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,” 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,” 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.”
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.” Percy’s novels and essays form a part of that thread and help us to navigate the cosmos in which so many are lost.