Walker Percy died on this date twenty-two years ago, May 10, 1990.
The protagonist in Walker Percy's 1961 National Book Award winner, The Moviegoer, is a guy named Binx Bolling who seeks spiritual fulfillment in watching movies. To Binx, movies are an endless resource for explaining both the patterns and the oddities of life; he also occupies himself with a spiritual quest which he describes as being “onto something,” a condition which is the alternative to the despair of daily existence.
Percy, a medical doctor by training, was similar to his protagonists who were modern, intelligent men attempting to make sense of the rapidly evolving twentieth century. Over a writing career that spanned almost forty years, Percy increased the scope of two of his major themes – man and his existential quest to find meaning in life, and the impact of technology on citizens of the twentieth century. Percy’s Bolling describes the sad condition he sees about him in late twentieth century America:
Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before . . . and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but raised in the Mississippi delta by his uncle, poet and essayist William Alexander Percy. Both men are usually identified as members of that legion of southern writers of the twentieth century which includes Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and William Faulkner. Percy’s lifelong friend was Shelby Foote, also a novelist, but most remembered for his work as a Civil War historian. Percy died on May 10, 1990.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Walker Percy / Keith Carter / Gelatin silver print, 1989 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Bill and Sally Wittliff