by Erin Z. Bass
An interview with Jessica Hooten Wilson about her new book Reading Walker Percy’s Novels, a companion guide to the intellectual Southern writer.
Louisiana writer Walker Percy considered novels the strongest tool with which to popularize great ideas among a broad audience. More than half a century after they first appeared in print, his works of fiction continue to fascinate contemporary readers. Despite their lasting appeal, Percy’s engaging narratives also contain intellectual elements that demand further explication. Philosophical themes, including existentialism, language acquisition theory and modern Catholic theology, provide a deeper layer of meaning in Percy’s writings.
Out on shelves this week, Jessica Hooten Wilson’s Reading Walker Percy’s Novels serves as a companion guide for readers who enjoy Percy’s novels but may be less familiar with the works of philosophers Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard and Dante. Associate professor of literature at John Brown University, Wilson highlights allusions to other writers within Percy’s narratives, addresses historical and political contexts and provides insight into the creation and reception of his books The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming and The Thanatos Syndrome. An introduction covers aspects of Percy’s biography that influenced his writing, including his deep Southern roots, faith and search for meaning in life, while an appendix offers an explanation of Percy’s satirical parody Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
Wilson is also the author of Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence. We asked her why a companion guide to Walker Percy is necessary and about the status of Percy’s legacy today and what he and Flannery O’Connor share in terms of writing.
Erin Z. Bass: Why is a companion guide for reading Walker Percy’s novels necessary?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Most literature needs companion guides, but sometimes all we have is classroom instruction or book clubs available to us. Like all great writers, Percy drew on a host of authors before him, especially from philosophers or philosophical novelists. Because most 21st century Americans do not take philosophy in college, his ideas may prove more daunting than his mid-twentieth century readers found them. I hope this book reads as though I am in a classroom or book club with the reader and walking them through Percy’s fiction both for its pleasure and edification.
EZB: How did Percy’s Southern roots influence his writing?
JHW: Percy writes within his particular place and time, drawing in material from his own life as well as from his family and those he knew in the South. He sets all of his novels in the South. Yet, he chased ideas and themes that were universal.
After Percy joined the Roman Catholic Church, his desire to write novels became inextricably linked with his career as a moralist. He felt he discovered how to live life, and he wanted to encourage others toward this truth. A resounding theme throughout his fiction is the ‘living dead.’ His protagonists often remark that everyone around them seems dead, to be walking around without paying any attention to the world, and to be talking without noticing the meaning of his or her words.”
– Introduction: A Brief Biography
EZB: What do you say to those readers who might dismiss Percy as just a Catholic or Christian writer?
JHW: Do we dismiss Salman Rushdie as just a Muslim writer or Saul Bellow as just a Jewish writer? Percy would argue that all people are religious. They all make choices and live according to what they think it means to be human, what the divine is, and how the world works. For Percy, the Catholic answers to these questions were the true ones. Yet, while Percy himself asserts truth, his characters are all searchers for answers and agnostics who wander with restless hearts, seeking these answers for themselves.
EZB: What did Percy and Flannery O’Connor have in common?
JHW: Both Percy and Flannery O’Connor (because they were Catholic and Southern), wrote fiction that occurs on two levels: the literal and the figurative. For instance, a garden is never only a garden but should recall Eden as well as Augustine and Candide. Even more apt would be to look at something like a racist character in their stories. The character’s racism is always symptomatic of a deeper problem, the sin in the human heart, the penchant for evil. Critics have described their styles as incarnational or sacramental, meaning that they unite two worlds—empirical and spiritual realities.
EZB: How would you describe Percy’s legacy and popularity today?
JHW: Percy’s legacy one reads in other writers such as Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace or Richard Ford. His popularity is growing, as the annual Walker Percy Festival in St Francisville, Louisiana, attests. Each year, he is probably read less in schools and more in leisure. He would’ve wanted it that way. In an ideal America, more people would be reading Percy on beaches and airplane rides than any current NY Times bestseller.