Walker Percy and Southern Literature Veronica Makowsky

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Walker Percy and Southern Literature

Veronica Makowsky

"I DON'T LIKE TO BE DESCRIBED as a Southern writer," declared Walker Percy in a 1989 interview. "The danger is, if you're described as a Southern writer, you might be thought of as someone who writes about a picturesque local scene like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gone With the Wind, something like that." (More Conversations, 223). Percy frequently attempted to evade the danger of being labeled a "Southern writer" by stressing the more existentialist aspects of his work, but his fiction nonetheless remains very much a part of the Southern literary heritage. Southern literature, except for Faulkner, has largely been ignored in traditional American literature books and courses which privilege Northeastern American literary history, leading to the fear of being labeled a "Southern writer" that many Southern authors exhibit. Part I of this essay will briefly delineate the history and themes of Southern literature in order to reveal Percy's connections to his native literature in Part II.

What is Southern Literature?

In its most basic sense, Southern literature is writing about the South, but under that simple statement lie many complications. Geographically, the South can be as far flung as Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the North and Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas in the West. Personally, a Southern writer's parents can be Yankees, like those of Eudora Welty, or he can spend a significant part of his life in the North, like William Styron. Topically, Southern writing can concern the South or a Southerner's experience elsewhere, but it can also include a Southerner's writing on a non-Southern topic from a non-Southern point of view, like Katherine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas," set in Mexico and told by a high modernist, godlike narrator.

Historically, though, Southern literature is quite distinctive as a tradition of authors and themes. Unlike the Northeast, the South was not settled by Puritans attempting to found a theocracy, but by a wide variety of people with diverse motives who saw hope, economic as well as religious, in the warm and fecund South. While the Puritans regarded nature and themselves as corrupted by original sin, such early travelers, explorers, and promoters of life in the South as John Smith, Robert Beverley, and William Byrd saw its alluring fertility as a New Eden where mankind could begin again. This clean slate, and its blotting, have remained a central preoccupation of Southern literature. Another version of the New Eden was the agrarian ideal, most prominently espoused by Thomas Jefferson, in which good Americans would thrive on small, self-sufficient family farms where they would benefit from the purity of nature, learn the proper independence of voting citizens, and avoid the city's temptations and subservient wage labor.

From the late eighteenth century, as slavery became increasingly important to the Southern economy after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, antebellum Southerners were more often than not characterized by Northerners and European visitors as lazy, despotic, cruel, irreligious, or, at the very least, ignorant and misguided, as in Connecticut-native Harriet Beecher Stowe's widely influential Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Southerners responded to such vilification in three ways. The first was a retreat from the vexing particularities of time and place in a poetry of detached pastoral abstractions that could be set anytime, anywhere, as in works by Philip Pendleton Cooke, Thomas Holly Chivers, and Edgar Allan Poe. The second response to outside criticism was to wallow in it, to display Southern people, and indeed human nature as feckless, greedy, lazy, "no count," and uproariously, if vulgarly, funny, as in the work of the Southwestern humorists, such as George Washington Harris, Johnson Jones Hooper, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and their successor Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). The third reaction was polemical, as in essays by Louisa McCord and George Fitzhugh, or in fictionalized polemics, such as plantation novels by John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, Caroline Lee Hentz, and others. The plantation novel became an enduring genre in Southern literature, characterized by a benign patriarchal master and his pure and charitable wife presiding over child-like blacks in the plantation "family." Slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, provided quite a different version of plantation life.

After the Civil War, the plantation novel became part of the "local color" movement, showing a vast nostalgic sigh for places, peoples, and times as yet untouched by industrialism and urbanization. Poets like Henry Timrod and Sidney Lanier were early mourners of "The Lost Cause," but its most prominent practitioners were fiction writers. Thomas Nelson Page, Kate Chopin, Grace King, George Washington Cable, and African American Charles Chesnutt were not, however, lost in nostalgia, but were often ambivalent toward or condemnatory of racism while finding a heartbreaking beauty in many aspects of the Southern landscape and its people.

Today, when most people think of Southern literature, they call to mind the authors of the Southern Renaissance, like William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Penn Warren. The Southern Renaissance refers roughly to the period between the two world wars when Southern writers were far enough in time from the Civil War and slavery to regard their region with some degree of objectivity through the techniques of international modernism, such as stream of consciousness, complex points of view, and jarring juxtapositions.

