Today, a story about criticism, creativity, and
trust. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"My wound is geography!"
cries the damaged hero in The Prince of
Tides. Of course that's author Pat Conroy
lamenting his own wound. Our literature is full of
fine Southern writers whose fathers wounded them in
some way. James Agee was six when his father died
in a car accident. That violation of a child's
trust wells up all through Agee's writing. Then
there's Walker Percy:
Percy's father committed suicide in 1929. Percy was
only 13. His uncle raised him and sent him off to
medical school. He finished in 1941 -- then spent
WW-II fighting tuberculosis. In the sanatorium he
began reading philosophy. He recovered from
tuberculosis, but not from philosophy. He became a
Roman Catholic. He also gave up medicine -- first
to study, then to write.
The hero of his first book, The
Moviegoer, was Binx Bolling. Bolling, like
Percy, was the son of faded Southern gentility and
a suicidal father. The Moviegoer won
the 1962 National Book Award, ahead of Heller's
Catch-22 and Salinger's Franny
Percy became one of our great 20th-century writers.
Yet through every remaining book there moved an
anti-hero scarred by a father's suicide. Percy
announces that scar in the very first line of
The Moviegoer -- a heart-piercing
quotation from Kierkegaard:
... the specific character of despair is precisely
this: it is unaware of being despair.
Percy submitted The
Moviegoer in 1959. The editor, Stanley
Kauffmann, liked the new genre Percy had invented.
But, however brilliantly the manuscript began,
Kauffmann sighed, it lapsed into loose ends and
unclear plot lines.
Heather Moore studies the Kauffmann/Percy letters
and finds a poignant dimension in their
collaboration. For a year, Kauffmann edited and
Percy accepted criticism -- hearing it out, drawing
lines in the sand here and there. All the while,
mutual respect grew. Moore is confident that some
of the book's strength derives from Percy's quiet
resistance. A lot of the ambiguity lingers to tease
the reader's mind.
Yet Percy also made fine use of Kauffmann's
criticism. For example, we're astonished to find
... your novel might well be served by a brief
epigraph -- possibly from Keirkegaard.... One
piercing knife thrust ...
So Percy made a literary triumph despite lukewarm
publishers who missed the point and fired Kauffmann
before the book came out.
And as we read their letters, we see Percy
receiving Kauffmann as more than just a critic --
as a replacement father to trust at last. In that
Percy was no exception. I tell this tale because
every inventor finds someone to trust that way --
on one equally deep and primal level, or another.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Moore, H., Walker Percy's 'The Moviegoer:' A
Publishing History, The Library Chronicle of
the University of Texas. Vol. 22, Nos. 1-4,
1991-1992, pp. 123-143.
Percy, W., The Moviegoer. New York:
Albert A. Knopf, Inc., 1961.
Hardy, J.E., The Fiction of Walker
Percy. Urbana, Ill., University of Illinois
Allen, W.R., Walker Percy: A Southern
Wayfarer. Jackson, Miss: University Press of
Percy, W., Signposts in a Strange Land
(Edited with an Introduction by P. Samaway). New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
Conroy, P., The Prince of Tides.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Agee, J., A Death in the Family New
York: McDowell, Oblensky, 1957.
An extensive Walker Percy website:
I am grateful to William Monroe and Ted Estes in
the UH Honors College, as well as to Heather Moore
in the UH Library's Special Collections Department,
for their counsel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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