By Maddy Boylan George
Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916 as the eldest of three boys. Percy’s early life was filled with death and catastrophe. When Percy was 8 months old his grandfather committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun in his attic. When he was 13 years old, his father mimicked the suicide by shooting himself in the chest with the same shotgun, in the attic of their home. His wife and youngest son Phin were downstairs at the time. Following the death of his father, Percy’s mother moved the family to her mother’s house in Georgia, and then to Uncle Will Percy’s house in Greenville, Mississippi. Uncle Will was a prominent lawyer and author, and he became a stable influence in the young boys’ lives. Two years after the move, their mother died in a car crash after driving off of a bridge and into a creek in Mississippi. Percy’s mother had been depressed and the crash occurred while the youngest boy, Phin, was in the car. Walker Percy said many years later that he had always believed her death to be suicide. Death was bizarrely common in their family; in 1794 the founder of the Percy line drowned himself, and through the following generations there were lots of examples of mental illness, sudden death, and suicide. While living in Greenville with Uncle Will as a teenager, Percy was introduced to Shelby Foote, future author and historian. They became lifelong friends, and frequently sent each other drafts and manuscripts to proof-read. The early trauma and displacement that Percy experienced gave him a very strong relationship with his brothers, however the death of his father in particular caused a lot of anger and resentment which continued to haunt him as an adult.
Percy went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then received a medical degree from Columbia in 1941, when he was 25. While still at Columbia he underwent psychotherapy to help move past the trauma of death and suicide that had over-shadowed his youth. He interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, where he contracted tuberculosis from a cadaver, and had to spend two years in a sanatorium to recover. His Uncle Will also died, which was yet another enormous blow. By this point Walker Percy was only 26 years old, and he had lost all of the important adult influences in his life. Whilst in the sanatorium he began to read a lot of European existentialist work, starting with Sartre and a lot of philosophy and theology in general.
In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townsend (known as Bunt), and they moved into a house at 1450 Calhoun Street (Larson 91) in New Orleans, just across the park from Loyola University. New Orleans was not intended to be Percy’s final destination; Bunt was working in the city when Percy left the sanitarium, so he travelled to see her, rather than following the original plan of moving to Santa Fe. Once he arrived in New Orleans, Percy fell completely in love. He said of the city, “New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana” (Samway 148).
Both Walker and Bunt were becoming interested in Catholicism, and they contacted the Jesuits at Loyola to receive further instruction. On December 13th 1947 he and Bunt were baptized. Percy did not enjoy constant references and questioning of his conversion, and the reasons for his change in spirituality are hotly debated in his biographies. Author Francine du Plessix Gray described Percy as “our greatest Catholic author since Flannery O’Connor” in the 1983 New York Times Book Review. However, he often pondered on the title “Catholic author” and worried that it was too restrictive. It “could be used to dismiss his work as another manifestation of what he pejoratively called the triumphant Christendom of the Sunbelt” (Mattix). The link between his devout Catholicism and his arrival in New Orleans cannot be underestimated; it is through this change in lifestyle that Percy was able to find some solace, according to several of his friends and family. Shelby Foote maintained that what “Walker desperately needed at that time was the strength the Catholic Church could give him” (Samway 149). Bunt and Percy’s life in the city evolved as they began to explore, attending mass daily and eating at restaurants in the Garden District; they quickly became acquainted with the less central areas of Gentilly and Elysian Fields.
A couple of years after moving to New Orleans, Walker and Bunt were driving across Lake Pontchartrain to the North Shore of New Orleans, where they happened upon the small town of Covington. A week later they bought a house there, with a large garden which ran down to the banks of the Little Bogue Falaya River. Walker Percy also bought up some of the land either side of the house over the next few years, so that they could have more privacy. The rest of his life was spent peacefully living unnoticed in Covington; in 1979 he published a self-interview in Esquire magazine, “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself”, stating that he “had lived there for 30 years and was less well known that the Budweiser distributor.” (Percy) “As a self-proclaimed loner and a lover of isolation, Percy found Covington to be an ideal resting place.”
