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A Political Companion to Walker Percy

A Political Companion to Walker Percy

Peter Augustine Lawler
Brian A. Smith
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    A Political Companion to Walker Percy
    Book Description:

    In 1962, Walker Percy (1916--1990) made a dramatic entrance onto the American literary scene when he won the National Book Award for fiction with his first novel, The Moviegoer. A physician, philosopher, and devout Catholic, Percy dedicated his life to understanding the mixed and somewhat contradictory foundations of American life as a situation faced by the wandering and won-dering human soul. His controversial works combined existential questioning, scientific investigation, the insight of the southern stoic, and authentic religious faith to produce a singular view of humanity's place in the cosmos that ranks among the best American political thinking.

    An authoritative guide to the political thought of this celebrated yet complex American author, A Political Companion to Walker Percy includes seminal essays by Ralph C. Wood, Richard Reinsch II, and James V. Schall, S.J., as well as new analyses of Percy's view of Thomistic realism and his reaction to the American pursuit of happiness. Editors Peter Augustine Lawler and Brian A. Smith have assembled scholars of diverse perspectives who provide a necessary lens for interpreting Percy's works. This comprehensive introduction to Percy's "American Thomism" is an indispensable resource for students of American literature, culture, and politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4189-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)

    Those who undertake a study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. Such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times, public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary tradition...

  4. INTRODUCTION: Walker Percy, American Political Life, and Indigenous American Thomism
    (pp. 1-10)
    Peter Augustine Lawler and Brian A. Smith

    Why do two political scientists say that an American Catholic novelist can teach us what nobody else can about our nation’s political life? In fact, we think it’s important that Percy was an American, a Catholic, and a novelist, not to mention a physician and a philosophical essayist. Percy explains that the novel itself is a Christian medium. Who’s read a really good Darwinian novel, or an atheistic novel, or a socialist novel? For all their wisdom, the classical Greeks never managed to write any novels. The characters in the dialogues and plays aren’t quite—and aren’t meant to be...

  5. 1 Walker Percy: A Brief Biography
    (pp. 11-28)
    Ralph C. Wood

    William Buckley once wittily remarked that all future presidents should be made to take a double oath of office. They should swear not only to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America but also promise to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Walker Percy’s novel of 1971,Love in the Ruins. “It’s all there in that one book,” Buckley declared, “what’s happening to us and why.”¹ Such extravagant praise is meant to echo the extravagance of Percy’s satire. Yet the outrageousness of such an accolade, far from silencing further consideration of Percy, prompts us to ask what kind...

  6. 2 The Moviegoer’s Cartesian Theater: Moviegoing as Walker Percy’s Metaphor for the Cartesian Mind
    (pp. 29-46)
    Woods Nash

    Binx Bolling is the moviegoing protagonist ofThe Moviegoer(1961), Walker Percy’s first published novel. In an interview, Percy once referred to Binx as a “victim” of Descartes, to whom Percy attributed “many of the troubles of the modern world.”¹ Did Percy intend some connection between Binx’s moviegoing and his unfortunate Cartesian heritage? In this essay, I argue that Percy used Binx’s moviegoing as a metaphor for his having a Cartesian mind. As Percy knew, many Descartes scholars regard the Cartesian self as a purely thinking thing whose mind is like a theater. Seated in that theater, the self entertains...

  7. 3 Walker Percy’s Critique of the Pursuit of Happiness in The Moviegoer, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, and The Thanatos Syndrome
    (pp. 47-68)
    Elizabeth Amato

    Americans have exercised magnificently the right to pursue happiness. Americans enjoy, on the whole, comfortable lives and unprecedented political and personal freedom, but, as happiness studies show, not much happier lives. While happiness studies indicate that happiness levels remain flat, happiness researchers are optimistic that their research on the causes and correlates of well-being can be used as the basis of domestic and international policy to increase human happiness.¹ Although many of these researchers have been highly critical of how most people identify the pursuit of wealth as nearly identical to the pursuit of happiness, they do not question the...

  8. 4 On Dealing with Man
    (pp. 69-86)
    James V. Schall

    Aristotle often compares the quest for happiness with the quest for health. With his medical background (a background Aristotle also seems to have shared with his own father), Walker Percy was quite aware of the difference between what a doctor does and what a novelist does. The one describes what exactly is the condition of this human body; the other depicts what precisely is the condition of this human soul. Both are equally “scientific.” They both must know and statewhat is, and, indeed, what ought to be in the context of what is there. What we are and what...

