Walker Percy (1916–1990) was a physician, Catholic novelist, essayist, and philosopher of language. He was the eldest of three sons born into an aristocratic southern family prominent in politics, business, law, and literature in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, LeRoy Pratt Percy, was the lawyer son of a prosperous Birmingham family, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and a Sunday school teacher who may have introduced his son to the Bible—giving him the New Century Gospel of John. In 1929, like melancholy Percy men before him, LeRoy killed himself.

Walker’s mother, Martha Susan (“Mattie Sue”), daughter of distinguished Georgia families (Phinizy and Spaulding), returned to Athens, Georgia, following her husband’s suicide. A year later, she and her children moved to Greenville, Mississippi, and the home of her dead husband’s cousin, William Alexander (“Uncle Will”) Percy, a lawyer/planter/poet and author of Lanterns on the Levee, a decorated war hero and son of the retired U.S. Senator LeRoy Percy. In 1932 Mattie Sue, accompanied by her youngest son, drove her automobile off a bridge into a river near Greenville and drowned. The son survived, but questions persist whether Mattie Sue’s death was accidental or intentional.

Uncle Will then adopted Walker and his brothers. His home and library provided a splendid education in Western literature, music, and southern culture. A lapsed Catholic who had lost his faith as an undergraduate at Sewanee, Uncle Will raised Walker as a southern stoic and skeptic, sending him to the University of North Carolina where he majored in chemistry and minored in German. From Chapel Hill, Walker went to study medicine at Columbia Medical School—in his view “the most scientific of medical educations”—graduating in 1940. During a pathology residency, Percy contracted tuberculosis (1942) and spent the next three years convalescing at a sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York.

In convalescence, Percy began to explore in literary and existential terms questions “science” cannot address: “What it means to be born, to live, and to die as a human being.” Reading, among others, Kierkegaard, Proust Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky, it is likely that Percy also began reading the Bible, a practice he maintained the rest of his life. He would later remark that getting tuberculosis was the best thing that ever happened to him; it enabled him to leave medicine and become a diagnostician of the human condition and a writer.

In 1946, Percy moved to New Orleans and married Mary Bernice (“Bunt”) Townsend. Together they sought instruction in the Roman Catholic Church and were baptized. Percy took the baptismal name of “John,” the name attributed to the Fourth Evangelist, but also the “Baptizer,” the provocative and troublesome forerunner to Christ. As Percy’s notes in his R. A. Knox translation of the Bible indicate, along with his unpublished essay “Contra Black Bibles” and his Charterhouse Notes, he favored the Gospel of John and often employed its poetic images, theological dynamic, and mystical language in his writing.

Percy’s use of the Bible demonstrates a theological hermeneutic at one and the same time catholic, sacramental, existential, and Christocentric. That is to say, he exhibits a deep appreciation of the church’s teaching, the incarnational history of God’s participation in creation, the fundamental necessity of the Jewish people, the colliberative quality of redemptive human experience, and the personal particularity of Christ, often expressed in obscene terms.

Walker Percy’s literature may generally be divided into fiction (The Charterhouse [CH], The Grammercy Winner [GW], The Moviegoer [MG], The Last Gentleman [LG], Love in the Ruins [LR], Lancelot [L], The Second Coming [SC], The Thanatos Syndrome [TS]), nonfiction (The Message in the Bottle [MB], Lost in the Cosmos [LC], Signposts in a Strange Land [SP]), various unpublished essays, and letters. Also helpful to students of Percy will be two collections of interviews edited by Lawson and Kramer (Conversations with Walker Percy and More Conversations with Walker Percy.) In addition, there are two published collections of letters: The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy (Jay Tolson, ed., 1997) and A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy (Patrick Samway, ed., 1995). These two editors, and their earlier Percy biographies, may present a dividing line in Percy studies between a more strictly literary/historical approach (Tolson) and a more theological/philosophical perspective (Samway).

The Percy Collection at the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, will be of particular interest in relation to Percy’s use of the Bible. A survey indicates at least the following biblical volumes: two paperback copies of the New Testament, one hardbound copy of the Douai-Rheims Bible, and one hardbound (two volumes of the Old Testament; one volume of the New Testament) Bible translated by Monsignor Ronald Knox. The collection also holds at least a dozen books related to biblical study, interpretation, and archaeology, also Old and New Testament theology, and a single volume on elementary Greek. This list, however, does not include Percy’s copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1974) that remained at his home, or the New Century Gospel of John now owned by a grandson. For purposes of this overview, biblical themes in Percy’s literature will be discussed from six distinct vantage points.

