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Walker Percy

Walker Percy was introduced to Harper’s Magazine readers as the “member of a courageous Mississippi family” in an introduction to his article “Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise” (April 1965). Forty-eight years and eleven months earlier, and after fourteen hours of labor, he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to the scions of the redoubtable Percys and Phinizys, who counted among their ranks the first Confederate secretary of war, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, and the director of the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company of Augusta. The Birmingham Age-Herald provided coverage of the union of his father, “one of the most popular young men in society,” to his mother, “one of the most popular of the younger college set,” and nine months after his birth, which was covered in the Birmingham Ledger, the Age-Herald also reported on his grandfather’s suicide, deeming it an accident: “it seems that he picked up a gun with its muzzle pointing toward him, and that it was accidentally discharged,” Percy’s father told the newspaper. Percy’s father himself died by suicide on July 9, 1929, when Walker was thirteen; a maid and his seven-year-old brother, Billups Phinizy “Phin” Percy, found his body in the attic. His mother died in a car crash three years later, accompanied by a ten-year-old Phin, who survived. Percy was convinced that she too had killed herself. “Tragedy,” the journalist Henry Waring Ball wrote in reporting her death, “pursues the Percy family like nemesis.”

William Faulkner once mocked Percy’s second cousin, a popular poet known to Percy as Uncle Will, with whom Faulkner had once played tennis but was too drunk to remain standing for the full set. “I would like to think of starting where Faulkner left off, starting with the Quentin Compson who didn't commit suicide,” Percy later said. “Suicide is easy. Keeping Quentin Compson alive is something else.” Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), received the National Book Award. His next, The Last Gentleman (1966), was excerpted in the May 1966 issue of Harper’s, and his penultimate, The Second Coming (1980), a sequel to The Last Gentleman, was excerpted in the April 1980 issue. He helped usher into print A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) eleven years after the suicide of its author, John Kennedy Toole.

Percy only came to writing after contracting tuberculosis a year after taking the Hippocratic oath—a period during which he performed less-than-hygienic autopsies on TB victims. “Now," he recalled, "I was one of them.” Holed up in numerous sanatoriums for several years, he took up reading Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. “TB is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said in 1985, five years before his death from cancer.

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April 1965