Walker Percy Weekend 2017 draws nigh! I was at Q Ideas last week, and had a couple of conversations about Walker Percy. In both cases, I said, “You know we have a literary festival celebrating him in my hometown, right?” My interlocutors did not. It’s true! I read it in The New Yorker:
One of Dreher’s favorite writers is Walker Percy, whose novel “The Moviegoer” is set in a fictionalized version of West Feliciana Parish, where St. Francisville is situated. (Every year, Dreher hosts a Walker Percy Weekend, combining lectures from literary scholars with crawfish, bourbon, and beer.) Binx Bolling, the book’s protagonist, is a young stockbroker who finds himself on “the search”—the search being “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the every-dayness of his own life.” Binx explains, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Well, look, you won’t be in despair if you come to our little party in the West Feliciana hills. Here’s the line-up of speakers and topics:
Walker Percy And The Benedict Option: Confronting The Culture Of Death. Presented by Ralph Wood/Baylor University. In his prophetic mode, Percy said we are living through the birth of a post-Christian order that worships technology and the will to power, and that thus devalues life’s sacredness. Drawing on Percy’s scorching estimate of contemporary American life—in his novels and essays as well as his involvement in the Civil Rights struggle—Wood explains why Percy’s diagnosis may find its healing remedy in Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. For Percy and BenOppers alike, we need new countercultural movements to defend and preserve what is uniquely human.
Walker Percy And The Burden Of History. Presented by Patrick Connelly. One of the most famous lines in Southern literature comes from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Walker Percy’s essays and novels acknowledge the enduring power of the ever-present past, but, argues Patrick Connelly, the burden of history does not lead him to fatalism or despair. Drawing on personal biography, the saga of Southern history, the American narrative, and world-historical themes rooted in religious and philosophical convictions, Percy presents the burden of history not simply as the crushing weight of the past but in terms of the responsibilities we share as creatures of hope and history.
The Devil Went Down To Georgia: Flannery O’Connor and the Religion of Me, Myself, and I. Presented by Jessica Hooten Wilson/John Brown University. The modern age is one of self-worship, putting us in thrall to a false idol and a pseudo-religious vision that leaves us blind to the human condition. In her fiction, Flannery O’Connor, the self-described “Hillbilly Thomist,” fought hard for the Real and the True. Wilson explores O’Connor’s anti-modern iconoclasm, and the lessons O’Connor has to teach readers struggling to make sense of contemporary problems.
Walker Percy’s Blues: Suffering And Self-Discovery in ‘Love In The Ruins’. Presented by Dr. Ralph Beaumont. Percy’s fiction and personal life are filled with experiences of melancholy, and various complex and searching responses to it. Not least among these is a concern with the sense of Self, and the Self’s relations with others. Psychoanalyst Ralph Beaumont explores some philosophical, psychological, and spiritual paradoxes related to this theme as it is manifest in Percy’s third novel, Love in the Ruins.Dr. Beaumont will also raise questions about how these issues may correspond to aspects of Percy’s own life and development.
Just before the Front Porch Bourbon Tour, we’ll be hearing from Harrison Scott Key, author of the Southern memoir The World’s Largest Man, which — no kidding — is the funniest book I have ever read not titled A Confederacy of Dunces or written by P.G. Wodehouse. When I sent a copy to a friend in New Orleans, she wrote back:
Dammit, this book is too funny. I laugh till I can’t see the words for the tears in my eyes, and I’m going to go bankrupt buying it for everyone I know.
Here is the prologue:
When I left Mississippi many years ago, I would sometimes come back to visit my parents, and at some point, my mother and I would end up in the kitchen, while my father sat in the living room watching America’s Most Wanted and trying to decide which of his neighbors were lying about their identities.
She would be cooking, and I would be watching her cook, and she would ask me this Very Important Question. She started asking it about twenty years ago, and has never really stopped. I still remember the first time.
“Did you have a happy childhood?” she asked.
She is a needy woman, but when you’re married for forty years to a man who has the emotional tenderness of a Soviet far tractor, it’s easy to be needy.
“I need to know,” she said. “I need to be validated.”
I bought her a Deepak Chopra book once, and this is how she started talking.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I have no memories of being molested.”
“Molested?” she said. “What are you talking about? By who?”
“I want to know. Who didn’t molest you?”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“Because it never happened.”
“Are you hearing this?” she said in the direction of my father, who now slept soundly in his big chair, dreaming of home invasions.
