Walker Percy


May 28, 1916 - May 10, 1990


From Birmingham, Alabama
Served in Covington, Louisiana
Affiliation: Catholic

"You live in a deranged age, more deranged that usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing."

Walker Alexander Percy, a writer who was raised in Greenville, Mississippi, was born to Leroy and Martha Percy on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama. His parents later had two other sons, Phin and Roy. Young Walker had a hard life. At the tender age of thirteen, his father, a successful lawyer in Birmingham, took his own life in the attic of their home with a shotgun. Just two years later, his mother drove her car off a country bridge. Some say it was accidental; but young Walker at the age of fifteen, suspected she, too, had taken her own life (Benfey 2) .

The three orphaned boys were sent to live with their father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, a writer himself, who lived in Greenville, Mississippi. This move was most likely the best happening in Walker Percy’s life. The boy grew up surrounded by books, works of art, and a piano that was never quiet. (Benfey 2) “Uncle Will,” as the Percy boys called him, wrote a book of his own titled Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son and is said to have influenced Walker Percy’s writing (Hansen 1).  Another person that perhaps encouraged Percy to turn to writing was Shelby Foote, who also grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. The two developed a lifelong friendship and wrote regularly to each other. Their letters have been published  in a book called Conversations between Percy and Foote.

Walker Percy studied chemistry at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Upon graduation from college,  he decided to enter medical school. Although his grades were not exceptional, he was accepted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University’s medical school. In 1941, Percy graduated with honors and started an internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York. However, his internship was cut short due because Percy contracted tuberculosis. In 1942, Walker Percy was forced to leave Bellevue to recuperate from pulmonary tuberculosis. He later returned to Columbia to teach. After a relapse of TB,  however, he was forced to retire from medicine permanently after just three short years (Abbott 774).

Walker Percy began a writing career, using two primary genres: novels, six of which would be published, and philosophical essays. (Benfey 3) He married a medical technician named Mary Bernice Townsend on November 7, 1946. Percy and his family returned to the South. First, he and his new wife lived in New Orleans. Later they moved to Covington, Louisiana, where they raised their two daughters, Ann Boyd and Mary Pratt. (Contemporary Authors)

Of Percy’s six novels, three received numerous honors and awards. The Moviegoer received the National Book Award for fiction in 1962. Love in the Ruins .in 1972 was awarded the National Catholic Book Award. Percy received the Los Angeles Times Book  Prize, a National Book Critics Circle citation, an American Book Award nomination, a Notable Book citation from the American Library Association and a P.E.N./Faulkner Award for his book The Second Coming. In addition, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book won the St. Louis Literary Award in 1986.

Walker Percy wrote for more than thirty years. He combined interesting fiction with serious ideas in his writings. Some have even called him “the Dixie Kierkegaard” because he dealt with the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. Many books and articles are still being published about either Percy or one of his works. He died from cancer at the age seventy-four on May 10, 1990.

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