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.