Walker Percy was a Southern
novelist, essayist, intellectual, and literary critic, whose writing incorporated elements of existentialism
, and philosophy
with a deeply sensitive, somewhat pessimistic worldview. Most famous for his first novel, The Moviegoer
, which won the National Book Award in 1961, as well as his role in the publication of John Kennedy Toole
's masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces
, he was also widely regarded as the South
's greatest literary voice since William Faulkner
Born on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, into a family whose members were often brilliant, and usually bipolar, he lived his early life with the knowledge that both his grandfather and father, and possibly his mother, all committed suicide. After the family relocated several times, Percy went to live with his uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, where he met and became the lifelong friend of the historian Shelby Foote.
Percy went to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York to become a doctor. During his internship in 1942, he contracted tuberculosis, and while recuperating, read extensively. Never before exposed to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marcel, Sartre, and Camus, he experienced an ephiphanetic personality change. Upon recovering at the age of 30, he abandoned medicine, womanizing, and what he termed "reductive scientism"; he married, converted to Catholicism, and became a writer.
His first major novel, The Moviegoer, was hailed as "a brilliant novel" by Harper's, and Percy was described as "breathtakingly brilliant" by the New York Times.
His reputation secured, he set about further exploring the most profound questions confronting modern man, writing many other books, such as The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other, Lancelot, The Second Coming, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book, and The Thanatos Syndrome, among many other lectures and articles.
His works deal with the broad conceptual problems and everyday practical dilemmas facing man. Protagonists in his books are often paralyzed by reflexivity, acutely aware of the contradictions and fallacies involved in living life in the modern era. His interest in linguistic philosophy and semiotics correspond to his profound fascination with the causes of man's myriad crises, with the impossibility of living. Often termed an existential novelist, he nonetheless resisted categorization. As a true author of fiction (and non-fiction), he allowed no system of critical analysis to subsume the human vitality of his work, and in interviews resisted the compartmentalization of his fiction into genres.
Walker Percy, who died in Louisiana in 1990, was one of America's greatest writers, combining a powerful literary awareness with scientific and philosophical sensibilities and emotional authenticity. In interrogating the methodologies of living, the archetypes which we allow ourselves to become, and the general state of man, he created a body of work which has permeated, unobserved, the way we think of ourselves.