Talking with Mr. Percy

Walker Percy was certainly a gentleman, but not necessarily the last one. He probably thought it a gentleman’s duty to try to ensure he’s not the last, and so he was magnanimous enough to leave a legacy to his fellow travelers in the cosmos: six novels, three books of non-fiction, and now, thanks to editors Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, not one but two fat collections of interviews (More Conversations with Walker Percy, Univ. Press of Miss., 248 pages).

Mr. Percy loved to talk, rarely refused interview requests, but preferred interviewing interviewers to being interviewed. At one point he went so far as to conduct his own self-interview. Having both undergone analysis and trained as a psychiatrist before tuberculosis sent his budding career off the rails, Percy never abandoned his belief in the capacity of talk to aid in the treatment of the twentieth century’s premier disease—derangement. He even confessed in one interview that he had become more sympathetic to Freud over the years: “he’s trying to help people . . . individual talking to individual . . . there’s no gimmick with Freud, and no drugs to change the brain, and no electrodes.”

Percy’s faith in the word is a bit reminiscent of Socrates, who also thought the best way to live was to talk about how best to live. Once when discussing the “dirty word” soul, Percy invoked Socrates. Novelists, he said, have to “behave with great indirection. With Socratic deception!” Like Socrates, Percy adaressed those concerned more with the soul than with the body, but such dangerous talk led both men to cloak themselves in irony.

Percy also resembled Socrates in his youthful love of natural science, from which both men turned to the study of things distinctly human. And both men laced their irony with laughter, the better to persuade those with ears to hear. With true moderation, neither man ever came to despise natural science, but only sought to teach its devotees prudence, which meant, above all, wisdom about the human things.

In this new collection we find Percy receiving surprisingly friendly, even admiring treatment from those who ought to fear and loathe him— the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Sojourners. We also hear him speak more directly than before about his faith, his church, and his political opinions. He insists on the difference between a creature with a soul and other orders of creation. Forgetful of this distinction, we risk confusing ourselves with beasts or angels. As followers of Socrates know, the word-using animal is, when perfected, the best of animals, but without law and justice, the worst. Or as Percy put it, although it is “better to be a dislocated human than a happy chimp,” the “anxiety, the alienation, and the depression in the modern world is not due to any gene . . . [but to] something wrong with the way we live.”

Percy was once asked about the way he lived; that is, he was asked, Why did you join the Catholic Church? He quietly replied “all of my writings might be considered as a sort of covert answer.”


  • Scott Walter

    Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He also heads Campion Consulting, which provides philanthropic consulting for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged; and customized writing for nonprofits and businesses. A graduate of Georgetown University, Scott lives with his wife, Erica, and their four children in Maryland.

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