Graced by Walker

This is Fr. Samway’s second contribution to our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer. Read Fr. Samway’s first piece here.

In the early spring of 1988, I spent a week in Greenville, Mississippi, interviewing Walker Percy’s relatives and former high school classmates—men and women who had wonderfully clear memories of the 1920’s and 30’s. I remember asking one woman if she knew X, and then if she knew Y, and then if she knew Z. She stopped me at that point, put her hands on her hips, and said with a delicious smile: “Honey, everyone in the Delta knows 1,200 people!” Her words turned out to be prophetically correct. Later that spring, Josephine Haxton asked me if I would be her “date” for the annual award ceremony of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, since she would be mistress of ceremonies for the evening. I agreed, knowing that a “date” with a Roman Catholic priest would not initiate any gossip for her about potential suitors. It turned out that I was seated between Walker, who was receiving the award in literature, and Eudora Welty, who was receiving the lifetime achievement award.

It was a marvelous dinner, as I leaned back and listened to Walker and Eudora reminisce about high school parties in Greenville, Rosedale, Indianola, Cleveland, Clarksdale, Greenwood, and Jackson. Not only could they remember the names of their classmates, but the families of each of them, as well as arabesque-like family histories beyond count. I was mesmerized as Walker brought forth names and handled each one tenderly: Uncle Will, Shelby, Mary Elizabeth Yates, Roy, Sarah, Margaret Kirk, Dave Cohn, Hodding Carter, Jr., Charles Bell, Lige Collier, Louise Hawkins, Carrie Stern, Nana Pearce, Lelia Warren, Martha Dyer, Gerstle Mack, Margaret England, and Roark Bradford. As his poem, “Twilight of the Lives,” written in his senior year in Greenville, indicates, Walker had a maturity beyond his years, considering that he was then still mourning the death of both parents:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . So in the aftermath
When furrowed brows ease thoughts of life and death,
And contemplation sings in gold repose,
The wearied bodies trace no more this path
Of life, but draw once more an even breath,
Before the somber curtains gently close.

Walker always graced me. He had that knack of making you feel totally comfortable and free in his presence. I tracked his life, from his earliest days in Birmingham, Alabama, to his death in Covington, Louisiana, and grew to know him as only a biographer can do—and, fortunately, in my case as a friend and admiring critic of his fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes when I would interview him, he would stretch out on the family living room sofa, a sign to me of all those years when TB was with him, and he would turn on the TV (with no sound, since, thanks to the years he and his wife spent teaching Ann how to read lips), and he would invariably begin: “Do I have to say “testing, testing”? And then we would launch out into some part of his life. I tried not to interrupt him, just supplying a name or date if needed, always letting him go where he wanted to.

The last time I saw Walker alive was on Palm Sunday, 1990, about a month before his death. I was invited to join the Percys, including Ann and Mary Pratt and their families, to dinner. Afterward, everyone had something to do. Mrs. Percy went to the local nursing home, as she tended to do each week. The boys politely excused themselves and went to play ball and be with their friends. The others had errands to run. And soon Walker and I were alone. After Walker spoke for about an hour into the pin microphone, still nauseous from the cancer therapies, I said I should leave, just as Mrs. Percy came through the front door. I asked Walker if I could give him a blessing and he said, “Yes, please do so.” He got up, went down on his knees as I imposed hands on his head and said a prayer. I then asked if he would like me to help him up. “No,” he replied. “I think I will just stay as I am for a while.” I turned around, greeted Mrs. Percy, and walked out, whelming up with tears.

Yes, Walker, a man of great probity, who was both winsome and discerning, in addition possessing a mighty intellect and exceptional literary talent, continues to grace me—and I suspect all of his readers too.

Patrick Samway, S.J.


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    Wonderful Father. Thanks.

  2. Thank you so much for this, Father.

    My mother went to school with a bunch of the Spaldings (as did I, actually) and we were talking as we drove across Louisiana on Tuesday about the whole Spalding line and how Jack and Phinizy Spalding were related to the Percys. Something about the Southern ability to visualize all of these connections evokes the communion of saints. I think it’s becoming a lost art.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Very nice, Father. Thanks especially for the poem, which I don’t remember seeing before.

  4. Quin Finnegan says

    In the final analysis, it all comes down to prosopography.

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