But Somewhere in between Occurred Delta.

This phrase, taken from Percy’s prologue to his essay, “The Delta Factor,” introduces his fascination with Judeo-Christian anthropology, generally expressed as “what went wrong,” what might in more conventional theological language be termed “sin,” a biblical phenomenon Percy comes at via insights gained both from the Bible (“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly up,” Job 5:7) and the nineteenth-century logician Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of triadic speech. Percy connects human alienation from God, the self, and the world with speech and the resultant consciousness that afflicts human beings with self-awareness, selfalienation, and the general capacity to deceive each other and, most especially, themselves.

Percy will say, “Words can tell the truth or lie. Lying is something new in the cosmos” (SP, p. 289). By “something new,” Percy means something unique to the advent of humankind, a phenomenon unknown among other creatures. As far as we know, for instance, bees do not dance lies concerning the location of nectar. In clear echoes of Genesis 3, Percy’s characters frequently exhibit an inability to understand themselves and one another. For example, The Moviegoer’s Aunt Emily is passionate about the well-being of her niece, Kate, and her nephew, Binx. But she understands neither of them, nor they her. Especially for Binx, existence has devolved into a kind of living death with human beings condemned like Cain in Genesis 4 to be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Now I Wander Seriously.

Of course, biblical narratives are replete with wandering: from Cain exiled East of Eden, to Abram and Sarah on the way to Canaan, to Israel in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, exiled in Babylon, and returned. Israel’s peripatetic history is echoed in Jesus’s birth and flight into Egypt, his Passover pilgrimage, and the call to “Come and follow me.” As the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, so the Apostle Paul will describe Christian life as “walking about in newness of life” (Rom 6). In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus will tell his anxious followers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and in Luke–Acts, the nascent church will identify itself as “the Way.”

Just so, Percy’s cast of characters are ever on the way: from Binx Bohling on a search for what he cannot exactly say [MG], to Will Barrett, in and out of memory, from Central Park through the Deep South to the Southwest [LG], and then reborn falling out of a North Carolina cave [SC]. For his part, Dr. Tom More moves away from Christ and the church, then back again through the death of a child, marriage lost and found [LR], and finally from prison to ethical reorientation as a psychiatric whistleblower who exposes child abuse amid Holocaust shadows and the medical violation of the human community: death masquerading as life [TS]. Yet, no Percy characters may wander as much as Lancelot Andrews Lamar and Percival, Lancelot ’s antithetical duo who journey through memory, mayhem, murder, and ministry entirely within a prison for the criminally insane.

He Came to Himself.

One aspect of Percy’s fascination with wandering is the phenomenon of “coming to oneself,” a dimension of what Percy terms “the search.” Percy’s use of the self returning to the self reflects a biblical dynamic represented especially in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), but also Israel enslaved in Egypt (Exod 12), Saul’s (later Paul’s) encounter with the risen and suffering Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and faith’s movement from suffering to hope (Rom 5).

Percy’s characters are generally said to be “onto something”—an awareness that they or the world or their situation in the world is not quite right, that something has gone wrong, and that they need to act or undertake a quest in order to remedy their situation. Moreover, the sense of being onto something often occurs in the midst of odd or even deadly predicaments: wounded on a battlefield [MG], the death of a child [LG], faced with suicide [SC], a spouse’s betrayal [L] and a child’s death [LR], evil masquerading as good [TS]. In other words, coming to oneself is associated with an experience of ordeal involving pain, suffering, confusion, or loss leading to movement. The son in Luke’s parable, Israel enslaved, Saul blinded on the road, and Paul’s cruciform dialectic all serve as models for Percy’s characters coming to themselves.

Salvation Is from the Jews.

From The Moviegoer to The Thanatos Syndrome, in both his fiction and nonfiction, Percy and his characters agree with Jesus at the well in John 4. Whether on the lips of Binx Bohling (“The Jews are my first clue.”) or in the mouth of Father Smith (“Read St. Paul! It is clear that their inability to accept Jesus was not only foreordained but altogether reasonable and is not to be held against them. Salvation comes from the Jews, as holy Scripture tells us. They remain the beloved, originally chosen people of God.”), “the Jews” feature prominently in Percy’s work. More frequently than individual Jewish characters, Percy refers to “Jews,” “the Jews,” and “Jewish” at least 130 times in his novels and more than 60 times in his nonfiction. For Percy, “the Jews” remain the most enduring sign of God’s faithfulness, the foundation of Catholic-Christian sacramental faith. His most provocative “Jewish” character may be Abbot Liebowitz, who says, “I am both a Jew and a Catholic, whether Jew or Catholic like it or not” [LC].

