Walker Percy (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an Alabamian Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age." His work displays a unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.
Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, as the first of three boys, to LeRoy Pratt Percy and Martha Susan Phinizy. His father's Mississippi Protestant family included his uncle LeRoy Percy, a U.S. Senator, and LeRoy Pope Percy, a Civil War hero. Prior to Percy's birth, in 1917, his grandfather committed suicide, setting a family pattern of emotional struggle and deaths that would haunt Percy throughout his life.
In 1929 when Percy was 13, his father committed suicide; and his mother took the family to her mother's in Athens, Georgia. Two years later, his mother died in a car crash when she drove off a country bridge and into Deer Creek near Leland, Mississippi, an accident which Percy regarded as another suicide. Walker and his two younger brothers, LeRoy (Roy) and Phinizy (Phin), moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where their second cousin William Alexander Percy, a bachelor lawyer and poet, became their guardian and adopted them.
Percy was raised an agnostic, though nominally affiliated with a theologically liberal Presbyterian church. "Uncle Will" introduced him to many writers and poets and to a neighboring boy his own age: Shelby Foote, who became his lifelong best friend. Later, he and his wife would both join the Roman Catholic Church. Percy insisted on being confirmed with the children, as a sign of his new life.
As young men, Percy and Foote decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. But, when they arrived at his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to talk to him. Later on, he recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.
Percy joined Foote at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was initiated into the Xi chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He trained as a medical doctor at Columbia University in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1941. He also underwent psychotherapy to deal with the legacy of suicide in his family. After contracting tuberculosis from performing an autopsy while interning at Bellevue Hospital Center, Percy spent the next several years recuperating at the Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake, New York in the Adirondacks.
During this period, Percy read the works of the Danish existentialist writer Søren Kierkegaard, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky; he began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. Having been influenced by the example of one of his college roommates to rise daily at dawn and go to Mass, Percy decided to convert; and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1947.