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Walker Percy… A Man Of Graciousness

August 12, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


When Ted Williams homered in his last at bat and did not tip his cap to the cheering crowd, novelist John Updike, who was present at the game, remarked: “Gods don’t answer letters.” If we can deify the Splendid Splinter, we can also deify Walker Percy who has proven that the gods sometimes do answer letters. Percy took the time to send me a handwritten letter thanking me for sending him a copy of my review of his Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. It was most gracious of him to do so.
The New York Times, though it found Lost in the Cosmos “charming, whimsical, slyly profound,” saw fit not to answer the best-selling novelist’s letter concerning the controversial issue of abortion. On January 22, 1988, the 15th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Percy dispatched a letter to the esteemed newspaper warning that “once the principle [of ‘getting rid of the unwanted’] gains acceptance — juridically, medically, socially — innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason — then it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next.”
Percy wrote to the Times once again, on February 15, to ascertain whether his initial letter was received. Again, Dr. Percy received no reply. Walker Percy, then, is a witness to life and also a witness to the false claim that The New York Times is a liberal organ that is unwilling to suppress dissent.
Graciousness is a marvelous virtue. It does not allow class distinctions or any other kind of distinction to prevent a person from seeing the worth of others. The Apostle of Life is a person of graciousness. Percy was certainly gracious to the unborn child, recognizing him as a bona fide member of the human family. It is a fact, he wrote, “known to every high school student…that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that henceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism.”
The irony here, for Percy, is that the beginning of life is not a religious dogma but a fact of science. Those who advocate for abortion suppress a scientific fact whereas defenders of life honor it. With this in mind, Percy offers a scenario in which the Supreme Court cross-examines a high school biology teacher and admonishes him that it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized egg is the beginning of life. The teacher is enjoined never to impose his private beliefs on his students.
“Like Galileo,” writes Percy, “he caves in, submits, but in turning away is heard to murmur, ‘But it’s still alive!’”
Walker Percy’s life reads like a Russian novel. His grandfather committed suicide in 1917, the year after Walker was born. Then came the double tragedy of his father’s suicide and his mother’s apparent suicide one year later in an automobile accident. He was adopted at the age of 14, along with his two brothers, by William Alexander Percy, a cousin once removed.
“Uncle Will” introduced his nephew to Brahms, Shakespeare, and Keats. Nonetheless, Percy’s education up to the age of 30 was almost exclusively scientific. He received his medical degree with highest honors from Columbia University. While interning at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, he performed many autopsies on indigent alcoholics, some of whom died of tuberculosis. He contracted the highly contagious disease and was sent to a sanatorium in upstate New York for two years of convalescence.
He returned to his active life as an instructor of pathology at Columbia medical school. Within a few months, however, he suffered a relapse and was sent to a home in 1945 in Connecticut where, it is said, he occupied the same bed formerly used by four-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Percy used his enforced passivity as an active instrument. He read Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Maritain, Marcel, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Camus. He began writing philosophical articles. “If the first great intellectual discovery of my life was the beauty of the scientific method,” he wrote, “surely the second was the discovery of the singular predicament of man in the very world which has been transformed by science.”
Dr. Percy strongly identified with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who, like Percy, could no longer practice medicine because of his tubercular condition and turned to writing. Chekhov died at age 44. Walker Percy had a much longer road ahead of him.
Not long after his release from the Connecticut sanatorium, he married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician. Six months later, after studying Catholicism together, he and his wife, on November 7, 1947, entered the Catholic Church. Unable to practice medicine because of his weakened condition, he turned to writing.
His first novel, The Moviegoer, after extensive revisions, won the coveted National Book Award. Five novels, all best-sellers, followed, establishing him as one of the most important literary figures on the American scene.
In one of the foremost works about Percy — Walker Percy: An American Search — Robert Coles praised him for having “a sharp eye for all the pompous self-important and self-centered baloney that is eating away at American secular culture — its moral drift, its egoism, rootlessness, and greed” and for being “onto both the liberals and the conservatives” and hitting “the blind spots in both camps.”
Dr. Walker Percy, the trained pathologist, was applying his diagnostic skills to a moribund culture.
Walker Percy passed away in May of 1990 of prostate cancer 18 days before his 74th birthday. He is buried on the grounds of St. Joseph Benedictine Abbey in St. Benedict, La. He had become a secular oblate of the abbey’s monastic community and had made his final oblation on February 16, 1990.
On occasion of Percy’s death, Cleanth Brooks, literary critic and Yale University professor wrote, “In losing Walker Percy, we have lost a remarkable figure in American literature, and a generous man. Some of us have lost a kind and dear friend.”
The latter encomium is affirmed by many.

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