The writers of the Southern Renaissance tended to address two essential themes in their works. The first was the burden of the past in a land that had suffered military and economic defeat, social opprobrium, and the legacy of racism. In some ways, this response resembles the defensiveness of antebellum writers, but the burden is the complex legacy of shame and guilt which makes history become an individual's fate. The second major theme of the Southern Renaissance, the individual's relationship to his or her community, is closely linked to the burden of the past. In Northeastern American literature, identity is proudly and defiantly individual in the Puritan and Transcendental traditions. In contrast, the Southern individual's identity or honor is based on his or her standing in his community, and that standing is largely based on the family, whose standing, in turn, is determined by the burden of the Southern past. Although its burdens can be great, this emphasis on the societal over the individual can lead to the positive sharing, caring, values of community and to heroic Southern stoicism, in which individuals face decline and defeat with a public face of bravery, fortitude, and nobility.

After the Renaissance, Southern literature continued to thrive. As Percy himself observed, "The strangest thing about the South is, in this century, particularly in the last 40 or 50 years, how many very good writers it's produced and how little they're appreciated" (More Conversations, 223). Some have been heavily influenced by Faulkner, such as Reynolds Price, James Dickey, and Barry Hannah. African American writers like Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines and Dori Sanders have also achieved prominence. A women's tradition in Southern literature has become especially strong because of the fiction of Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Alice Walker, Lee Smith, Dori Sanders, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons, and many others. And, of course, there is Walker Percy.

Walker Percy and Southern Literature

If characters like Quentin Compson feel burdened by the Southern past, post-Southern Renaissance writers like Walker Percy often feel overwhelmed by the Southern literary tradition, particularly its looming giant, William Faulkner. Percy resisted Faulkner's influence as a young man by refusing to enter Faulkner's house, waiting in the car while his best friend Shelby Foote (now a distinguished Civil War historian) paid homage to the great man. Percy plainly feared becoming the kind of professional Southerner and cliched Southern writer he parodied in his first novel The Moviegoer (1961) through the character Sam Yerger.

In the nineteen thirties he wrote a humorous book about the French-speaking Negroes called Yambilaya Ya-Ya which was made into a stage show, and later a movie. . . . Sam returned to Feliciana where he wrote a nostalgic book called Happy Land which was commended in the reviews as a nice blend of a moderate attitude toward the race question and the conservative values of the agrarian South. An earlier book, called Curse Upon the Land, which the dust jacket described as "an impassioned plea for tolerance and understanding," had not been well received in Feliciana. Now and then Sam turns up in New Orleans on a lecture tour. (135, 137).

After Percy himself had achieved acclaim as a novelist, he steered interviewers and critics away from any Southern influences in his work by pointing to its didactic exposition of the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel.

Yet Percy was also the second cousin and adopted nephew of Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy and the descendant of several nineteenth-century Southern women writers. Even more tellingly, the distinguished existentialist novelist was once the young man who was placed in remedial composition as a freshman at the University of North Carolina after describing the Mississippi River in the Faulknerian manner of convoluted, lengthy sentences with little punctuation or paragraphing. Like Faulkner's Quentin Compson who vehemently declares, "I don't hate the South. I don't hate it. I don't. I don't," Percy plainly protested too much. Despite his embrace of postmodernism and existentialism, Percy's fiction from its beginning in Freshman composition to its end in The Thanatos Syndrome(1987) is deeply preoccupied with Southern themes.

In his fiction, Percy shares the Southern regret for the South as a Lost Eden, but unlike some earlier writers, he clearly identifies the South's original sin and its perpetrators. Dr. Thomas More, the protagonist of Percy's third novel, Love in the Ruins (1971), muses:

Was it the nigger business from the beginning ? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish event. . . . so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you because you had already passed the big one. One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all.

One little test: you flunk! (54)

This passage is clearly reminiscent of Faulkner's indictment of slavery as the South's original sin in The Bear. Percy, however, does not simply blame the South and its peculiar institution, but also condemns the systemic Western racism which permitted and even promoted the slave trade.

Although Percy was a strong supporter of civil rights, Dr. Tom More's phrase, "a helpless man in Africa," shows that Percy's protagonists participate in the patronizing noblesse oblige of many white Southerners. Percy's significant black characters (Mercer in The Moviegoer, David Ross in The Last Gentleman, Victor in Love in the Ruins, Elgin in Lancelot, and Chandra in The Thanatos Syndrome) are portrayed, in the manner of the plantation novel, as not as advanced as whites, not yet ready for the late twentieth century's "freedom." In Love in the Ruins, Tom More addresses a black northern revolutionary, Uru: "There is no use my even telling you because, Ph.D. or not, you wouldn't know what I was talking about. You got to get to where we are or where you think we are and I'm not even sure you can do that" (353).

In Percy's defense, it must be said that he consistently depicts "where we are" as less than desirable and "we" as very poor role models. For example, Percy parodies the white Southerner's tendency to despise blacks en masse, but like and defend the individuals he knows. The crazed title character of Lancelot (1977) says of his inherited family retainer, Elgin: "he was still in a sense 'my nigger'; and my watching him, waiting for him, was piece and part of the old way we had of ascribing wondrous powers to 'them,' if they were 'ours'" (128).

