By W.L. Prehn
Last week, I reflected on the issues of escape, self-reliance, and brokenness in Walker Percy’s work. In this essay, I take a closer look at Percy’s cultural affinities.
Walker Percy resisted being labeled a regional or “Southern” writer, but of course he was one, not least as a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. In 1972, he appeared with fellow Mississippi writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. When told she was a “regional” writer, Miss Welty took up the idea graciously and said that all great literature is rooted in a certain place. She said she could see the whole of life better when her subject was local. “The Southern base endows me and enables me because place does endow a writer,” said Welty.
Sitting next to Miss Welty, Percy clearly found Buckley’s taxonomy facile. He told Buckley that being Southern gave him the means to observe American culture objectively from the outside and sometimes rise to universal truths. This was the point literary critic Andrew Lytle made in a famous essay in Southerners and Europeans (1988) when he compared Southern and Russian writers. Both groups existed somewhat outside the dominant culture, which gave them an advantage to critique the cultures of Europe and the American Establishment. Percy told Buckley, “You have a perspective on the United States culture if you are from outside New York or Boston.”
It is clear from Percy’s novels and other published work that he could only have been from the Deep South. If an artist must paint what he knows, this is it for Percy. His fiction, nonfiction, and journal notices, as well as the anecdotes of those who knew him in Covington, Louisiana, reveal a wholly 20th-century man who hailed from what is called the River Counties and Parishes of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Just as Flannery O’Conner could not have been from Kentucky but shows herself a Georgian, and Thomas Wolfe was definitely from North Carolina and could not have been a Virginian, and Peter Taylor was definitely a Middle Tennessean and not from Memphis — so Percy’s sensibility and worldview were formed by the culture of the Lower Mississippi. This is the Deep South indeed.
This region from Memphis to New Orleans, including the Arkansas Delta, is the old, aristocratic part of the Deep South. It is where Tories fled during the Revolution. It was Easterners who flooded into the region after 1793 to buy land and slaves in order to produce indigo, cotton, and enormous wealth in the region. In the 1830s, there were more per capita millionaires in Adams County, Mississippi (the Natchez area), than any other county in the United States. This wealth was important to the development of a culture that was then — materially — destroyed by the Civil War.
Compared to the oldest agricultural regions of the Deep South farther down the Mississippi River, the Delta (Greenville, Clarksdale, Cleveland, North Sunflower, Yazoo City, et al.) was an upwardly mobile culture. It is a strip of fertile land between the Yazoo and the Mississippi, extending from just above Vicksburg to just below Memphis. Most of the wealth in the Delta was relatively new at the turn of the 20th century.
The old, aristocratic parts of Mississippi were concentrated on the best soil for planting, around Columbus, Port Gibson, Fayette, Natchez, and Woodville, where seasonal floods were less ruinous. The Delta boasts some of richest farm land in the world, and was mostly swamp and marsh until after the Civil War, when freedmen cleared the primeval forest. By 1900, most African-Americans had been dispossessed of their land. There were longtime centers of wealth situated in the Delta, but the enormous wealth from agriculture that characterized regions of the South was a post-Civil War phenomenon in the Delta.
Percy and his two brothers grew up in Greenville on the Mississippi, the quintessential Delta town. Even though the Percy family sojourned for a time in Birmingham, Huntsville, and environs (also the Deep South), Walker was unquestionably a Delta boy. This fact comes through in the personality, sensibility, and assumptions of each of his protagonists. As soon as we think that The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling is the perfect young-professional Tulane graduate and ex-member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon who knew his way up and down the Garden District of New Orleans, we discover that he is an alienated outsider. He is in the world of Garden District society, but not of it. Percy’s brilliant description of the Creole husband of Binx’s Aunt Emily proves the point.
Uncle Jules is the only man I know whose victory in the world is total and unqualified. He has made a great deal of money, he has a great many friends, he was Rex of Mardi Gras, he gives freely of himself and his money. He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him. (The Moviegoer, p. 26)
It was of course bred into Percy to assume that high-toned Southern culture — especially the ways and means of the Deep South — is, for all its faults, superior to other cultures in spite of the shame. Some of this attitude comes from the same source that drove the Agrarians of the 1930s: a preternatural fear that civilization might be ruined if an alien “industrialization” is allowed to triumph.
Meanwhile, industrialization was creating new wealth in the South, especially in the Deep South, and the New South inundated Agrarians and literary men alike. In an earlier generation, writers such as William Faulkner told stories of “the Deep South dead since 1865 and peopled by garrulous outraged baffled ghosts” (Absalom! Absalom!). The trauma of the Civil War for both black and white was still very much an issue with Southerners when Faulkner was writing. For one thing, the poverty in which much of the Deep South was left following the war was a real thing, and then the Great Depression came along to make the situation even worse, especially for farmers. Faulkner’s imaginary world was real, and it is why many citizens of the Deep South did not like to read his books even after he won the Nobel Prize. Armless and legless Confederate veterans still haunted the storefronts and porches of Faulkner’s South.
Percy’s postwar South was an emergent and unfamiliar culture, primed for regeneration and economic revival. He is very much concerned with how, exactly, Southerners should think about the New South and modernity. Is the development a good thing or a bad thing? Should a true Southerner accept the new culture or reject it? Will a man lose his integrity if he takes on the ways and means of the Yankee? Is it okay to strive after wealth created off the farm? Has the typical American found his living but lost his soul? These were very real questions for a Mississippian.
Next week, in my final reflection on Walker Percy, I will show how he is a pre-eminent doctor of our peculiar malaise in modernity, but also as Episcopalians.