Today, a story about criticism, creativity, and trust. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
"My wound is geography!" cries the damaged hero in The Prince of Tides. Of course that's author Pat Conroy lamenting his own wound. Our literature is full of fine Southern writers whose fathers wounded them in some way. James Agee was six when his father died in a car accident. That violation of a child's trust wells up all through Agee's writing. Then there's Walker Percy:
Percy's father committed suicide in 1929. Percy was only 13. His uncle raised him and sent him off to medical school. He finished in 1941 -- then spent WW-II fighting tuberculosis. In the sanatorium he began reading philosophy. He recovered from tuberculosis, but not from philosophy. He became a Roman Catholic. He also gave up medicine -- first to study, then to write.
The hero of his first book, The Moviegoer, was Binx Bolling. Bolling, like Percy, was the son of faded Southern gentility and a suicidal father. The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award, ahead of Heller's Catch-22 and Salinger's Franny and Zooey.
Percy became one of our great 20th-century writers. Yet through every remaining book there moved an anti-hero scarred by a father's suicide. Percy announces that scar in the very first line of The Moviegoer -- a heart-piercing quotation from Kierkegaard:
... the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.
Percy submitted The Moviegoer in 1959. The editor, Stanley Kauffmann, liked the new genre Percy had invented. But, however brilliantly the manuscript began, Kauffmann sighed, it lapsed into loose ends and unclear plot lines.
Heather Moore studies the Kauffmann/Percy letters and finds a poignant dimension in their collaboration. For a year, Kauffmann edited and Percy accepted criticism -- hearing it out, drawing lines in the sand here and there. All the while, mutual respect grew. Moore is confident that some of the book's strength derives from Percy's quiet resistance. A lot of the ambiguity lingers to tease the reader's mind.
Yet Percy also made fine use of Kauffmann's criticism. For example, we're astonished to find Kauffmann suggesting.
... your novel might well be served by a brief epigraph -- possibly from Keirkegaard.... One piercing knife thrust ...
So Percy made a literary triumph despite lukewarm publishers who missed the point and fired Kauffmann before the book came out.
And as we read their letters, we see Percy receiving Kauffmann as more than just a critic -- as a replacement father to trust at last. In that Percy was no exception. I tell this tale because every inventor finds someone to trust that way -- on one equally deep and primal level, or another.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Moore, H., Walker Percy's 'The Moviegoer:' A Publishing History, The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas. Vol. 22, Nos. 1-4, 1991-1992, pp. 123-143.
Percy, W., The Moviegoer. New York: Albert A. Knopf, Inc., 1961.
Hardy, J.E., The Fiction of Walker Percy. Urbana, Ill., University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Allen, W.R., Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Percy, W., Signposts in a Strange Land (Edited with an Introduction by P. Samaway). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
Conroy, P., The Prince of Tides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Agee, J., A Death in the Family New York: McDowell, Oblensky, 1957.
An extensive Walker Percy website: http://sunsite.unc.edu/wpercy/
I am grateful to William Monroe and Ted Estes in the UH Honors College, as well as to Heather Moore in the UH Library's Special Collections Department, for their counsel.