Walker Percy

Novelist (1916–1990)
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Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to a distinguished Southern family. After studying medicine at Columbia, his career was sidelined in 1942 when he contracted tuberculosis and was confined for five years to a series of sanitaria. While the rest of the world was plunged in war, Percy lay in bed, reading Kierkegaard and Russian novels, pondering the paradoxes and absurdities of the modern world. He decided to become a Catholic.  

By the time he was released he had lost interest in medicine. He settled in New Orleans, raised a family, and devoted himself to further reading. After publishing a series of philosophical essays, he turned to fiction. In 1961 he published The Moviegoer, a hugely entertaining novel exploring the theme that would surface in all his work: the human challenge of remaining fully alive while avoiding the lure of everydayness, routine, and despair. All his novels were shaped by a Catholic understanding of reality, but he believed it was no use simply to repeat pious verities. Christian language had been worn “smooth as poker chips” from overuse. Another matter was the moral failure of Christianity—in his own region, displayed in the Church’s failures in confronting racial oppression.  

Our challenge, Percy believed, was to recover our true humanity, to break loose from abstractions and ideologies, and “re-enter the lovely, ordinary world.” He died on May 10, 1990.  

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”  

—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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