Described as a “non-place” (Percy, 3), the lack of activity in Covington allowed Percy to move freely about the town and engage with the “little people” (Harwell, 16) without attracting the attention that a well-known author would usually receive. Percy’s descriptions of the town suggest that it is a place one would never go, unless one actually lived there. He began working on The Moviegoer in the mid-1950s and published it in 1961. Another five novels and two non-fiction pieces followed, although The Moviegoer was his most celebrated work and received the National Book Award in 1962.
As a quiet and reclusive man, Percy also enjoyed spending time by himself at movie theatres and cemeteries. He frequented the Pitt Theatre (now destroyed) on Elysian Fields Avenue, and the Prytania (still standing), and referenced the Pitt Theatre in The Moviegoer, although he changed the name to “The Tivoli.” Percy’s favorite cemeteries included the St. Louis Cemetery Number One on Basin Street and Lafayette Cemetery Number One on Washington Avenue. In his essay “The City of the Dead” Percy describes New Orleans cemeteries as being both the most beautiful and most lively areas of the city. He quotes Mark Twain, who stated that “New Orleans had no architecture to speak of except in the cemeteries” (Percy, 25). Percy frequently contemplated both the link between person and place, and the feeling of places being “haunted”, often by too much history. This fear of the impact that the long-dead can have on a place may be something to do with the frequent experiences he had with death as a child. After only a couple of years living in the house on Calhoun Street, Percy declared that the house was “haunted by history” (Samway, 153) and he wanted to move elsewhere. He spent a lot of time walking around cemeteries and daydreaming, describing the graveyards as “cities in miniature, streets, curbs, iron fences, its tombs above ground-otherwise the coffins would float out of the ground-little two-story dollhouses complete with doorstep and lintel. The older cemeteries are more haphazard, tiny lanes as crooked as old Jerusalem, meandering aimlessly between the cottages of the dead” (Percy, 24).
Percy’s inspiration for The Moviegoer and the character of Binx Bolling occurred during his frequent explorations of the city. He visited the Toby Westfeldt House and used it as a basis for Aunt Emily’s house in The Moviegoer; the house originates from the 1830s and is the oldest in the Garden District. This gives an indication to the wealth of protagonist Binx Bolling’s family. Several characteristics between Binx Bolling and Walker Percy become apparent upon the reading of The Moviegoer, most noticeably an insatiable need for ‘the search’. Binx Bolling describes his predicament; “the search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair”. Percy’s religious change was frequently described in interviews with family as a need to attach him to something permanent and resolute, something with real history and meaning. Arguably the Roman Catholic Church is one of the most stable institutions in the world, and an obvious attraction for someone struggling with a constant sense of displacement. Percy had a medical background and then became deeply religious, while Binx Bolling reversed the process by searching for something, possibly religion, and then attending medical school under the orders of his aunt.
Percy maintained a close relationship with the Church for the remainder of his life, becoming a Secular Oblate of St. Joseph’s Seminary, in St. Benedicts just outside of Covington. He and Bunt remained in the same house for forty years; Percy died at home in 1990, following two years with prostate cancer. Bunt outlived him until 2012.
The map below shows the location of Percy’s two home in Covington, and places that he frequented in New Orleans such as movie theatres and cemeteries.
1) Walker Percy as a young man, courtesy of http://the4onerun.blogspot.com/2011/12/wayfarer.html
2) Walker Percy relaxing in Covington, courtesy of http://www.britannica.com
3) Custom Google Map, March 2013
Harwell, David Horace. Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait In The Words Of Those Who Knew Him. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Larson, Susan. The Book Lover’s Guide to New Orleans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999
Mattix, Micah. Whither Walker Percy? First Things Magazine, 2010.
Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Open Road Media, 1991.
Percy, Walker. Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself. Esquire Magazine, 1979.
Samway, Patrick. Walker Percy: A Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Grant, 1997.