Webster Bull's Reviews > Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him

Walker Percy Remembered by David Horace Harwell
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Feb 07, 2011

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Read from February 07 to 09, 2011

Probably a must for Percy junkies, this collection of oral histories from people who knew the Catholic author of "The Moviegoer" and five other novels is a mixed bag. Sometimes Harwell's interviewees talk more about themselves than about the author, and for long stretches. For example, his brother Phinizy was a PT boat captain with JFK in WWII and followed that up with dangerous submarine service, nearly getting killed in the Yellow Sea. It makes for good reading but it's irrelevant to Walker Percy.

Still, the last three interviews are worth the price of admission: with Percy's two brothers ("I don't think in the history of the world there have ever been three brothers who got along as well as we did," one says) and especially with "bootleg preacher" Will Campbell, who apparently was not just a friend to Percy but a sort of unofficial confessor. Campbell took Jesus's injunction to care for the poor and for prisoners in a completely impartial way. In the civil rights turmoil that rocked the south, beginning in the 1950s, he stood up for African Americans and for poor whites, whom he believed had been abused by the white gentry to help keep blacks "in their place."

Controversially, Campbell met and ministered to Ku Klux Klansmen, including so-called imperial wizard Sam Bowers, sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding the murders of two activists. Campbell tells Harwell: "There's nothing about ideology in the New Testament or the Old that says otherwise. You are to be with prisoners because they are prisoners, not because of the events, the transgressions.

"After the Sam Bowers trial," Campbell continues, "I went back to try and speak with him. This reporter was right behind me and he said, 'What are you feeling?' I said, 'Compassion,' and he asked why. I said, 'I don't know, I guess it's because I'm some kind of God-damned Christian.' He said, 'I don't think my paper will let me print that.' I didn't much think they would."
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