Percy has been widely criticized for his portrayal of women as shallow sex objects, or, in the plantation novel's tradition, as symbols of male prestige, readily classified as ladies or whores. Percy, though, actually interrogates this tendency in himself through his protagonists' self-induced failures with women. Lancelot Lamar idealized his first wife Lucy as an ethereally romantic Southern lady and regards his second wife Margot solely in terms of sex, "that sweet dark sanctuary guarded by the heavy gold columns of her thighs, the ark of her covenant" (156). Margot refuses to be so dehumanizingly categorized and tries to forge her own life through affairs and through acting in and producing films. Before her death, for which Lance is responsible, she tells him, "With you I had to be either--or--but never-a--uh--woman" (230).

As his treatment of race and gender suggests, Percy is highly aware of the prejudices and egotism of his white Southern male protagonists. This critical consciousness is also evident when he tackles the vexed question of Southern honor. For Percy, to place a high value on honor is a way of making an abstraction more important than people, and hence a way to avoid dealing with life. As Lance chillingly states, "The thought of Margot dead was painful but not intolerable. But Margot under another man. . ." (12). For Percy, duelling is not part of a chivalric code but a socially sanctioned outlet for brutality. Lance's ancestor slit his opponent's "throat from ear to ear. Then he sent for an ax, beheaded, dismembered, and quartered the body, and fed it to the catfishes" and then "ate a hearty breakfast" (141). Although Lancelot contains Percy's most horrific examples of "honor's" consequences, his fiction is permeated by characters who are only happy when there is a chance to die, in hurricanes, chemical accidents, or wars. In Percy's second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), Will Barrett remembers that for his suicidal father, "War was better than Monday morning" (181), a way to evade the banalities and the responsibilities of daily life.

Southern stoicism, a branch of Southern honor exemplified by his cousin William Alexander Percy, is also indicted in Percy's works as another ego-defending way of maintaining power. In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling's Aunt Emily, holding a letter opener in the shape of a sword with a bent tip, declaims:

I am not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they're better than other people. You're damn right we're better. We're better because we do not shirk our obligations either to ourselves or to others. . . .we live by our lights, we die by our lights, and whoever the high gods may be, we'll look them in the eye without apology (177).

The ineffectuality of Aunt Emily's "weapon," suggests the impotence of her philosophy in the modern world. She can neither understand Binx, who bent the sword as a child, nor acknowledge the extreme mental fragility of her step-daughter Kate. In Percy's fifth novel, The Second Coming (1980), Will Barrett discovers what is concealed under this stoicism as he remembers and addresses his suicide father. "You were possessed by anger, anger which in the end you turned on yourself" (155). And beneath that anger was fear of life: "You loved only death because for you what passed for life was really a death-in-life, which has no name and so is worse than death" (155).

Percy also sees much-vaunted Southern manners as essentially another defensive strategy, often presented comically in his works. After five years of analysis, Dr. Ganow in The Last Gentleman realizes he knows nothing of his patient Will Barrett because his

dreams and recollections, which bore out the doctor's theories, confirmed hypotheses right and left, were somehow or other a performance too, the most exquisite of courtesies, as if the apple had fallen to the ground to please Sir Isaac Newton (33).

Courtesy, however, can be a double-edged sword, used to skewer Yankee dehumanizing rationalism as well as Southern evasiveness. In Percy's master parody, Love in the Ruins, unlike his fellow clinicians, Dr. Tom More wants to turn away from watching a woman masturbate as part of a sexual experiment, but wonders, "Isn't it impolite not to watch her?" (118).

As these examples demonstrate, the Southern complex of honor, stoicism, and courtesy loses its positive connotations as soon as it becomes a way of avoiding treating people as complex human beings by succumbing to the temptation to simplify them into abstractions of honor. One of Percy's most moving statements about the actual ambiguity of the old Southern codes comes in Love in the Ruins as Dr. Thomas More is jolted from his comfortable categorizing when he realizes a black man, Victor, and a white racist, Leroy, would put aside ideology to help him:

the terror comes from the goodness and what lies beneath, some fault in the soul's terrain so deep that all is well on top, evil grins like good, but something shears and tears deep down and the very ground stirs beneath one's feet. . . . The terror comes from piteousness, from good gone wrong and not knowing it, from Southern sweetness and cruelty, God why do I stay here? In Louisiana people still stop and help strangers. Better to live in New York where life is simple, every man's your enemy, and you walk with your eyes straight ahead (144-5).

