Friday, December 2, 2016

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

“Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

It’s never too late to do something momentous and important in your life.  After all, Walker Percy was 45 years old when The Moviegoer was published.  Published in 1961, it was Percy’s first published and best-known work, was soon widely acclaimed by the literary pundits and went on to win the US National Book Award for fiction in 1962.  

When Walker Percy passed away in 1990, the New York Times described him as “a Southern author who wrote about modern man’s search for faith and love in a chaotic world”  and much  of Percy’s life was truly spent in searching for self-understanding and resolution to early tragedies experienced in his life.

“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

And it’s no wonder that Walker was a deeply thoughtful and introspective man who spent much of his life searching for meaning and self understanding in his life. He was born to a prominent Southern family with a glowing line of distinguished and influential ancestors but also a family with a history of tragedy. At 13 years old Walker experienced the devastating loss of his father to suicide and two years later his mother’s fatal accident, also believed to be suicide. Throughout his life he sought to work through these losses but they found their way into his literary works.

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. 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.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

After the death of their parents, Walker and his two younger brothers were taken to live with a bachelor relative in Greenville, Mississippi and there commenced an important period in Walker’s life as he became familiar with many writers and poets in the area, was surrounded by books and works of art and began an important  lifelong friendship with fellow writer, Shelby Foote.  

“i had spent four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

In 1933 Walker Percy enrolled at the University of North Carolin at Chapel Hill with a focus on chemistry with medical studies following in 1937 at the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University in New York City.  As an intern, however, Percy contracted tuberculosis and spent several years recuperating at a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, NY.  During this recovery time Walker began to question many things such as the infallibility of science to explain the miracle of life and he began to read extensively to seek the meaning and purpose of his own life.  He read Soren Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, began to attend local Mass and became inspired to become a writer.  Later in his life, Walker Percy said that he felt that his early medical training had greatly aided him in his future work as a novelist.  Even fellow Southern writer, Eudora Welty noted that “the physician’s ear and the writer’s ear are pressed alike to the human chest.”

Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Returning to the South to live and married to a medical technician, Mary Bernice Townsend, the Percys eventually settled in New Orleans. Soon after the young couple began seriously studying Catholicism and thereafter converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1947.  It is evident that Walker Percy’s spiritual life played an enormous part in his life and his writing.  Although he was raised an agnostic and nominally affiliated with a theologically liberal Presbyterian church, with Percy’s newfound faith he produced scholarly articles, essays for various journals and gradually began to realize that he could reach a large audience by writing fiction.

“Losing hope is not so bad. There's something worse: losing hope and hiding it from yourself.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Percy wrote six novels and two collections of nonfiction - and his themes often did center around what he classified as “the dislocation of man in the modern age”, the decline of the old Southern order and the idea that we have somehow become alienated to the world that we live in.  Before Walker Percy passed away at his home in Covington, Louisiana near New Orleans at 74 years old in May of 1990, he remarked that with both his father and grandfather having committed suicide, he had blazed a new trail.  And that trail was strewn with many honors - the St. Louis Literary Award, University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal annually bestowed to a Catholic “whose genius has enabled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity” and winner of the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

“In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.” 
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

The Moviegoer follows protagonist Binx Bolling - a young stock-broker -  in search of himself and in desperate need of spiritual redemption. Influenced by Camus and Kierkegaard, this novel grapples with Binx’s decisions and where they will lead him and of the delicate balance between freedom and responsibility.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
― Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

For those of us who love a good literary weekend - on June 24, 2017 the fourth annual Walker Percy Weekend will take place in St. Francisville, Louisiana to celebrate his life and work with good food, live music and a generous tasting of books and Southern culture under Louisiana live oaks.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is the fifth read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Winter Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, January 21st, 2017.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty’s mother, Chestina Andrews Welty believed that “any room in our house, at any time in the day, was there to read in, or to be read to”.  This is logic that I can wholeheartedly support.  And what made me like Chestina even more - there is a story that she ran back into a burning house to save a set of Dickens. Seriously, with maternal influence like that, how could Eudora have been anything but an avid reader and ultimately a great writer?

For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.
Eudora Welty, On Writing

Born into a family that was close and loving, Eudora grew up in a fertile ground of camaraderie and humor, garnering a love for literature and language from her mother and an interest in gadgets and machines from her father.

She may have had a somewhat sheltered life as a young woman but graduated from high school with flying colors and attended Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin where she attained a bachelors degree and Columbia University School of Business.

