Happy Birthday, Walker Percy

“I have two comments: Number 1, if you’re going to be a writer, don’t go to school to be a writer. Get a pencil and a piece of paper and start writing. Secondly, if there’s anything in this world you can do, do it rather than be a writer. It’s the loneliest, most depressing work in the world.” – Walker Percy

Twenty years after his death, memories of renowned southern author Walker Percy continue to live on. Today we honor what would have been his 94th birthday. David Horace Harwell, author of Walker Percy Remembered, interviewed thirteen people close to Percy, documenting his early life and development as an author and involvement with different communities.

Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916 to a prominent family, but his childhood was speckled with tragedy with his father’s suicide and mother’s death. Upon moving to Greenville, Mississippi with his younger brothers LeRoy and Phin to live with his father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, Walker was introduced to Shelby Foote.

Shelby, who also became a notable author, said of Walker, “Well, Walker and I were each other’s best friends for sixty years. That’s a long time for anybody, but for two writers to be best friends for sixty years is really crazy.”

Walker and Shelby heavily influenced each other’s lives for those sixty years. When Walker and his “Uncle Will” had decided on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for school, Shelby said, “because Walker had gone to Chapel Hill, I wanted to. I probably wouldn’t have gone if Walker hadn’t.”

After receiving a degree in chemistry, Walker studied medicine at Columbia University and became a physician. His medical career was cut short after contracting tuberculosis. After recovering and starting a family, Walker began writing.

Phin Percy, Walker’s youngest brother, commented on the relationship between his brother and Shelby, “Well, Shelby got published before Walker did, and I think that kind of stirred Walker up, the competition of it.”

Walker’s first novel, The Moviegoer, was published in 1961, which won him the National Book Award the following year. Though he wrote several more essays and novels before his death, his brother Phin said, “He will be remembered by all those who knew him not as a great writer but as a wonderful person. The fact that he was a writer – so what? It was because of what he was, not what he did, that we loved him.”

Rhoda Faust, the owner of a bookshop in New Orleans that Walker often frequented, said, “I think that you’ll hear that from a bunch of people, that he made people feel special.”

Referring to Understanding Walker Percy by Linda Hobson, Phin explained, “I don’t think anyone will ever write a book called Understanding Stephen King or Understanding Danielle Steele. They tell good stories, but you get what you see and that’s it. Not with Walker.”


Photo credit: Rhoda K. Faust

Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him by David Horace Harwell contains interviews detailing Walker’s life as an author, friend and brother. It’s available in hardcover now. A paperback edition will be ready in August (but you can pre-order it now).