"Southern sweetness and cruelty" are much harder to live with than unambiguous enmity, but Percy clearly feels that the alternative is a kind of death in life.

That in "Louisiana people still stop and help strangers" is an indication of the very Southern value Percy places on the nexus of family and community, though he often addresses it under existentialist Gabriel Marcel's term, "intersubjectivity." Percy's protagonists struggle to realize that they are not and cannot be alone. Will Barrett takes two novels, The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming, to learn this, as does Dr. Tom More in Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. The difficulty, the tentativeness of the need for others in a fully human life is best expressed, however, at the end of Percy's first novel The Moviegoer, as Binx gazes at his new wife Kate: "I watch her walk away toward St. Charles, cape jasmine held against her cheek, until my brothers and sisters call out behind me" (191).

"The brothers and sisters" who "call out behind" Binx also suggest Percy's affinity with another Southern theme, family or "blood" as a kind of fate. Binx believes the warring sides of his personality are inherited from his very different paternal and maternal lines.

As a Bolling in Feliciana Parish, I became accustomed to sitting on the porch in the dark and talking of the size of the universe and the treachery of men; as a Smith of the Gulf Coast I have become accustomed to eating crabs and drinking beer under a hundred and fifty watt bulb--and one is as pleasant a way as the other of passing a summer night. (124)

By the end of The Moviegoer, Binx has managed to temper the depressing aristocratic stoicism of his paternal ancestry with the enjoyment of life's small pleasures of his mother's plain people.

As his meditation on his ancestry shows, Binx Bolling, like all of Percy's protagonists, is obsessed with that very Southern theme, the sins of the fathers. This legacy of guilt, inadequacy, and anxiety is the "burden of the past" under which so many male characters in Southern literature labor. Will Barrett suffers from bouts of amnesia in The Last Gentleman as he tries to evade memories of his father's suicide. In The Second Coming, a much older Will Barrett can only begin to form a new life with new familial and spiritual relationships when he confronts his anger at his father's botched attempt to kill himself and the child Will on a hunting trip. In contrast, at the beginning of Lancelot, Lance tells Father John, "It's just that I don't like to remember" (5). If there is any hope for this insane murderer, it lies in Father John's ability to make Lance remember in the lengthy first-person confession of which the novel consists.

While Percy's protagonists struggle to forget and then remember the past, many of Percy's other characters take comfort in recollecting or "restoring" a false past. In Love in the Ruins, while revolution seems imminent, one of Dr. Tom More's neighbors lives in "Tara," a garish reconstruction of a plantation that existed only in Margaret Mitchell's imagination. In The Thanatos Syndrome, the sinister Dr. Bob Comeaux tells Tom More that "what we've done is restore the best of the Southern way of life" (197) when he slips chemicals into the Baton Rouge water supply that make people well-behaved and happy, unconcerned with the true Southern past, but diminished, regressed to pre-humanity. Dr. More was similarly hubristic in Love in the Ruins when he believed he could return mankind to prelapsarian bliss with his lapsometer.

Ultimately, Percy's preoccupation with remembering and dealing with the truth of the past is intricately linked with his beliefs about art. His novels are filled with fake artists, like Sam Yerger in The Moviegoer, who only tell what they themselves or their listeners want to hear. Some wallow in nostalgia for a past that never existed like Lancelot Lamar's father, the Poet Laureate of Feliciana Parish. Tom More barely evades this temptation in Love in the Ruins when he sits drinking and listening to lovely Lola, mistress of Tara, play her cello:

What needs to be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, the past gone and grieved over and never made sense of. Music ransoms us from the past, declares an amnesty, brackets and sets aside the old puzzles. Start a new life, get a girl, look into her shadowy eyes, smile. Fix me a toddy, Lola, and we'll sit on the gallery of Tara and you play a tune and we'll watch evening fall and lightning bugs wink in the purple meadow (321).

Walker Percy, in contrast, does not proffer art as a drug for escaping the past's very real legacy to the present. He refuses to "set aside the old puzzles" and his novels unrelentingly force his readers to "make sense of" the Southern past. This is what makes him such a fine--and very Southern--novelist.

WORKS CITED (Walker Percy)

Lancelot. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

The Last Gentleman. New York: Avon, 1978.

Love in the Ruins. New York: Avon, 1981.

The Moviegoer. New York: Avon, 1982.

The Second Coming. New York: Pocket Books, 1981.

The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux,1987.


Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South.

Hobson, Fred. Tell About the South: the Southern Rage to Explain.

Lawson, Lewis A. Following Percy: Essays on Walker Percy's Work.

Lawson, Lewis A. and Victor A. Kramer. Conversations with Walker Percy. Also More Conversations with Walker Percy.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. The Literary South (An Anthology).

Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Burden of the Past in Southern History.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor.
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