Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Finding Our Way Home (Admitting We Are Lost)

Walker Percy, The Second Coming
(New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980)

[“Did I once practice law, he wondered, and he remembered that he had, not so much from the smell of the books as from Slocum’s practiced coolness and his resolve not to be surprised . . . . [Lawyers] were good at keeping their own counsel and seeming to know something.” (p. 333)]

One evening in class, I made the speculative observation that one could read the fiction assigned in Lawyers and Literature as if it were a meditation on home (having one, or not, getting away from home, returning home, finding a place for yourself in the world that might feel like home, carrying a sense of home around with you, the person you are at home vs. the person you are at the office).

This idea of "home" is certainly a feature of Lowell Komie's fiction, although we rarely see his lawyer characters at home in the most literal sense. We might, with Komie, see his lawyers as struggling to find some sense of home away from home in the work they do.

We get this "sense of home" problem explored in the philosophical/existential sense in Walker Percy's fiction, and particularly, in his novel, The Second Coming.

Lewis A. Lawson notes the Prodigal Son motif in Percy's writings, "the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 17), who 'came to himself,' after having wandered away from his father in pursuit of the things of the world. In despair the son suddenly sees that all he has to do is to return. In his novels Walker Percy has always been creating parables of the Prodigal Son, who comes to himself, then starts on the road back." [Lewis A. Lawson, "Walker Percy's Prodigal Son," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 243-259, at 257-58 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)]

In reading J.S. Marcus's story, "Centaurs" we talked about, Sheila, the law student in that story and her acute ability to see, to see through, her school experience. We saw the ability as well in Rosie Sayer, the young black girl who Paris Trout shot and killed. Here is the way Alfred Kazin describes this ability in, Binx Bolling, the protagonist in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer: "In the secrecy of his own mind he is excited by the possibility of newly looking at life with the special, hallucinated feeling of discovery that he gives to the movies where he spends many of his evenings. He has become an enraputred observer of the human face, a man who is training himself to look steadily at the most commonplace things in his path. He has found some tiny chink in the wall of his despair-the act of looking, of seeing and discovering. He is a man who can look and listen, in a world where most people don't." [Alfred Kazin, "The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 93-103, at 95 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)]

Writers of fiction must, of necessity, work out a place for their own lives, philosophies, concerns and sentiments in their fiction. Some writers draw more closely on their own lives than do others. (There is an oft-repeated admonition to young fiction writers: writer what you know.)

Here is the way Lewis Lawson makes the point about the autobiographical element of Percy's fiction:

Percy needed to make neither a living [he had a substantial inheritance from his "Uncle Will," his father's cousin who raised Percy and his brothers after his parents death] or a statement [of his philosophical interests], but a life. . . . Percy had come to himself, washed up on a beach; he had to account for the voyage that he had been on when the storm hit and to explore the strange island. Unless he got busy he would perish. The themes in Percy's fiction reveal an unceasing effort to order and control those forces that lurk in the jungle back of the beach. The Percy novels, that is to say, are much more personal than many have thought them to be-behind that public world so brilliantly perceived is a private world that demands to be confessed.

[Lewis A. Lawson, "Walker Percy's Prodigal Son," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 243-259, at 246 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)]

I interviewed Lowell Komie several years ago and was acutely aware in doing so that I was tempted to him about the relationship between his stories and his life-how much of the stories are autobiographical? I decided that the question was so badly clichéd and so often held in disdain by writers that I decided not to ask it. Curious as readers of fiction are about the personal lives of an author, I found the question both naive and awkward. Writers are, rightfully, troubled by this worrisome question. I knew Komie would be as well. Komie did note during the interview: “If you want to know more about my life as a single practitioner, I might refer you to the story “Burak” . . . .” As awkward as I found the question about the relationship of Komie's personal life and his fiction, I wasn't quite willing to let it drop. Unwilling to ask the question, I took up a rather strange ploy-answering the question for Komie. With the danger of seeming to be presumptuous, I said this, on behalf of Komie:

I have put nothing into the stories I do not know first hand. I have tried to make it possible for readers to the see the world of law practice as a writer sees it. I’ve made no effort to set myself as a writer apart from who I am as I go about my work. But be forewarned, these stories are no more the real Lowell Komie than the stories can be dismissed as fiction; fictions have a real bearing on how we live. If I have created a quandary for the reader in making so much of my life into fiction while holding to the reality that my fiction is just that—fiction—then it is simply a problem for the reader to resolve. On this question, what is real and what is fiction, you must read Kafka’s parable, “Before the Law.” When you read it, we will talk again.

