Jessica Hooten Wilson, “Reading Walker Percy’s Novels”

Walker Percy is one of my favorite authors, and this book was given to me by Professor Michael DeBow, one of my favorite people, who picked it up in St. Francisville, Louisiana, at the annual Walker Percy Weekend there.  Percy is a Southern Catholic existentialist — an interesting combination.

This book devotes a chapter each to his six novels, skillfully summarizing them and interspersing intelligent commentary by the author — an associate professor of literature at John Brown University — and includes as a bonus an appendix that likewise summarizes and comments on one of his nonfiction books, Lost in the Cosmos.

The book was perfect for me, since I’ve read all Percy’s books but none very recently, and so it is both a sweet reminder and a useful reference and supplement; I don’t know that I would recommend it for someone who hasn’t read them, since the whole book has to be stamped, “Spoiler Alert.”

I should mention that the book also contains as an introduction a brief biography of Percy.  I thought this paragraph particularly noteworthy (14, footnote omitted):

   All of these people [Catholics with whom Percy had crossed paths], in addition to reading Aquinas and the existentialists, led Percy toward the Catholic Church.  Although Percy typically remained close-lipped about his conversion, he answers the question “Why are you a Catholic?” in an essay so titled, written the year he died and posthumously published.  His summary thesis is, “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.”  For Percy, the truth of the Gospels was authoritative and not up for debate.  His intellectual assent to this claim followed from his reading of an essay by Soren Kierkegaard, which was to be the catalyst for his conversion.  Kierkegaard’s essay “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle” convinced Percy that the messages of apostles were authoritative in a way the the writing of novelists and other such thinkers were not. While the genius speaks from his or her own mind, the apostle brings a message from elsewhere, from a transcendent source.  Because the apostle speaks on behalf of the divine, what she or he says has authority.  Once Percy recognized the Gospels as dictated by apostles and not mere geniuses, the only option was to assent or disregard the authority.  He chose the former option and was baptized.

Some other notes:

  • Parallels with C.S. Lewis are noted at pages 28, 84, and 86.  Like Lewis, Percy recognized the significance of Sehnsucht, “wistful longing” or “yearning” (102; see also 66).
  • “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much,” noted Percy, quoting Kierkegaard (43).
  • Percy’s “angelism-bestialism” split is called Cartesian, and it also calls to mind Descartes’s fellow Frenchman and contemporary Pascal (45).  Also Pascalian is this:  Marion (a character in Percy’s novel The Second Coming) “echoes Karl Barth’s sentiment that Jews are the best ‘proof of God'” (98).  Pascal’s wager is referenced at 95, quoting Percy’s novel The Second Coming.
  • I thought it was interesting to characterize  Lost in the Cosmos as a more accessible version of an earlier Percy nonfiction collection, The Message in the Bottle (124).