photo: © Christopher R. Harris
Walker Percy was one of the most influential American writers and philosophers of the 20th century. He is best known for his first novel, "The Moviegoer," which won the National Book Award in 1962.
"Walker Percy was many other things, but I see him in the line of great American figures. People who are determined to find their own way in this country, and aren't settled or satisfied until they've found what they're searching for. It's a classic American search that has one foot in the past and one foot in the world we live in — of television, of suburbs, of vanished traditions. — Paul Elie, writer
Percy lived on the banks of the Bogue Falaya in Covington, Louisiana, a small town north of New Orleans. He was a doctor who turned to literature and philosophy; a Southerner more attuned to the European existentialists than to Faulkner; and a convert to Catholicism who found much of the language of faith to be empty of meaning.
In his six highly acclaimed novels and several collections of essays, he explored issues ranging from the "modern malaise," race relations and semiotics to the joys of bourbon — all with singular grace and wit. Often referring to himself as an ex-suicide, Percy's work finds wry humor in despair. "For him," says Percy's friend Robert Coles," humor was an instrument of introspection. That's what he beautifully combined: that lighthearted sensibility merged with a grave, seriously introspective side."
Born in 1916, in Birmingham Alabama, Percy quickly discovered that his wealthy, powerful family was deeply troubled. His grandfather had killed himself a year after Walker was born; his father met the same fate a short time later. Walker's mother, Mattie Sue, moved her family to Greenville, Mississippi, into the home of Walker's cousin, William Alexander Percy. When his mother died in a mysterious car accident, Will Percy adopted Walker and his brothers, LeRoy and Phin. It was in Greenville where Walker met and formed a lifelong friendship with Shelby Foote, who would become a novelist and Civil War historian. It was where he read poetry, started experimenting as a writer, and began to face what he would later describe as the central mystery of his life: why his father had committed suicide.
Walker Percy: A Documentary Film follows Percy's life from his youth to his prolonged hospitalizations for tuberculosis during World War II and to his eventual success as a novelist. At the center of the film is an examination of Percy's move from agnosticism to faith, from medicine to arts and letters.
"It has to do not so much with an explicit faith or transmitting an explicit faith in my writings as it has to do with a view of man, of a theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer, man the wayfarer. Man the pilgrim. Man in transit. On a journey." — Walker Percy
Interviewees discuss Walker's thoughts on faith, philosophy and literature. Insight into this profoundly philosophical novelist's life come from Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Robert Coles, Tom Cowan, Paul Elie, Rhoda Faust, Richard Ford, Linda Whitney Hobson, Walter Isaacson, Bunt Percy, Phin Percy, Ben C. Toledano, Marcus Smith and Jay Tolson. The film also incorporates archival interviews with Percy as well as home movie footage of the author.