[James R. Elkins, Lowell B. Komie: An Interview, 25 Legal Stud. F. 225 (2001)]

Walker Percy was not, of course, a lawyer. He was trained as a physician, although he did not, like the physician-poet William Carlos Williams, actually practice medicine. (Percy graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in 1941. The following year, he was an intern in pathology at New York City's Bellevue Hospital doing autopsies when he contracted tuberculosis. He would never return to the practice of medicine.)

A good number of commentators, as well as Percy himself, have made reference to his medical training and Percy's observation that he views himself as a novelist being a diagnostician. Here is how Percy puts it:

To the degree that a society has been overtaken by a sense of malaise rather than exuberance, by fragmentation rather than wholeness, the vocation of the artist, whether novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker, can perhaps be said to come that much closer to that of the diagnostician rather than the artist's celebration of life in a triumphant age.

Something is indeed wrong, and one of the tasks of the serious novelist is, if not to isolate the bacillus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable. Not to overwork the comparison, the artist's work in such times is assuredly not that of the pathologist whose subject matter is a corpse and whose question is not "What is wrong?" but "What did the patient die of?" For I take it as going without saying that the entire enterprise of literature is like that of a physician undertaken in hope. Otherwise, why would be here? Why bother to read, write, teach, study, if the patient is already dead?--for, in this case, the patient is the culture itself.

["Diagnosing the Modern Malaise," in Walker Percy, Sign-Posts in a Strange Land 204-221, at 206 (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991)]

Percy goes on to say, in this same essay, that:

[I]t is the primary business of literature an art . . . [to be] a kind of finding out and knowing and telling, both in good times and bad, a celebration of the way things are when they are right and a diagnostic enterprise when they are wrong. The pleasures of literature, the emotional gratification of reader and writer, follow upon and are secondary to the knowing. [Id. at 207]

Percy may not have been a lawyer, but he was well-versed in the culture of lawyers. Percy's father was a lawyer (educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School where he was on the law review), and when he committed suicide in 1930-Percy was thirteen-the family (Percy's mother and his two brothers) was invited to Greenville, Mississippi to live with William Alexander Percy, who they knew as "Will." Will Percy, known to the boys as Uncle Will, was Walker Percy's father's first cousin. When Percy's mother died in a car accident in 1932, when Percy was sixteen, he and his brothers were adopted as sons and raised by Uncle Will. William Alexander Percy was not only a lawyer, but a poet, and while rooted in the old plantation south, he was a well-educated and sophisticated man and he no doubt had a significant influence on the young Percy. [William Alexander Percy] [For Percy's view of his Uncle Will, see: "Uncle Will" and "Uncle Will's House," in Walker Percy, Sign-Posts in a Strange Land 53-62, 63-66) (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991)("For to have lived in Will Percy's house, with 'Uncle Will' as we called him, as a raw youth from age fourteen to twenty-six, a youth whose talent was a knack for looking and listening, for tuning in and soaking up, was nothing less than to be informed in the deepest sense of the word. What was to be listened to, dwelled on, pondered over for the next thirty years was of course the man himself, the unique human being, and when I say unique I mean it in its most literal sense: he was one of a kind: I never met anyone remotely like him. It was to encounter a complete, articulated view of the world as tragic as it was noble. It was to be introduced to Shakespeare, to Keats, to Brahms, to Beethoven-and unsuccessfully, it turned out, to Wagner whom I never liked . . . ." Id. at 55) ]

Walker Percy, Sign-Posts in a Strange Land (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1991)(Patrick Samway ed.)

