Some of the web’s more prominent book publications have had Walker Percy on the mind lately. First, at Slate, Benjamin Hedin takes a look at the 1962 National Book Award committee’s decision to give Percy’s The Moviegoer top prize, cementing the New Orleanian’s status as a major figure in late 20th-century fiction. But as Hedin notes, a convergence of factors and colorful characters—including A.J. Liebling, Alfred A. Knopf, and Gay Talese—were involved in what many considered, if not a scandal, then at least a debacle, and potentially an unrighteous endowment of the prestigious award.
The short list for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction was remarkable, including a number of works today regarded as classics, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Yet the prize went to an obscure first novel by a 45-year-old Southerner, a doctor who contracted TB during his residency and turned to writing instead. No one predicted The Moviegoer by Walker Percy would win, and 50 years later, as we prepare to hear this year’s winner, it remains one of the great upsets in the history of the National Book Awards. But was the fix in?
Meanwhile, over at the Paris Review‘s blog, Spencer Woodman provides an account of turning to Percy’s meditations on hurricanes during his recent weathering of Sandy in New York. Woodman, reading The Last Gentleman by candlelight, was struck with a “lightheartedness that sent me into a blissful stupor that lasted through the storm.” When one thinks of the maddeningly frenetic ways in which many New Yorkers must go about their lives and work in order to pay rent and remain sane, such a condition as Woodman’s must be a pleasant release.
Keeping me company during those days was Walker Percy. I had picked his second book—The Last Gentleman—off my shelf after I recalled its strange depiction of hurricanes as philosophically rich events that visit mass existential relief upon entire populations crushed under modern malaise. For Percy, the transformative power of a hurricane lies not just in the immediate excitement, the break in routine it brings, but more so in a storm’s capacity to limit the range of human choice, its ability to deliver a whole city from the chaotic realm of the Possible back the unquestioning mode of the Necessary.
Finally, the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola University New Orleans has opened a call for papers for its second biennial Walker Percy Conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy and the 21st Century.” The center’s first conference, in 2011, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Moviegoer, attracted Percy scholars and fans from throughout the country, and launched what will likely be an important resource for the study and consideration of the author’s work and life.