Daniel Ritchie Reviews ‘Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer’ by Brian A. Smith

Unlike writers of passing fame, a classic author speaks a new word in every generation. Who could predict that our distracted texting and twittering could reveal more insights from Pride and Prejudice? But last spring I saw them pointed out in an excellent student paper on “Listening in Austen’s Novels.” And if you’re looking for someone beyond Jordan Peterson for insight on today’s crisis of masculinity, try Homer to learn how the son of Odysseus becomes a man.

Walker Percy (1916–1990) wrote before the current “golden age for dystopian fiction,” as The New Yorker termed it last year—without apparent irony. But in the dystopian settings of many of this Catholic writer’s novels, from The Moviegoer (1961) through The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), you’ll find a persistent relevance. Their hyperbolic depictions of cultural polarization, racial tension, and medicalized evil could be satires on today’s news.

In Love in the Ruins (1971), for instance, future civil strife is simmering among the African American “Bantus,” the far-right Knotheads, and their opposite number, the “Leftpapas.” The main character, Tom More—a psychiatrist, alcoholic, and self-described “bad Catholic”—is hunkered down in an interstate cloverleaf, cradling his carbine and scanning the landscape for a sniper.

To test whether you’ll like Percy’s satire, consider More’s description of a far-off, rectangular patch of green: “It is the football field of the Valley Forge Academy, our private school, which was founded on religious and patriotic principles and to keep Negroes out.” Percy is employing a favorite satirical tool here that requires you to do several things at once: to recognize immediately its outrageously racist and hypocritical backstory and to distance yourself from anyone who isn’t capable of such recognition. Beyond this, if the sentence doesn’t make you smile—or at least grimace—Percy probably isn’t for you.

Beyond Cause and Effect

I’ve chosen this example because the strongest chapter in Brian Smith’s Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer deals with race. Although Percy didn’t like being limited by the “Southern writer” label, Southern he was and Southern he remained. Percy was raised in the Deep South, and he returned to live near New Orleans after earning a medical degree from Columbia and battling tuberculosis in upstate New York. In the few novels that end with the promise of restored relationships, such as The Second Coming (1980), Percy’s characters also settle in the South. Because the South has a “greater sense of place,” Smith explains, it has more potential for resisting the phony cures for alienation that American culture promises: psychotropic drugs, esoteric religious fads, expert advice on sex, and above all, the autonomous self.

And yet, because traditional Southern culture has owed more to stoicism than to anything else, even the most honorable white characters in Percy’s novels and essays rarely advance beyond paternalism. Percy’s model for this type was his older cousin, “Uncle” Will, who raised him and his brothers after the suicide of their father and the death of their mother. Uncle Will stood up to the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, but as Percy writes, the “very man who will … even risk his life to protect Ol’ Jim from the lynch mob, is also outraged when Jim’s sons demand better schools and better police.” True enough. But Smith admits that even Percy, himself a devoted Christian, often provides “little more than a starting point and a clue to how racial reconciliation might proceed.”

That admission suggests a limit to Smith’s approach as well. As far back as 1961, Percy used “wayfarer and pilgrim” as terms for “the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment.” But wayfarers are not noted for building political communities. And as other Percy scholars have acknowledged, writing about Percy and community in any large, political sense is fraught with difficulty. Smith’s book has excellent insights on Percy’s relevance to race, social science, and philosophy. But he admits that Percy’s “wayfarer” is primarily searching for “places of rest and support,” which is hardly as robust a political vision as one finds, for instance, in a Southern contemporary like Wendell Berry.

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Source: Christianity Today