[Percy essays which were uncollected at the time of his death in 1990-essays on language, literature, philosophy, religion, psychiatry, morality, and life and letters in the south]

Walker Percy, like Albert Camus, was a serious student of philosophy. And indeed, we know that Percy read Camus, in particular, The Stranger and The Fall. (The Walker Percy library, which consisted of over 2,500 volumes, is now held by the University of North Carolina. An archivist note indicates that Percy's copy of The Fall is: "Heavily annotated by Percy, many text passages underlined, many page corners turned in.")

Percy is, in fact, sometimes referred to as a philosophical novelist. Although it might, as Alfred Kazin notes, be as well to see Percy as "a philosopher among novelists." [Alfred Kazin, "The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 93-103, at 102 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)].

On Percy's various philosophical interests, see: Patrick H. Samway (ed.), A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995) |

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1983)

["The book is a straightforward, poignant, and often hilarious look at what Percy called 'the loss of self and a possible means for recovery.'" - Ann McCorquodale Burkhardt]

Percy uses the following quote from Nietzsche as an epilogue to Lost in the Cosmos:

We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves . . . Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, "Each is the farthest away from himself"-as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.

In my own exploration of this problem in knowing ourselves - James R. Elkins, Archaeology of Criticism - I draw on the following quote from Nietzsche:

We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason: how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for? There is a sound adage which runs: ‘Where a man's treasure lies, there lies his heart.' Our treasure lies in the beehives of our knowledge. We are perpetually on our way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind. The only thing that lies close to our heart is the desire to bring something home to the hive. As for the rest of life-so called "experience"-who among us is serious enough for that? Or has time enough. When it comes to such matters, our heart is simply not in it-we don't even lend our ear. Rather, as a man divinely abstracted and self-absorbed into whose ears the bell has just drummed the twelve strokes of noon will suddenly awake with a start and ask himself what hour has actually struck, we sometimes rub our ears after the event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, "What have we really experienced?"-or rather, "Who are we, really?" And we recount the twelve tremulous strokes of our experience, our life, our being, but unfortunately count wrong. The sad truth is that we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we don't understand our own substance, we must mistake ourselves; the axiom, "Each man is farthest from himself' will hold for us to all eternity. Of ourselves we are not ‘knowers' . . . .

[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals 149 (New York: Anchor Books, 1956)][Finally, consider this statement of the problem by Nietzsche: "O sancta simplicitas! How strangely simplified and falsified does man live! One does not cease to wonder, once one has eyes to see this wonder!" Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 28 (Chicago: Gateway, 1955)]

The two major Walker Percy biographers: Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (Chapel Hill: University of Chapel Hill Press, 1992)


Patrick Samway, Walker Percy: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)

For Lawyers and Literature readers who want to pursue Percy's fiction, I recommend Percy's final novel:

Walker Percy, The Thantos Syndrome
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1987)

"The Thanatos Syndrome is a profoundly serious
and very funny novel which scans American culture
like a radar." [dust jacket, The Tattoos Syndrome]

I do not, in my reading of Percy, pay particular emphasis to the fact that Percy is sometimes regarded as a "Catholic writer" (whatever that means). On Percy as a religious writer, see: [Identifying Percy as a "Catholic" novelist |

On Percy as a "Catholic writer," one might consider Louis D. Rubin Jr.'s observations:

Walker was a Roman Catholic, and his novels were by design religious fiction, but unlike most of the Southern religious fiction that I have read (and Flannery O'Connor's, for all its accomplishments, is no exception in this respect), Walker's is not Jansenist; it is not written from a position of theological privilege located far above the struggle, judging the poor deluded sinners and consigning them to the fire. Unlike all too much of the religious fiction that I have encountered, when reading Walker's novels I don't ever get the feeling that the author is confusing his typewriter with the flaming sword wielded by the Avenging Angel, because this particular author includes himself among the sinful. His Catholicism is not a charter for smugness or arrogance. Nor is it an authorization of the self-important gesture, the self-congratulatory stance of the public martyr. In a later novel, The Second Coming, Walker's protagonist, Will Barrett, resolves to retreat deep into a cave and there await the ultimate confirmation of the existence of God and the end of the world; unfortunately, he no sooner takes up his desperate vigil than he comes down with a toothache. So much for the notion that God has an obligation to justify Himself to Will Barrett or Walker Percy.

