K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.02

The Moviegoer, Percy’s first published novel, won the National Book Award in 1962, beating out, among others, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The award gave Percy’s career a welcome boost after a long “apprenticeship” during which Percy, living off a substantial Southern aristocratic family inheritance, had written a variety of philosophical essays and two unpublished novels. Prior to that apprenticeship, there are a few other salient biographical details to consider.

Percy’s father, suffering from a family history of what Kierkegaard would call melancholy and what today we’d call clinical depression, committed suicide in 1929, when Percy was thirteen. Two years later, Percy’s mother died when her car plummeted off a bridge and into a river, also a probable suicide. Percy and his two younger brothers were brought up by a cousin, William Alexander Percy (whom they called “Uncle Will” and in whose memory Percy would dedicate The Moviegoer), a poet and the author of Lanterns on the Levee. Never mind Uncle Will’s homosexuality. He provided a safe haven for his orphaned young cousins and a sort of Southern aristocratic wonder world of culture and arts. People like Faulkner came by for mint juleps and lawn tennis. That sort of thing. There Percy also met Shelby Foote, who would become a lifelong friend and literary comerade. Down the years of their friendship, Foot preached Joyce and Proust and the Church of Art to Percy even as Percy (to Foote’s initial dismay) embraced Christ and the Catholic Church. From his teenage residence at Uncle Will’s, Percy went on to study at Chapel Hill (where the Percy archives now reside) and then to Columbia Medical School, completing his M.D. in 1941.

Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia which nicely summarizes what happened next, the key turningpoint in Percy’s life:

After contracting TB from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During this period Percy read the works of Danish existentialist writer, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. During this time (ca. 1947) Percy converted to Catholicism, as well as deciding to become a writer rather than a physician–as he would later write, he would study the pathology of the soul rather than that of the body.


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Uncle Will’s what? Huh? WTF?

  2. Henri Young says

    Golly, thanks for that link Quin.

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