Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Ala., to a wealthy family. After his father committed suicide in 1929, his mother moved the family, first to her parents’ home in Athens, Ga., then to Greenville, Miss., to live with a cousin, William Alexander Percy (author of Lanterns on the Levee). After their mother died in an automobile accident two years later, “Uncle Will” adopted Percy and his two younger brothers. One of their neighbors in Greenville was Shelby Foote, with whom Percy established a lifelong friendship. Although Percy began writing in high school for the school newspaper, Uncle Will thought medicine a more suitable career for a Southern gentleman. Percy graduated from the University of North Carolina with a BA in chemistry in 1937 and from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1941. Shortly after starting an internship in pathology at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, Percy was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He spent several years at sanitoriums, resting and reading literature and philosophy.
Percy never again attempted to practice medicine. He was supported financially by a legacy from Uncle Will, which allowed him to pursue other interests. One of those interests was Roman Catholicism. In 1947, Percy moved to New Orleans to receive instruction from the Jesuits at Loyola University and be baptized. He also pursued his earlier interest in writing. Finding New Orleans too distracting, he soon moved to the more rural town of Covington, La. Percy’s first two novels were rejected by publishers. In the 1950s, he began writing essays on philosophy and semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and publishing them in scholarly journals. In 1957, Percy moved his family back to New Orleans, although they kept a second home in Covington. Percy’s third novel, The Moviegoer, set in New Orleans, was published in 1961 and was quite successful, winning the National Book Award. He continued to write and publish both novels and nonfiction for the rest of his career. A collection of his essays, The Message in the Bottle, was published in 1975. Percy won several awards, including a stipend from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He presented the Eighteenth Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1989, shortly before his death from prostate cancer.
Walker Percy’s novels feature modern protagonists struggling to overcome alienation and emotional malaise. Both his fiction and his nonfiction are influenced by his religious beliefs and his studies of existentialism and semiotics.
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Photo courtesy of Rhoda K. Faust, Maple Street Book Shop, New Orleans.
Last updated on May 21, 2009.