[Louis D. Rubin, Walker Percy,1916-1990, 13 (1) Southern Literary Journal 5-7 (1990)]

For still another perspective on Percy, as a religious writer, Ann McCorquodale Burkhardt noted in a supplement to the program of Tom Key's stage production of Lost in the Cosmos, which premiered February 14, 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia:

[Shelby] Foote, when he learned of his friend's conversion to Catholicism, accused him of having "a mind in full intellectual retreat." But Percy subtly, some thought not so, wove his message of belief into all his stories. In his words, the artist always needed to be open to the "mystery" that could erupt in any of his characters which for want of a better word is called "grace." Because he was such a deft artist, his writing was not polemical, but rather inspired by his deeply held belief that the "heart's desire of the alienated man is to see vines sprouting through the masonry."

For an extended exploration of Percy's theology, see generally, Kieran Quinlan, Walker Percy: The Last Catholic Novelist (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). The LSU Press provides the following description of Quinlan's book:

Quinlan grounds the writer's concerns squarely in the context of the intellectual milieu of the 1940s, citing the influence of Jacques Maritain's The Dream of Descarte and the conversions of prominent contemporaries. He follows the future novelist through the events that would mold his sensibility: his father's suicide in 1929; his rearing by William Alexander Percy; and his contraction of tuberculosis and subsequent long convalescence. With a mind keenly attuned to philosophical nuances and an impressive grasp of semiotics and theology, Quinlan then deftly presents close readings of the novels, from the muted Catholicism of The Moviegoer to the explicit agendas of The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, and The Thanatos Syndrome . He shows how Percy contrasts Catholicism with Stoicism in Lancelot and The Second Coming . Quinlan also sheds light on the dense and often abstruse arguments of the philosophical essays, asserting that Percy, despite his early attention to existentialism, was actually a neo-Thomist rationalist who rejected Kierkegaard's irrational "leap of faith."

See also: John F. Desmond, At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy (Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing, 1997); Robert E. Lauder, Walker Percy: Prophetic, Existentialist, Catholic Storyteller (New York: Peter Lang, 1996)

On Percy's life, viewed in the context of other Christian writers, see Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) [The OCLC abstract of the Elie book notes that: "In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them, in works that readers of all kinds could admire. This book is their story, a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a 'Christ-haunted' literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them-the School of the Holy Ghost-and for three decades they exchanged letters, read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a 'predicament shared in common.' In this book Paul Elie tells these writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change-to save-our lives."] [See also: Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985)(Allen Tate, Carolyn Gordon, Walker Percy); Ralph C. Wood, The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988)]

My own reading of Percy, as I've indicated, is not as a religious writer, except in the sense reflected in Alfred Kazin's observation that Percy's writing reflects "a seeker who after being ejected from the expected and conventional order of things has come to himself as a stranger in the world." [Alfred Kazin, "The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 93-103, at 100 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)] Percy, in his "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World" comments on the philosophical/religious novelist:

Let me define the sort of novelist I have in mind. I locate him not on a scale of merit-he is not necessarily a good novelist-but in terms of goals. He is, the novelist we speak of, a writer who has an explicit and ultimate concern with the nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself. Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he is more apt to set forth with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless. One might apply to the novelist such adjectives as "philosophical," "metaphysical," "prophetic," "eschatological," and even "religious." I use the word "religious" in its root sense as signifying a radical bond, as the writer sees it, which connects man with reality-or the failure of such a bond-and so confers meaning to his life-or the absence of meaning.

