Copyright/George Rodrigue

Copyright/George Rodrigue

It’s been a while since I’ve updated y’all on the Walker Percy Weekend festival we are planning for St. Francisville, Louisiana, on June 6-7, 2014. As it stands now, we’ve got a rough outline of the schedule.

Friday June 6:  ‘That’s Despair?’ opening night crawfish boil under the downtown live oaks, featuring Louisiana craft beers. (“I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That’s despair?” — Walker Percy)

Saturday June 7: Panel discussions in the morning and early afternoon. Front porch progressive Bourbon tasting in the late afternoon. Louisiana cuisine dinner and music under the live oaks Saturday night. Free tours of antebellum homes, the nuclear plant from The Thanatos Syndrome, the Angola State Penitentiary museum, and, we hope, the Wakefield fire tower, where Percy’s Father Smith takes refuge as a modern-day St. Simon Stylites.

The talks have been a little bit of a challenge to put together. My initial thought was that we should have lectures, but in consulting with other literary festivals, I learned that nothing puts a general audience to sleep faster than a professor giving a lecture. We were advised strongly to have panel discussions. Because this is not an academic conference, but rather an event aimed at the general public, we planners agreed that the topics for the panel discussions will be broad. Our goal is to promote interest in Percy’s novels, essays, and ideas among the general public. To that end, here’s what we’ve come up with:

CINEMATIC CATECHISM: Moviegoing And The Meaning Of Life. In “The Moviegoer,” Binx Bolling manages his gnawing spiritual hunger by greedily consuming movies. For Binx, movies and movie celebrities not only tell him how to behave, they also help him identify what’s really real. Why is Binx a “moviegoer” instead of some other sort of wanderer? This panel will examine the unprecedented power that film, television, and media culture has over shaping our sense of selves, and teaching us about the kinds of lives that make sense.

LOST IN THE COSMOS: Is Science Enough Without Religion? As a physician, Walker Percy was a man of science. As a writer, he was also a philosopher of science, one who was troubled by “scientism,” or the belief that science is the only authoritative way of knowing in our secular age. Science divorced from the Judeo-Christian ethic, said Percy, leads to the gas chamber. Was he an alarmist — or a prophet? With science and technology becoming more dominant, and traditional religion on the decline, what are the stakes for everyday life in the 21st century? Panelists will also consider whether religion and science can be reconciled.

THE MESSAGE IN THE MOSAIC: The Jewish People As Sign. Though a devout Roman Catholic, Walker Percy saw the Jewish people and their persistence through history as one of “the only two signs of significance” in the modern world. What did he mean by that? And what does that have to do with what he called “that Jewish sect, Catholicism”? This panel will discuss Percy’s views on what the Jewish presence in history means, and what contemporary Christians and others should learn from the Jews.

PLACE AND NON-PLACE: Walker Percy And The Search For Home. “Free people have a serious problem with place, being in a place, using up a place, deciding which new place to rotate to,” Percy wrote. Why are we so restless? Why do we crave rootedness, yet also fear it? Many characters in Percy’s fiction define themselves by their places. What do our places and their particularities tell us about ourselves? Is the “geographical cure” for alienation possible? Why did Percy consider the modern South increasingly a “non-place,” yet thought his Eden was “a small Southern town [where] one can live as one pleases”? Panelists will explore Percy’s paradoxical sense of place, and why it matters to us restless moderns.

We are going to have two panels in the morning, and two in the afternoon. One set will be at Temple Sinai, a restored (deconsecrated) synagogue that was used in the 19th and early 20th century by our town’s Jewish citizens. The other set will be a block away at the Old Courthouse, which has a deep Atticus Finch vibe to it. number of professors have been in touch with us, offering to come and participate. We hope to draw as many as possible; I suspect most of the Percy discussions will take place not in a formal setting, but under the oak trees and strolling down Royal Street, among friends new and old. I’m not sure who is going to be on the panels yet. Much depends on who can pay their own way to St. Francisville to speak. We have a limited number of commitments for housing scholars — this, from area bed-and-breakfasts and inns — but at this point, we have no money to pay traveling expenses, or to give an honorarium. Our hope is to raise enough sponsorship money to pay our speakers. But we also have to pay the caterer (we’ve secured the great young Louisiana chef Cody Carroll of Hot Tails to stuff us full of crawfish, chicken and sausage gumbo, seafood, bread pudding, and more, on those two nights), as well as others.

Would you be interested in participating as a panelist? Better yet, would you, your company, or your institution be willing to make a tax-exempt donation at the sponsor level? The festival is being staged by the Julius Freyhan Foundation, a 501(c)3 arts and culture institution here in St. Francisville. Please drop me a line at rod.dreher (at) gmail.com for more information, including how you can get involved.

The artist George Rodrigue has generously given us permission to use his portrait of Walker Percy to make our festival poster. We couldn’t be happier. We hope this festival will not only build interest nationwide in Percy’s writing and thought, but also create awareness among Louisiana folks, and people throughout the South, of the great cultural treasure that we have in Walker Percy and his legacy. And we want this to be fun. To my way of thinking, very little is as delightful as sitting around in the shade of an oak tree, drinking cold beer and talking about the South, and books, and ideas with other people who love them as much as I do. If you’re that kind of person too, please mark your calendars. Follow us on Twitter at @walkerpercyfest; we’ll be sending out updates as they come in.