Walker Percy: From Pen to Print

Walker Percy

Pic: Percy as a student, age 11Walker Percy was born on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, the eldest son of Leroy Pratt and Martha Susan Phinizy Percy. The Percy family was a wealthy one with a respected position among the elite of the region. His father was a successful lawyer and Walker's early years were unremarkable. But when he was thirteen, his father committed suicide (as his grandfather had a dozen years earlier), and two years later his mother died in an automobile accident. Inevitably the trauma of these losses would have deep and lasting effects, and more than one critic has noted them in commenting on the themes of loss so common in Percy's later writing.

Following the deaths of their parents, young Walker and his brothers were raised by their father's cousin, William Alexander Percy, in Greenville, Mississippi. "Uncle Will" was a prominent bachelor lawyer with a strong interest in literature and the arts. His home was an active center for the local and regional cultural elite, and the young boys were exposed to a stream of visiting literati, among them such notables as Carl Sandburg.

When it came time to go to college, Walker chose The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a decidedly nonliterary direction for his life. Although he did contribute several articles and reviews to the Carolina Magazine, he concentrated his studies in the sciences and graduated in 1937 with a major in chemistry. He then traveled north to New York City, where he attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, receiving his M.D. there in 1941.

Percy's budding career in medicine was interrupted during the following year. He had remained in New York to pursue an internship in a local hospital. While performing autopsies there, he contracted tuberculosis. He was forced to leave his studies and spent the next three years mostly in sanatoriums in upstate New York and Connecticut. The illness forced Percy to rethink his faith in science and medicine. The extended period of convalescence also allowed him time for quiet reflection and the opportunity to read extensively and to deepen Pic: Percy waiting in movie linehis interest in literature and philosophy.

After one brief attempt to go back to his medical training ended in a relapse and a return to the sanatorium, Percy gave up on a career in medicine altogether and resolved to become a writer. He returned south and in 1946 married Mary Bernice Townsend and moved to New Orleans. The following year both he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a development that would profoundly shape the character of his writings. In 1950 the Percys moved across Lake Pontchartrain to the small town of Covington, where they raised two daughters.

After settling in Louisiana, Percy began to write. While he wanted to write fiction and wrote at least two unpublished novels in the early 1950s, his earliest appearances in print were essays in the areas of philosophy and semiotics. In the mid-1950s he published a series of reflective essays in journals such as the Journal of Philosophy, Commonweal, Partisan, and the Jesuit periodicals Thought and America. The experience was not altogether satisfying. By the end of the decade, he had concluded that he could communicate his philosophical reflections more effectively and reach a wider audience through his fiction. After a long and painful editing process, he published his first novel, The Moviegoer, in 1961. The book won the National Book Award for fiction in 1962 and Pic: Walker and Mary Bernice Townsend Percyassured the direction of his career. Thereafter he authored five more novels (see the Exhibition Checklist), two major nonfiction works, several private press publications, and a host of journal and magazine articles. His last book, The Thanatos Syndrome, appeared in 1987. He was working on a new collection of shorter pieces in the period before his death in Covington on May 10, 1990. Percy's books continue to be popular, and his reputation as one of the finest American--and Southern--novelists of the second half of the twentieth century seems firmly established.

Walker Percy Homepage
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries
Rare Book Collection


Walker Percy
The Walker Percy Collection in Wilson Library
The Walker Percy Papers
The Walker Percy Library and Related Printed Materials
Exhibition Checklist