["Notes for a Novel About the End of the World," in Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle 101-118, at 103 (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1975)(It will be of interest to students in Lawyers and Literature that Percy includes both Tolstoy and Camus on the list of writers who might fit his description, along with Sartre, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor)]

Walker Percy Interviews: | with Robin Leary |

On the Percy family: Lewis Baker, The Percys of Mississippi: Politics and Literature in the New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Notes on The Second Coming:

"If Will [Barrett] is towards-death, she [Allie] is towards-life, coming-to-be. If he remembers everything she remembers almost nothing. He is the complete man of his world, possessing all, but being toward 'nothing.' She has lost everything, has virtually nothing, not even language, but is open to 'all,' to Being itself. He has a mountaintop home but is homeless; she is homeless but making a home." [Sue Mitchell Crowley, "Walker Percy's Wager: The Second Coming," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 225-243, at 231 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)]

"The title is a brilliant epitome of the novel. . . . Yet again, the title refers to that experience so meaningful to Percy, 'coming to oneself.' One comes into the world, but it is a lifetime later that one experiences a second 'coming to oneself,' when one becomes aware of himself, really aware for the first time, of time." [Lewis A. Lawson, "Walker Percy's Prodigal Son," in J. Donald Crowley & Sue Mitchell Crowley (eds.), Critical Essays on Walker Percy 243-259, at 257 (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989)]

In reading Walker Percy's The Second Coming, you might keep in a mind a little parable he tells in one of his essays. It goes like this:

Two men are riding a commuter train. One is, as the expression goes, fat, dumb, and happy. Though he lives the most meaningless sort of life, a trivial routine of meals, work, gossip, television, and sleep, he nevertheless feels quite content with himself and is at home in the world. The other commuter, who lives the same kind of life, feels quite lost to himself. He knows that something is dreadfully wrong. More than that, he is in anxiety; he suffers acutely, yet he does not know why. What is wrong? Does he not have all the goods of life?

If now a stranger approaches the first commuter, takes him aside, and says to him earnestly, “My friend, I know your predicament; come with me; I have news of the utmost importance for you”-then the commuter will reject the communication out of hand. For he is in no predicament, or if he is, he does not know it, and so the communication strikes him as nonsense.

The second commuter might every well heed the stranger's “Come!” At least he will take it seriously. Indeed it may well be that he has been waiting all his life to hear this “Come!”

The canon of acceptance by which one rejects and the other heeds the “Come!” is its relevance to his predicament. The man who is dying of thirst will not heed news of diamonds. The man at home, the satisfied man, he who does not feel himself to be in a predicament, will not heed good news. The objective-minded man, he who stands outside and over against the world as its knower, will not heed news of any kind, good or bad-in so far as he remains objective-minded. The castaway will heed news relevant to his predicament.

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other 134 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975)

When we discuss Walker Percy's The Second Coming, there is, inevitably, a discussion of what it means to "search for meaning." Walker Percy, in one of his essays-I refer to it as the "two commuters" essay-talks about those who search and those who do not. [See, "The Man on the Train," in Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other 83-100 (New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)]. I highly recommend this essay. Or, in lieu of Percy's "two commuters" essay, you may take a look at his essay on "The Loss of the Creature." [Id., at 46-63]

Law school, notwithstanding its many distractions, can, of course, be a "quest for meaning." For my effort to make the case, and do it using law student accounts of their law school experience, see, James R. Elkins, The Quest for Meaning: Narrative Accounts of Legal Education, 38 J. Legal Educ. 577 (1988) [online text]

For those of you who found Allie, in The Second Coming of interest, you might want to read Carol Muske-Dukes, Channeling Mark Twain (New York: Random House, 2007)(a novel)

Holly Mattox teaches a poetry workshop in a women's prison, where the "speech" of some of the women prisoners reminds me of Percy's Alli.




Walker Percy: An American Apologist
The CS Lewis Review

Walker Percy

Walker Percy: A Documentary Film
YouTube video; film trailer; 2:06 mins & a
clip from the film
:: film website (the film is schedule for
release in 2011)

Walker Percy at Notre Dame
video; 9:56 mins

Walker Percy
video; talking about young writers

Walker Percy on Modern Alienation and Pascal

Eudora Welty & Walker Percy Introduced

video; William Buckley, "Firing Line"

A Lecture on Walker Percy
video; John O'Callaghan lecture

Introducing Walker Percy's The Moviegoer
video; 43:11 mins.

Lost in the Cosmos: Self-Help We Can Finally Believe In
video; 44:08 mins.; lecture by Peter Augustine Lawler

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