I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. 
Eudora Welty, On Writing

Hitting the job market at the height of the Great Depression ultimately sent Eudora back to Mississippi from New York City to find work.  It is after this period that her great versatility became apparent.  Eudora worked at WJDX radio station in Jackson while also writing about Jackson society for the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. She was employed at the Works Progress Administration and later for several months as a copy editor and staff reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.

It was at the WPA that Eudora collected stories and photos as a publicity agent.  She conducted interviews and took photographs of everyday Mississippi life.  The insights that were gained through these interactions with people around her provided a wealth of experiences that ultimately found their way into her writing and in her profound body of photographs.

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.
Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings

In 1936 Eudora Welty’s short story,  “The Death Of A Traveling Salesman” was published in the literary magazine, Manuscript.  It became the first published work and was followed by others in such notable publications as The New Yorker.  She eventually published over forty short stories, five novels, three works of nonfiction and one children’s book.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for The Optimist’s Daughter, a Presidential Medal of Freedom for The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, a National Medal of the Arts and the French Legion of Honor.

Originally envisioned as a story called “The Delta Cousin," Delta Wedding became Eudora Welty’s second published novel in 1946. Set in the year 1923, it recounts the experiences of the Mississippi Delta Fairchild family.  Initial reviews were varied but this work has stood the test of time in its character studies and interplay of family life.  

We are the breakers of our own hearts.
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

Southern writers are often described in relation to a sense of place in their works.  Southern literature has a characteristic ear for Southern speech and storytelling, a pervading presence of family and community and the varied roles within that community.   Eudora Welty shines in all of the strongest and deepest characteristics of Southern literature.

Southerners… love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers, and letter savers, history tracers and debaters, and — outstaying all the rest — great talkers. Southern talk is on the narrative side, employing the verbatim conversation. For this, plenty of time is needed and taken for granted. It was still true not so very far back that children grew up listening — listening  through unhurried stretches of uninhibited reminiscence, and listening galvanized. They were naturally prone to be entertained from the first by life as they heard tell of it, and to fee free, encouraged, and then in no time compelled, to pass their pleasure on.
Eudora Welty, From Where I Live

Delta Wedding has strong echoes of experiences from Eudora’s own childhood and carries as a theme an element found quite often in Southern literature — the importance of the past and its effect on our current existence and the way our lives play out — on our mortality and the tenuous hold that we have on life…

Fiction shows us the past as well as the present moment in mortal light; it is an art served by the indelibility of our memory, and one empowered by a sharp and prophetic awareness of what is ephemeral. It is by the ephemeral that our feeling is so strongly aroused for what endures, or strives to endure.
Eudora Welty, On Writing

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty is the fourth read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over an Autumn Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016. 

HOMEWORK - In honor of  Eudora - and if you live in the South - send a photo of something in your everyday Southern life and we’ll share.

People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel...but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make.
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story

Sunday, June 19, 2016

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, John Grisham…  It is quickly apparent that Mississippi has produced a long list of influential Southern writers, but William Faulkner remains one of the most beloved by readers all over the world… and probably the most feared by many a high school American Lit student for his characteristic style.

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi in September 1897, the oldest son of Murry and Maud Falkner.  Faulker’s  family (like many old Southern families) was populated by colorful characters that threw their shadows with long intensity and influence over their descendants.  Faulkner’s forebears instilled many of the loves and dreams that fueled his life and writing, especially his parents - his father shared his love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors while his mother inspired with her love of reading and art.  From them, and the other older relatives in his family, William heard the old family histories, in particular the adventures and exploits of his great-grandfather and namesake who was a successful businessman, writer and Confederate hero. Caroline “Callie” Barr, who worked for the family and raised the Faulkner children had immeasurable influence on William Faulkner. Born into slavery she never learned to read or write but her stories of slavery, the Civil War and her own people profoundly found their way into many fictional characters in Faulkner’s writing.

“That's the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

The Falkner family moved to Oxford just before William’s fifth birthday and this place too became a fertile ground for his growth as a writer - first as a poet and then moving into fiction. Oxford was a small town but it exposed Faulkner to a wide variety of characters and places that interpreted their way easily into his fiction.  Oxford became “Jefferson” in his works and his home county of Lafayette inspired “Yoknapatawpha County”.

It is hard to believe that one of the most celebrated among Southern writers and the most noted writers of American literature - writing novels, short stories, plays, poetry and screenplays - never graduated from high school and although he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, only attended three semesters before dropping out.

