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The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 97-119

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Languages of Mystery:
Walker Percy's Legacy in Contemporary Southern Fiction

Farrell O'Gorman

"For me [Walker Percy] was the writer who told me . . . that everything can be magic—a trunk in an attic, the ninth green of a golf course. We all go through hating the South, even though Quentin said, 'I don't hate it, I don't hate it, I don't, I don't.' Oh yes we did, a lot of us, for a long time. . . . Then Walker walked out on a golf course and the South—our South—came alive. An old greenhouse became a castle. A cave became not more than a cave but the true cave of man's self-deception and death. . . . This is such reality, and this is how I've always thought Walker Percy taught me to write—not the mundane thing of learning to write, but simply learning that the work is too hard to do anything but try to tell the truth and see its lights and see its magic." 1

—Mary Lee Settle, "Walker Percy"

In 1975 the authors of Southern Literary Study: Problems and Possibilities posed the following query: "Is the introduction of 'alien' philosophical concepts into recent southern literature—O'Connor's Catholicism, Percy's existentialism—indicative of a significant change in the orientation and motivation of southern writing?" (235). Twenty-five years later, the answer to such a broad question seems both more readily within reach and perhaps—given Fred Hobson's assessment of O'Connor and Percy as, along with Eudora Welty, the dominant [End Page 97] influences on southern writers in the two last decades of the twentieth century—even more significant (8-9). The answer, I believe, is yes. My aim here, however, is not to address this question fully but rather to consider it briefly as a prelude to demonstrating just one way in which Percy's example seems to have affected the "orientation" of some recent southern fiction. In doing so I will ultimately concentrate at length on his legacy for two particularly keen observers of the contemporary regional landscape: Josephine Humphreys (whose work has been linked to Percy's before, though not in the manner I wish to suggest here) and Padgett Powell.

A comment O'Connor made to Louis D. Rubin, Jr. in 1960 is useful in establishing the broader context of my analysis: "Walker Percy," she said, "wrote somewhere that his generation of Southerners had no more interest in the Civil War than in the Boer War. I think that is probably quite true" (75). 2 Rubin—who, following Allen Tate's lead, had recently defined southern literature as the literature of the "backward glance" and the southern writer as characterized by a "peculiarly historical consciousness"—was not entirely pleased with the remark. O'Connor's observation seems even more incisive in retrospect, because while so many of the writers of the Renascence had written at least some fiction or poetry that not only meditated directly on regional history but was actually set in the past, neither she nor Percy would. But they refrained from doing so neither merely because of generational differences nor because the historical mode had passed out of vogue by their time. In the 1940s Welty wrote The Robber Bridegroom and stories such as "A Still Moment" and "First Love," capturing the frontier history of the Natchez Trace; in the 1950s Robert Penn Warren wrote World Enough and Time and Band of Angels; William Styron would not only persist in the Faulknerian mode of tragic family history in Lie Down in Darkness (1951), but would also in the 1960s return outright to the historical mode—albeit in a new and controversial manner—in The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).

By contrast, Percy and O'Connor alike came to write a new kind of southern fiction by capturing their contemporary world with a vision shaped largely by their intense religious and philosophical interests. Those interests were shaped as much by...


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