  9. 5 Walker Percy’s “Theory of Man” and the Elimination of Virtue
    (pp. 87-118)
    Nathan P. Carson

    It is no overstatement to say that throughout his entire authorship, the critique of our current cultural anthropology, together with the formulation of a new “theory of man,” was Walker Percy’s central concern. In many of his earliest essays, most of which predate his first and highly acclaimed novel,The Moviegoer, Percy outlines what he sees as the currently fractured state of our theory of humanity and emphasizes the need for an empirically demonstrable consensus view regarding what human beings most distinctively are. Throughout his career, Percy repeatedly attempts to articulate just what such a consensus view could be, for...

  10. 6 Confessing the Horrors of Radical Individualism in Lancelot: Percy, Dostoyevsky, Poe
    (pp. 119-144)
    Farrell O’Gorman

    Lancelotis Percy’s richest and most challenging novel. It is challenging because its narrator is so beguiling and intelligent, so clearly right about many of the shortcomings of his society, and yet at the same time deadly wrong. To a degree the same might be said of Percy’s two other first-person narrators, Binx Bolling and Tom More. But by comparison with either, Lance Lamar is at once more seemingly sure of himself and more extravagantly flawed. At the same time, his tale ends more cryptically, lacking the brief but hopeful family interludes that closeThe Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins,...

  11. 7 Walker Percy’s Alternative to Scientism in The Thanatos Syndrome
    (pp. 145-158)
    Micah Mattix

    Walker Percy’sThe Thanatos Syndromeis often read, and rightly so, as a critique of scientism. Scientism is the belief that science alone can make truth statements about the world. For Percy, such a perspective always dehumanizes. Because man is viewed as matter, all personal and social ills are ascribed to chemical imbalances in the brain and call for pharmacological solutions. In the novel, the solution is doses of heavy sodium introduced into the water supply. Amazingly, the solution “works.” Crime and anxiety disappear and pleasure is maximized through increased promiscuity. The problem, of course, is that this solution “kills”...

  12. 8 Love and Marriage among the Ruins
    (pp. 159-178)
    Richard M. Reinsch II

    Walker Percy intimated in several addresses and essays his belief that the South was strangely capable of teaching the United States enduring truths of man’s nature and being.¹ Separated from the larger country since the 1830s by political rebellion, racial oppression, and economic torpidity, the South of the late twentieth century, Percy argued, was now liberated and needed in a new quest to save the Union. As Percy stated:

    I come from the Deep South. I mention this only to call your attention to a remarkable event that has occurred in the last year or two, which has the most...

  13. 9 Walker Percy’s Last Men: Love in the Ruins as a Fable of American Decline
    (pp. 179-206)
    Brian A. Smith

    Walker Percy set out to write novels that examined both obvious and latent maladies in our public life. Laden with allusions to philosophy and addressing the gamut of modernity’s political and social quandaries, Percy’s novels present images of our existence as wayfarers in a profoundly disturbed world. They also stand as near-apocalyptic warnings of where we as a people might soon go. In an essay on the role of the storyteller in modernity, he observed that a

    serious novel about the destruction of the United States and the end of the world should perform the function of prophecy in reverse....

  14. 10 The Second Coming of Walker Percy: From Segregationist to Integrationist
    (pp. 207-236)
    Brendan P. Purdy and Janice Daurio

    This essay looks at three strands of Walker Percy’s thoughts through the decade or so before his 1956Commonwealarticle, “Stoicism and the South.”¹ These three strands of thought are semiotics, Catholicism, and Stoicism. Percy’s work on semiotics, his reading of Kierkegaard, and his conversion to Catholicism led him to make the change from being a segregationist southern moderate to an integrationist southern moderate. Or, to put it more precisely, Percy realized that being a southern moderate no longer allowed for the segregationist viewpoint. After examining these three strands, we consider “Stoicism in the South” with respect to historical, cultural,...

  15. 11 Walker Percy, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Stoic and Christian Foundations of American Thomism
    (pp. 237-266)
    Peter Augustine Lawler

    According to John Courtney Murray inWe Hold These Truths, the task of American Catholics is to supply a theory adequate to the greatness of our Founders’ practical accomplishment.¹ The dominant theory of our nation is Lockeanism, the theory of a middle-class country. We Americans, so the thinking goes, are basically beings with “interests” and so beings with “rights.” We are free beings who work and demand that everyone work for him- or herself. We are middle class insofar as we’re free, like aristocrats, to work like slaves, and we’re enlightened enough to know we risk being suckered if we...

  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 267-270)
  17. List of Contributors
    (pp. 271-272)
  18. Index
    (pp. 273-286)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 287-288)