“It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Faulkner’s writing career was rich and varied.  His original love was writing poetry and he first became published at the age of 21 with his poem “L’Après-midi d’un Faune”, which appeared in The New Republic magazine in August of 1919.  But his debut novel, Soldier’s Pay, published in 1926 began a succession of works that spanned over 36 years with his 19th and final novel, The Reivers which released the same year of his death.

For his important body of work, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”, two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the government of France.

In 1930 As I Lay Dying was published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith and was his fifth novel. Told in stream-of-consciousness style by fifteen different speakers over 59 chapters, it is a work described by Faulkner himself as a “tour de force”.  He began As I Lay Dying while working night shifts at the University of Mississippi Power House and claimed to have written it in just six weeks almost with no revisions.  It is the first work in which he used “Yoknapatawpha County” which became a setting throughout his most well-known works. 
In Homer’s The Odyssey there was a line “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades” and it sits as an apt title for the journey of a family through a death and the obstacles that face the speakers who follow through with burial requests of the matriarch, Addie Bundren.  It is novel that considers the nature of grieving, of community and family.

“I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner’s influence on writers has been deep-seated and intense.  Various competitions have been created to give a leg up to unpublished writers such as The William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Society, Inc, a non-profit literary and educational organization and The William Faulkner Literary Competition which originated in New Albany, Mississippi.  But perhaps one of the most creative of the competitions is the Faux Faulkner Contest, which was an annual parody essay contest founded in 1989 by Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner. Each entry to this highly-enjoyed contest could be no longer than 500 words and must draw on the author’s distinctive style, themes, plots and/or characters.  Not currently an active competition, many of the essays that were submitted and won are still entertaining and skillfully crafted works that can be found in a simple online search.

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.” 
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is the third read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Summer Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, July 30th, 2016.  Bon courage!  If you like - write us your own “Faux Faulkner” to share at our Book Lunch!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at the sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
Zora Neale Hurston

Born the fifth of eight children In Notasulga, Alabama in January of 1891 to a father who was both carpenter and preacher and a mother who was a former schoolteacher, Zora Neale Hurston was described as a woman who knew how to make an entrance.  She was colorful, memorable and exuded self confidence.

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.  It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?  It’s beyond me.”
Zora Neale Hurston

As a toddler, Zora’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida, a rural community near Orlando that was the first incorporated black township in the U.S.  This was the fertile environment that fed her development through childhood.  All around her, Zora was able to observe black achievement - laws being established through her father and other black men of the community, black women leading church curricula and stories of community pride, efforts and successes that were shared on porches and around kitchen tables.  She was raised to aspire.

However, when thirteen-year-old Zora’s mother died and her father quickly remarried to a cold young and woman, Zora began to struggle.  It was at that point that she passed through a season of menial jobs, neglecting her education until she was forced to pass as 16 years old - when she was in truth 26 - and was able to qualify for free public schooling. She eventually graduated from Barnard college in 1928, but never went back to her original age, continuing to claim an age 10 years younger than her true age throughout her life.

Friends of Zora Neale Hurston described a passionate intellect with an infectious sense of humor and a personality that was a life of the party.  She engaged hearts and became a part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, becoming friends with such fellow writers as Langston Hughes and singer/actress Ethel Waters.  The real zenith of Hurston’s career came in the 1930s and early 1940s.  She had already published a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine), several short stories and some articles.  She had also published Mules and Men, a collection of black Southern folklore, which was favorably received.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Zora Neale Hurston

The year of 1937 brought her best known work and masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Originally poorly received because of its rejection of the current racial uplift literary prescription, it is now considered a seminal work in both women’s literature and African-American literature and continues to be included on various 100 best English-language novels.

Although Hurston released further successful works and achieved long-eluded acclaim with her body of work and recognition by the literary community at large, she never found the financial rewards that she was due.  The largest royalty ever earned was $943.75.  When she died at age 69 in 1960, neighbors took up a collection to try to pay for a headstone but even then it was not to happen and Zora was buried in an unmarked grave.

In the summer of 1973 another important black writer - a young Alice Walker - gave a headstone for the author who significantly inspired her own work. Unable to afford the tall beautiful black stone that was her first choice, Alice placed a plain gray marker with the inscription; “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
Zora Neale Hurston

Members of The Jane Austen Tea Society – pick up a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to discuss over a Spring Book Lunch on Saturday, April 30th.