Walker Percy, master of prose (and king of snark)

Because America is old (although its editors are young?), and because time is a brutal but reckless thief, we sometimes lose track of exactly who wrote for us and when. For many decades, the only way to find out if a certain person had been among our contributors was to fix a Buick-sized metal cabinet in the production office that included alphabetical index cards for every author since 1909. Authors more prolific ones might earn a one or two rubber bands to hold their multiple cards together; others – like John F. Kennedy – would find their submission alone entitled them to a solitary card, pushed between… John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy. (There are a lot of Irish in our 113s).

This system lasted until only six or seven years ago, when someone born eight or nine years ago decided that everything could be better managed by computerized text search, since our archives were digitized there years ago. Although I don’t like this change, digital search has the advantage of being almost instantaneous and full of pleasant surprises.

Walker Percy: “Writers and woodworkers alike have an interest in respecting the everyday tools of the trade, the feel of wood under the thumb.”

This was the case a few weeks ago when I went to get AmericaReview of Walker Percy’s The movie buff, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962. It was Percy’s first novel, but not his last; the prolific Southern writer, who died in 1990, wrote four other novels and more than a dozen non-fiction works, including a scathing mockery of the self-help movement, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, and a book of essays written a decade after his death by his longtime friend and biographer, Patrick Samway, SJ, Direction signs in a strange land. (Percy also discovered John Kennedy Toole, whose mother donated a manuscript of A confederation of dunces to Percy after Toole’s untimely death.)

Our review was nothing special, but the search bore other fruit: I discovered that Walker Percy himself had written for us a number of times, book reviews, articles on sociological or religious, social comments. Best of all, however, was this 1974 book review by Paul Horgan approaches to writing. Once upon a time, Paul Horgan was an even more famous writer than Percy – he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice – but that’s for another column: Percy’s review is in itself a delightful introduction to writing, full of concise observations on the craft and not without a healthy dose of Percy snark.

Pay attention, says Horgan, to such humble mechanics of the trade as spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax. Spelling! The moans of the second in creative writing already exceed Faulknering Faulkner – Horgan is a nag. No, Horgan is right,” Percy writes. “Writing is a profession like any other. Writers and woodworkers better respect the everyday tools of the trade, the feel of wood under the thumb.

“Writing for a living is, for some reason, the only occupation to which people still attribute a kind of demonism,” he continues. “This state of affairs is probably the last legacy of 100 years of bad romanticism, the possessed writer, the post-epileptic writer.”

Walker Percy: “Writing for a living is, for some reason, the only occupation to which people still attribute some kind of demonism.”

“Most writers, especially fiction writers, have their little quirks, aligning pencil and paper in some way, but these are less likely to be signs of madness than a very human concern to preserve what Horgan calls “an induced and prolonged distraction,” Percy writes. “Evelyn Waugh once reported that he found Graham Greene a bit odd because he had to run down the street and wait for a car to pass with a certain combination of numbers on the license plate before he could drive to the But Waugh should have had sympathy for the tremors and twitches and fits that can happen to a man trying to write a good sentence. Zing!

Percy’s friend, Father Samway, who for many years was Americathe literary editor of , finally wrote a biography of him, Walker Percy: A Life, in 1997. (Here’s a nice photo of the two together in 1978 at Percy.) Father Samway and Percy were both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the venerable publishing house that featured an intimidating list of writers accomplished over the years. years, from John Berryman to Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott and Paul Elie. Oh, and Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor too. How did publishers bring together so much talent in one place? Robert Giroux gave a hint: “The most disappointing of all lessons in publishing”, he once said, is that “a great book is often ahead of its time, and the trick is to keep it afloat until the weather catches up with it. ”

Robert Giroux: “A great book is often ahead of its time, and the trick is to keep it afloat until time catches up with it. »

In 2014 Boris Kachka wrote a story of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Tightwhich was reviewed by America Associate Editor Maurice Timothy Reidy. “Reviewing a book on a publishing house seems like a rather boring task,” Reidy wrote. “Who but the most ardent bibliophiles cares about print runs and the progress of authors? Does it really matter what appeared in the 1963 fall catalog? But when the publishing house is home to Nobel laureates and Pulitzer darlings and run by a Guggenheim, well, things get a little more interesting.

While the cosmopolitan and debonair Roger W. Straus Jr. was the public face of FSG, his secret weapon was fellow editor Robert Giroux (whose articles are archived at Loyola New Orleans thanks to the efforts of Father Samway). “A native of New Jersey who attended the Jesuit-run Regis High School in Manhattan, Giroux was the confidant and editor of TS Eliot and Thomas Merton, among others,” Reidy writes. “He helped bring seven story mountain materialize and was among the first to read Catcher in the ryea book his boss at Harcourt, Brace, turned down.

However, there is one book that eludes Giroux. “At Harcourt he published Jack Kerouac’s first book, though he was unsure what to think of a second novel which the mercurial writer delivered to his offices on a single roll of paper,” Reidy writes. “When Giroux told him they would need separate pages for editing, Kerouac reacted indignantly and fled. On the road was published by Viking six years later.

This brings us back to the loop, for I have no doubt that Walker Percy, with his love for “such humble mechanics of the trade as spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax” and his contempt for the writer “already more than Faulknering Faulkner”, absolutely despised On the road.


In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

John Updike: Suspicious of Santa Claus, but Loving Christ

Wendell Berry: The Grumpy Farmer, Poet, and Essayist You Can’t Ignore

Good reading!

James T. Keane