Both John 4 and Romans 9–11 serve as foundations for Percy’s philosemitism. However, it may also be that his interest in Jews stems from his years in Greenville and his friendship with Shelby Foote, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish, or perhaps from his high school journalism teacher, Carrie Stern. Whatever the influences, it is clear that notes for his unpublished novel The Charterhouse (early 1950s) already give particular attention to things Jewish. For Percy, the incarnation of grace—first for the Jewish people and then in a Jewish man—means that the God of history might manifest himself anywhere, by any means, at any time, and generally when and where we least expect.

God Himself Present at the Corner.

The Jews as principal sign of divine participation in human history move Percy to look for God in all manner of mundane things and events, not least in the obscene and grotesque—in the Jewish Holocaust [TS], the deaths of children [LG, LR], a dung beetle [MG], human estrangement and abuse [SC, TS], the banal indifference of a priest and the obscene odor of bowel movements [LG], a raving madman’s conversation [L].

With both Paul and John, Percy sees the gifts and promise of God localized in the particularity of one Jewish man, Jesus, the Christ, the enfleshed Word of John 1. Through the particular lens of this one man, Percy sees the grace and truth of God incarnate and active in the mundane stuff of the whole sacramental world. So Percy concludes The Moviegoer with Binx outside a church on Ash Wednesday, observing a black man emerging with the ambiguous smudge of a cross on his dark forehead. Binx poses remarkable questions: “Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus? It is impossible to say.” Binx can’t say for sure, but in not saying, he preserves the possibility of the impossible—God in human flesh, at a street corner, revealed in a mundane image of death conveying the promise of grace, mercy, and new life. This, of course, reflects the upside-down theology of Paul writing to the Corinthians of the cross as God’s weakness stronger than human strength.

The Economy of Salvation: Baptism and Eucharist.

Percy twice uses the baptism of dying teenagers to convey the dynamic of divine grace (Rom 6), joining weak and broken human beings to Christ, his death and resurrection. In both cases, baptism is administered by unlikely persons: an alcoholic tubercular physician [GW] and an indifferent priest [LG]. Percy depicts the bearers and events of salvation in scandalously ordinary terms: tap water from a glass, a confused or indifferent recipient, the stench of bowel movements, religious ignorance, and a passing bread truck.

In The Last Gentleman, a “Holsum bread truck” passes outside beneath street lights as Jamie is baptized. The bread truck may convey Percy’s fascination with John 6, the Bread of Life chapter—he has noted in his Knox NT the distinction between “bread” and “BREAD.” In the context of Jamie’s baptism, the bread truck may convey more than bread in a nutritional/biological sense. In the midst of baptismal death/life, the truck also suggests Eucharistic BREAD, that is, the Bread of Life who feeds Jamie unto eternal life. Percy’s notes in John 6 and, later, in John 9 (the man born blind) convey his conviction that the economy of salvation depends on the twin mysteries of grace and mercy within the intrusive presence of Christ in ordinary stuff.

These are but a few trajectories of Walker Percy’s use of the Bible in his writing. It may also be noteworthy that Percy treasured the Bible in his daily life, and not least in his dying. It is reported that as he lay dying of prostate cancer, Percy had his caregivers read aloud each evening from John 13, Christ’s words to his disciples as he prepares them for his own death and departure.

[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

  • Desmond, John F. At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 1997.
  • Gretlund, Jan Nordby, and Karl-Heinz Westarp, eds. Walker Percy: Novelist and Philosopher. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1991.
  • Lawson, Victor A., and Lewis A. Kramer, eds. Conversations with Walker Percy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
  • Lawson, Victor A., and Lewis A. Kramer, eds. More Conversations with Walker Percy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
  • Library of Walker Percy in the Rare Book Collection of the Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. search.lib.unc.edu/search?R=UNCb5219415.
  • Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land. Edited by Patrick H. Samway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
  • Pridgen, Allen. Walker Percy’s Sacramental Landscapes. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.
  • Samway, Patrick H. Walker Percy: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
  • Samway, Patrick H., ed. A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
  • Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
  • Tolson, Jay, ed. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy. New York: Norton, 1997.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Franklin Wilson