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Mon November 6, 2006
Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him
Since his death in 1990, there have been several biographies written on Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, The Second Coming, and a shelf of other works, both fiction and nonfiction. The purpose of Harwell's research is to gather some of the stories and anecdotes and "fill in some of the details of . . . [Percy's] life, to add a little color to the background . . . in the words of different people who knew him."
By Don Noble
Since his death in 1990, there have been several biographies written on Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, The Second Coming, and a shelf of other works, both fiction and nonfiction. Naturally, those biographers went around and interviewed people who knew Percy?his family, friends, and acquaintances.
It is not too surprising, therefore, that several of the thirteen people interviewed for this volume asked, as Shelby Foote did, "Now tell me exactly what it is that you are working on . . . ." David Harwell, the editor of this volume, and an Alabama Ph.D., answers quite sensibly that the various biographies, though thorough, are "trying to prove a thesis" and are "more filled with facts than stories." The purpose of his research is to gather some of the stories and anecdotes and "fill in some of the details of . . . [Percy's] life, to add a little color to the background . . . in the words of different people who knew him."
This is a worthy goal. Imagine the excitement if we could read interviews with Shakespeare's neighbors, housekeeper, friends, brothers, and so on. Now then, is Walker Percy Shakespeare? No, obviously not. But he is still a major figure, although his status may not be today what it was ten years ago, and the more we know the better.
What do we learn from this volume that we did not already know?
Will Campbell, who describes himself as a bootleg preacher, may have served as an informal confessor to Percy, but he would have been supplementary because Percy, a convert to Roman Catholicism, had an actual father confessor.
Campbell tells us that Percy thought the Vietnam War was perhaps not just but was necessary. (History has sorted a lot of that out.) Campbell also sheds some light on Percy's activities on behalf of the civil rights movement, always behind the scenes. Campbell himself was fired as a chaplain at Ole Miss because he espoused integration. In Louisiana, Percy, a native of Birmingham, was considered an outside agitator.
The best of these interviews is with Shelby Foote, novelist and Civil War historian, and Percy's lifelong best friend. Foote, who actually lived in Gulf Shores for a while, reminds us that Percy was really a very humorous man, and that readers looking for existential philosophy in Percy's books sometimes forget to enjoy the humor in them. He is dead right about that. Shelby reminds us of how uncomfortable Percy was with his inherited money, preferring an old red pick-up truck, a la Sam Walton to a Lincoln he owned for a while. Percy wore simple clothes and hated flamboyance.
Foote asserts that Percy enjoyed the authority, ritual, and beauty of the Catholic church, even if there were tenets he had trouble with. Most importantly, Foote advises Harwell and all of us that "it's not said often enough what a good novelist Walker is." People "keep talking about his existentialist views and this, that, and the other, but these books are really good."
Percy's two brothers, Phin and LeRoy, both speak candidly. Phin reminds us that Percy was in a TB sanitarium at Saranac Lake, New York, during the second world war and always felt bad about missing it. Phin says his brother would not have liked military discipline, and I believe that, but "he would have loved being in the war."
Several people, including his brother LeRoy and an ex-priest, James Boulware, tell us that Percy had the television on all the time. Percy said to LeRoy, "Hell, the world may come to an end," and, if it did, he wanted to know it. He also watched shows like Oprah and Donahue because he wanted to know what people were thinking and talking about. It seems both Walker Percy and Eudora Welty were big fans of The Incredible Hulk. Go figure.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.