Civic/Social/Education / Film/Music/Literature

Walker Percy and place

Yesterday was the birthday of Walker Percy, this journal’s philosophical patron.

As a southerner, I share a number of sensibilities with the good doctor. We share a particular national and worldview because we observe these other places from the American South, a region occasionally excluded from the greater national imagination, often by its own insistence.

More importantly, Percy’s writing has helped me to see and to read the South with fresh eyes and to cast my own wry eye on the assumptions and resources of the American South and its inhabitants.

Even from within, Percy thought the South was a strange place—a strange place to write from and a strange place to write about. In his essay “Why I live where I live,” Percy remarks on the categories of place and placement. Place to a certain degree is the voice a writer writes from and the voices of the ancestors who haunt her writing. “It is necessary to escape the place of one’s origins and the ghosts of one’s ancestors but not too far,”[1] Percy notes. Sometimes these voices and these ancestors can overtake the writer and her writing, and the product can sound or read like a caricature, and necessarily inauthentic (a criticism he subtly levied against Faulkner).

Placement is slightly different from place in that it usually informs the way a writer writes and also how readers receive her writing. Placement is the prejudice a writer meets because she is from that particular place. For Percy, there was charm in his home Covington (“a nonplace”) because it wasn’t New Orleans (“a place”).

“For writers, place is a special problem because they never fitted in in the first place. The problem is to choose a place where one’s native terror is not completely neutralized… but rendered barely tolerable,”[2] notes Percy. It is important that the writer not be completely beholden to place and instead formed by the ways that place gives a grammar and a vocabulary to thought and word.

Percy thought that there was a line between the place and the placement:  “I prefer to live in the South but on my own terms. It takes some doing to insert oneself in such a way as not to succumb to the ghosts of the Old South or the happy hustlers of the new Sunbelt South.”[3]

For my own part, Percy rescued me from a fictitious South, still ante-bellum, invincible before northern aggression, and therefore obnoxious; my South was a place who had not learned from the War or its history of religious prejudices and racism.

It is unlikely this Edenic South ever existed. For Percy, it didn’t matter; we do not inhabit the Southern Eden, nor will we ever return. Like Genesis’s Eden, the angel with flaming sword bars our reentrance. Instead, we are pilgrims for the Heavenly City, travelers searching for the “thread in the labyrinth to be followed at any cost.”[4] Percy’s novels and essays form a part of that thread and help us to navigate the cosmos in which so many are lost.

[1] Percy, Walker. “Why I Live Where I Live,” in Signposts in a Strange Land, 3
[2] Percy, 3-4.
[3] Percy, 4.
[4] Percy. The Message in the Bottle.

5 thoughts on “Walker Percy and place

  1. While I agree with many of Percy’s sentiments you highlight here, I’m reminded of a lesson by one of my great teachers, JS Reed, that there are many souths, dispelling the notion of a monolithic regionalism. I would need to read more deeply into Percy to get a better grip on how broadly his insights and characterizations apply to a wider Southern experience and history.

    I’ve often found that Percy’s “southernism” and that of my family’s extended experience are profoundly different – geographically, culturally, socially, economically, even artistically. I have notions that differences in literal climate might could have something to do with it. I also appreciate the differences between a life entirely shaped by the deep South – a region that developed with more drastic and accelerated fits and jerks than much of the rest of the region or the nation – and one molded by the older, upper South.

    Percy’s south and my south are no doubt quite different; neither me nor my people have a house with a name. That’s bound to belie something deeper.

    Pardon my rambles…thanks for a worthy reflection, and an illuminating one. I hope to catch up with everyone tonight.

    • You are spot on, and Percy’s essay (“Why I live where I live”) in toto gives a fuller account of different Souths than I was able in this short piece.

      For me, Percy dispelled the sexy myth of Southern Invincibility. This was a personal matter and a necessary fall, since my South was of Southern Invincibility. Growing up around “Old” Raleigh lends itself to a different narrative than growing up on your side of the Yadkin, or living in Percy’s Covington.

      Thank you, Lee, for your critical and sympathetic read.

      • Exactly and exactly.

        I suppose that plumbing the depths of the family tree for baby names has put these thoughts more to the fore of my mind as well…reminds me of the great James McPherson’s meditation on the purposes of history: “There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself, some positive, some negative…I think that one job of a historian is to try to cut through some of those myths and get closer to some kind of reality.”

        Would love to have been a fly on the wall for any dinner conversation between those two intellectual giants…

  2. Pingback: Reflecting on John F. Kennedy’s legacy in Catholic writing and beyond | the wayfaring

  3. Pingback: Wayfaring and Place » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog

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