heavy themes of the book—genocide, euthanasia, social engineering in an age of exploding technology and scientific knowledge, the devaluation of life, and the reliving of the rise of Nazi Germany through the memories of a broken-down priest, Father Smith. What I mean by following his lead is not letting the seriousness of it all go entirely unrelieved—one of the things I admired most about his fiction and particularly his send-up of pop psychology and pop science in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. I brought a few lighthearted questions to lessen the potentially lethal seriousness of it all. My hope as an interviewer was that we might actually end up having something akin to a real conversation, where everything wasn’t so strictly scripted. It struck me as the sanest approach when dealing with all these potentially grim subjects. If nothing else, I had learned from Percy’s own writing of the supreme dangers of taking yourself too seriously, a pretension that simply adds to a lethalness already in the air.
This was going to require a little humor. So I asked him about bourbon’s popularity amongst Southerners, about why he always made fun of Ohioans and how they talked (or “tocked”) in his books, and I threw in a Dan Quayle joke at the end—seemed only right. What I feared most, looking overmatched, an amateur asking serious (too-serious) questions, I never felt in his presence, which for me was a great grace—like the appreciative hug the girl got from him in the bookstore. That image of Percy jumping out of his chair stayed with me. It was a wonderful gesture from such a droll surveyor of the lethal consciousness of the twentieth century, satirizer of the contemporary malaise and human condition, from the one who stared it all down in his books and essays. That image of spontaneity, a little sign, gave me a little wiggle room going into the interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be as intimidating to talk to him as I imagined.
That in a sense was his subject and his narrative—finding signs of life, a reason to hope, to be onto something. A self-confessed hater of the twentieth century, he made forays into contemporary consciousness that might come across as preachy or overbearing in another’s hands. Percy was too sly for that, operating out of a conviction that to get around many of the postmodern, post-Christian assumptions of the reader, he had to address Man’s waywardness and homesickness indirectly, disarmingly, often through comedic means. As a writer, it’s not always what you write about as much as how you put it. And here, Percy had it going on in spades. People key into his writings because of the surety of the laconic voice they’re listening to, not just what he said but the way he said it. He could capture and play with ideas and language in an amusing way and not just get his point across, but get it across in such a way that readers might actually pay attention.
The fact that Percy was a Southerner gave him an ear for all varieties of American dialect, but obviously there was a lot more than just cultural satire at play. The wry voice behind all those feckless Southern gentlemen in search of a real identity in an age of prosperity and happiness, an authentic life in the age of mass media and the inauthentic, was also a shrewd voice that had a way of conveying and concealing what was essentially a life-and-death struggle. He was well-suited for observing the paradoxes of the twentieth century, which he describes in his essay “Why are You a Catholic?” as “the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.”
Certainly, the fact that he was a Catholic writer played a significant role in his claim that the stakes really were that high. Perhaps it also took someone whose own family had been plagued by a series of suicides to really understand how the culture of life and the culture of death seep into every fallibility, every choice, underscoring the personal nature of the very act of communication and choice itself. Perhaps it took an ex-medical student to recognize that a sense of pathology also implies a sense of health. As he once said, a writer has to have “the knack”—knowing how to put things, connecting what might not appear to be connected—the radar for it, the ability to pick it up out of the air. In his case, he started with the heavy ironies of the twentieth century and created from there. In his essay “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” Percy wrote: “The hero of the post-modern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.”
Starting with Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer all the way through to Dr. Thomas More in The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy drew protagonists sunk down into their everydayness, mostly successful, but feckless, who are troubled by an out-of-placeness, a no-placeness that bears a peculiarly contemporary stamp. Percy posits a startling possibility: Their trouble might actually be a sign pointing away from itself, back to itself—more often than not, reduced and explained away. Nevertheless, their problems lie beyond the reach of the objectifying cause and effect of secularized science, sociology, and psychology; that is to say, the actual existence of a soul, afflicted as it might be.
These protagonists are exemplars for his philosophical and existential concerns—why should anyone care about these upside-down souls trying to figure out what to do with themselves or modern society’s derangements? Our very lives might just depend on it. Those are the stakes Percy proposes. As a moralist, and a diagnostic novelist, he payed attention to telltale signs, drawing the lines of choice standing before us. In the broadest sense, suffering from a terminal illness called the human condition, his characters are all on the same hook, just as he was as a young man, driven to make choices (starting out as an agnostic medical student and devout believer in empirical science, ending up a Catholic novelist). Placing his characters in the midst of “the search” against the boredom, dislocation, and emptiness of this death in life seems only natural.
Surely the most significant, and paradoxical, sign at the center of that search is the peculiar and mysteriously individual natures of the seekers themselves—a stumbling block to any scientific or behavioral theory. This is where Percy located the true value of individuals, offered his correctives, and fused his diagnostic skill with his fiction, his eye on his characters’ peculiar alienation playing itself out again and again. It was as if he took the happy paradise of the shopping mall and the golf course in the suburbs, part of the most successful consumerist culture in the history of the world, and could still, despite all appearances, see the real spirit of the times, its malevolent possibilities, as just another playground for the demonic. Getting the reader to actually see the many-sided aspect of its lethalness as he saw it, and not run them off or turn them off, combining humor with high seriousness, was the trick that enabled him to fuse fiction with philosophy, fiction with existentialism, fiction that stands as the very antithesis to easy and, ultimately, unsatisfying answers; or even worse, nihilism dressed up in the name of ideology or scientism; slippery ideas and slippery language all leading to an abyss.
Part of my interest in Percy as a novelist was in the faith that undergirded his writing. Whatever sign or hint of an answer he offered up was always going to remain suggestive, allusive, and as such, instructive to other writers who might share similar faith concerns. The way he was able to take his characters’ waywardness and unease and use it as part of a prognosis for the age was ingenious and, as yet, unrivaled. Successful in an ironic way Percy might appreciate, as he understood with a unique vision (that was both comic and deadly serious), the pilgrim’s search would have to be conducted in a post-Christian world where many of the symbols and signs that directed pilgrims on their way were already stripped of all their meanings. In a sense, Percy created new signs through his exploratory essays and fiction, and revived the old vanishing ones, giving them new uses, new senses, in an upside-down, ironic way that only a modern man or woman might understand and appreciate. In his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” he asserts: “Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he (the novelist) is more apt to set forth with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless.”
Brent Short is the Director of Library Services at Saint Leo University in Florida. His writing has appeared in Radix, The Christian Century, Mars Hill Review, Inklings, Sojourners, The Merton Seasonal, The Other Side, and Christianity and Literature