Harrison Scott Key ain’t right. Here’s a piece from a humor column he wrote in The Oxford American:
I arrived in my new home on a bleak winter afternoon, greeted by miles of fence line. I’d been admitted to Texas A&M University-Commerce, similar to the original A&M in that both institutions enroll many students who wear cowboy hats on days besides Halloween. A&M-Commerce was considered something of a satellite by Aggies, a lesser place, smaller and poorer, although in many ways it felt more authentically Texan, the livestock outnumbering the faculty by a large margin.
I had been invited to study with a cowboy playwright, which sounded exciting. Wow! What did a cowboy playwright do? He’d wear a cowboy hat, for sure, and would ride a horse to the theater, and would probably have a gun and shoot the bad actors.
The town lacked all the accoutrements of most college towns—the bookstores and art galleries and Greek Revival structures where one might be sexually assaulted by the sons of plutocrats. I did find the most amazing coffee shop in North America. You could smoke there, and you could order a special drink called a “Blizzard.” The name of this place was “Dairy Queen.” It became my refuge. Every day, I sat there reading the plays of Beckett and Ionesco, their spiritual declension deepening my own.
“More coffee?” the girl said, in her Texas-y way.
“No, ma’am, just Diet Coke.”
“How much ass you want in it?”
“Ass,” she said.
I didn’t normally put ass in my Coke, but felt I should be open to new experiences. She took the cup back to wherever they kept the ass, and I thought: Texas is full of surprises. But all she brought back was a cup of ice, and I got even sadder. I’d met so many kind and warm people in those first days, but couldn’t shake the desolation of the place, the nowhere-ness. Don’t mess with Texas? Gladly. All I’d found so far were free refills of ass.
I know he’s not making this up because I married a Texan, who once told her daddy in my hearing that there was “ass all over the streets” of New York City. She was describing a freak Easter weekend snowstorm in our new home.
But I digress.
You know you want to come hear these talks, and you know you want to talk to Harrison Key about the ass in his bourbon cocktail while standing on Royal Street. You know you want to eat boiled crawfish and drink cold Louisiana craft beer with Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell (one of Walker and Bunt’s daughters), our speakers, this blog’s all-star team members Franklin Evans, Bernie, Leslie Fain, Jon F., and others. It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Peter Augustine Lawler wrote this about the first one, back in 2014:
To sample from Walker Percy’s description of the man who raised him, it was one of a kind, and I’ve never been to anything remotely like it. … People came from far and wide because they either loved the writing of Walker Percy (most cases) or loved the idea of loving the writing of Walker Percy. For most people, it was a kind of vacation, with lots of couples and more than a few kids. There were doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors (but not that many), members of the clergy, editors, think-tankers, retirees, businessmen and businesswomen, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial public intellectuals, an architect or two, an assistant principal from the Bronx, an official with the SEC (a football conference), and many others I didn’t get to meet. And I should probably say more than a few words of about the extraordinary religious diversity of the participants.
Hardly anyone was on the make or even networking. Nobody was cynical about the significance of the event. So everyone was taking a vacation from the despair of diversion, the despair one of Percy characters smelled on the people he saw in museums and surely he would have smelled on the tourists who come to St. Francisville to tour the plantations in the area. No one thought that Percy was an historical period piece or had diminished relevance because he is dead or was white or male. Sounds a lot like some Chautauqua thing, you say. But there are big differences — gourmet Louisiana food, an emphasis on drinking both bourbon and beer, and country music. It was a very southern or completely unpuritanical experience. It was, in the precise sense, an aristocratic or leisurely experience, the South at its finest. Leisurely means, of course, highly relational and somewhat mannered. I enjoyed every moment, but it is a struggle for me to be relational all day and all night long.
Another difference: The festival wasn’t about being edified in general but about a particular man who was about telling us what we most need to know to live well. He’s also the one who tells us what almost no one else does: why it’s better to be a dislocated human being than a contented chimp.
There really isn’t a better place in the country to be dislocated and wayfaring on the first weekend of June this year. So come see us. There are still tickets available, but do not put off buying them. We always have a few people who think they can show up on festival weekend and get an all-inclusive ticket. You can’t. Click right here to buy your tickets. To learn more about this year’s event, go to www.walkerpercyweekend.org.
Hey readers, if you’re planning to go to the Weekend this year, let’s figure out some way to do a meet-up. It’s very hard for me to sit still for more than ten minutes at this thing, given my responsibilities as one of the hosts. But y’all want to try to do something?