L. Lamar Nisly, "Walker Percy: The Writer as Diagnostic Canary to Pilgrim Wayfarers," in Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, & Pilgrim Wayfarers: Constructions of Audience and Tone in O'Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011.
Nisly in this chapter on Walker Percy explores the biography of Walker Percy and how he became a "diagnostic canary to pilgrim wayfarers." He shows how Percy and O'Connor are similar in some ways, and different in other ways. O'Connor looks at her audience as hostile to her message. Percy, in contrast, sees his audience "as more indifferent, or even confused, than hostile" (137). The author argues, "Percy's view of the author as canary and the reader as pilgrim wayfarer have both been shaped in conversation with his choice of Catholic community and his response to the Second Vatican Council" (138).
Nisly summarizes biographical information that have been narrated in the two standard biographies on Percy. For example, Percy grew up in Birmingham till his father committed suicide. His paternal grandfather had also committed suicide. They eventually moved in with his cousin who he called Uncle Will. Percy's mother died soon after moving in with Uncle Will in Greenville, Mississippi. He shows how uncle Will was a major influence on his life. How Percy went to University of North Carolina and later to medical school at Columbia University. Percy was struck with tuberculosis and took over two years to recover spending the time in reading. He soon after recovering would decide to become a novelist, married, converted to the Catholic church and moved to Covington, Louisiana.
What is interesting in the description of narrating Percy's life is the events that might have led to Walker becoming a Christian. Percy was raised in a liberal Presbyterian church and he would eventually become an agnostic before beginning college. Nisly writes, "From a religious perspective, Percy's parents reflected the late nineteenth-century Protestant rationalism. Although Roy, Percy's father, came from an Episcopal background, he followed his wife Mattie Sue into the Presbyterian church" (139). This church would later split and the Percy family "left with the liberal wing that emphasized the Social Gospel over supernaturalism" (140). The pastor denied the importance of the virgin birth and the resurrection "as proofs of Jesus' divinity" (140). Walker attended church and Sunday school weekly.
The move to Greenville, Mississippi was not only "an immersion in the Old South for Walker Percy, it also marked a massive shift in religious affiliation" (141). The author mentioned earlier in the chapter that Birmingham, Alabama was the New South. The first Catholic influence on Walker's life would be his uncle Will. Nisly notes, "Will surprised his parents by his deep devotion to Catholicism" (144). He even thought about becoming a priest but was discouraged by his parents who thought it was foolishness. Despite the discouragement from his parents, Will continued to "be intensely religious, yet even in this stage, 'never for a moment, was my belief without doubt' (141)." These doubts grew more intense when his brother was "accidentally killed." Though Will continued to have great admiration for the church and its traditions, he did not consider himself a believer. He seemed to deny the supernaturalism of the church. Walker Percy said his uncle, "regarded the Catholic church as a purely human institution with a noble history and a great store of wisdom" (142).
Nisly writes that Will "exposed Percy early in his teen years to a different faith tradition from liberal Protestantism" (142). Percy spoke of Will's Catholicism: "And my uncle Will was a Catholic, a lapsed Catholic; he didn't go to church but he was always talking about the great Catholic tradition" (142). Nisly notes that Walker Percy "came to a deep acceptance of traditional Catholic faith instead of Will's skepticism, one could argue that Uncle Will provided Percy with a model for maintaining enough distance from a Church tradition to critique it even while recognizing its benefits" (142). This idea is important to the point Nisly is making in this chapter. He notes how Percy, a committed Christian, was able to critique both the church and the world. He was in the world, but not of the world. In some sense, he was on the margins.
A second Catholic influence was during Percy's undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina. Percy writes about this influence: "When I was in college, I lived in the attic of a fraternity house with four other guys. God, religion, was the furthest thing from our minds and talk--from mine, at least. [Percy at this time was committed to scientism--the idea that science can answer all our questions. One wonders if Percy's life was a search for certainty.] Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to mass" (144). He also went to medical school with two Catholic students who influenced him. Nisly notes, "Although Percy was not even considering conversion at this point, these friends provided an alternative model to his Scientism when Percy began to question his beliefs" (144).
Another major Catholic influence occurred when he was in the sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. There was also a Catholic patient there who debated with him over Christian belief. Nisly states, "Percy spent much time reading. In part, though, his reading was directed through his debates with another patient, Arthur Fortugno, who was Catholic. In his desire to win these debates, Percy began reading Augustine and Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky" (144). When they were well enough, Percy even attended the Catholic church with Fortugno. Nisly states, "These readings and conversations began to show Percy some of the short comings of science" (144). He must have read at this time how Kierkegaard was unsatisied with Hegel's thought: "Hegel told everything about the world except one thing: what it is to be a man and to live and die" (144). The author thinks "Percy was feeling a need for a deeper meaning in life than he could find through science" (144). This makes sense since this is the time that Percy began to read Kierkegaard and other existentialist writers. The author notes, "Through this process of reading and reflection, Percy began to be drawn to a faith commitment" (144).
As an aside, Percy "underwent psychoanalysis with Janet Rioch, to sort through some of the difficulties he had experienced" (143). This was also a requirement of medical school. This process was to find out "what ailed him." He said after doing this for over three years at five times a week, they still didn't know. Then he had the experience of tuberculosis. This eventually would cause his giving up the career of medical practice and deciding what to do with the rest of his career. In the sanatorium he had much time to think of eternal issues.