[percy-l] A New Member and a Question

Michael Kobre kobrem at queens.edu
Wed Oct 7 13:41:35 EDT 2015

Thanks to everyone for your words of welcome and your responses to my questions.  Just being able to participate in this dialogue has helped me think about these issues.  For what it's worth-and building from observations by Rachel and Rhonda-I think that one reason why we all seem to perceive a lessening of interest in Percy stems from changes in the academic world.  Literary works live on, in a significant measure, because they're included as assigned readings on syllabi, and this is reflected, I think, in the changing reputations of Yates' and Percy's work.

Yates now has a comfortable place on syllabi in creative writing programs.  I've seen evidence of this over and over again in my work co-directing an MFA program for the last 15 years.  Yates, who had a long career of his own as a creative writing professor, is held forth-rightly-as a model of craft.  We might say of him, in comparison to Percy, that he is indeed "the better craftsman."  Where Percy struggled to respond to Stanley Kauffmann's repeated requests to work on the structure of The Moviegoer, Yates was a master of structure-and well-constructed scenes, manipulation of point of view, carefully selected details, etc.: in short, the very fundamentals of fiction-writing technique that creative writing students must master.

But, by contrast, the sly, nuanced, shifting voice of Binx's narration in The Moviegoer is largely inimitable.  And if Percy appears only occasionally in creative writing classes, he's also proven to be-at least in our current context-a harder figure to recover in literary studies, partly because  his demographic profile (a white, male southerner who's self-consciously descended from an elite class) and of his politics (sort of, kind of right-of-center).

What does this say about the qualities of each work?  I don't think it diminishes either, but it also perhaps leads to questions about what we look for in great novels.  To use Flannery O'Connor's terms, Yates is a novelist of manners and Percy of mystery.

At least that's my theory today.  Anyway, thanks for listening to these ideas in progress and helping me to think about them.  Now if I can only find the time to actually write that damn essay . . .

Michael Kobre

From: Percy-L [mailto:percy-l-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Karl M. Terrell
Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 9:15 PM
To: Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion
Subject: Re: [percy-l] A New Member and a Question

It was wonderful to read Isaacson's NYT piece on Percy's hurricane theory.  Wonderful to see our man discussed in the popular media.  Beyond that observation, I have nothing really to add to the interesting question posed from the academic perspective, except to say ... more power to you, and best wishes.

For what it's worth from a layman reader, the good doctor's observations of Wednesday afternoon despair in juxtaposition to Earth-rattling events are at the heart of what drew me to Percy in the first place.  I then recall someone on this list once responding to a heavily worded question, which asked, essentially ... what draws us to WP?  The response: "The charm of the man."  Perfect, I thought.  It captured the beauty of his writing, those marvelous sentences that flowed and flowed into our thoughts, and the grandeur of his ideas expressed with the grace and humor of a certain class of Southerner now disappearing from view.

My recommendation to all, come next weekend, is to locate Percy's remarks on the virtue of a mint julep.  But don't just read about it; make one and pour it into a tumbler,  and then sit on your porch and focus for awhile.

Karl Montague Terrell

Sent from my iPhone

On Oct 6, 2015, at 6:41 PM, Rachel Humphries <mrs.rachel.humphries at gmail.com<mailto:mrs.rachel.humphries at gmail.com>> wrote:
I've actually noticed that Percy has been popping up more frequently lately, at least in the NYT. There was the article, linked to on this list, on Percy's "Theory of Hurricanes" a month or two ago, and he gets name-dropped in the discussion of the "novel of ideas" in the Book Review last week.
I've been out of academia for a long, long time (to continue a theme), but I might be able to comment on his prominence in the "culture at large." It seems to me that Percy is still quite well-known, and studied, within certain spheres of interest: literature & religion, Southern/regional literature, literature & philosophy. However, outside of those, it does seem that his work does seem to grow more obscure with the passage of time. I haven't noticed that it comes with a reassessment of the quality of his work; it's not like people are saying "Meh, it wasn't as good as we thought it was." When it is discussed, it is with respect; it is just discussed less.
This, too, is merely perception.  I have no concrete evidence besides the total mystification of that guy at the gym who wanted to know what I was reading on the stationary bike (The Moviegoer). In pursuit of your evidence, it might be interesting to see if Percy is increasingly "siloed"--in other words, if he is mentioned most often by people who are also discussing another specific topic (Catholicism, e.g.).
Rachel Humphries

On Fri, Oct 2, 2015 at 3:15 PM, Michael Kobre <kobrem at queens.edu<mailto:kobrem at queens.edu>> wrote:
After a long, long delay, I'm happy to join the Percy-L community.  I'm a professor and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.  More to the point though, I'm the author of Walker Percy's Voices which was published a long, long time ago (there's that theme again) by the University of Georgia Press.  In my other life as a scholar, before spending the last 15 years as co-director of our MFA program in creative writing, I focused primarily on a Bakhtinian interpretation of Percy's work and tried to hear in his prose the sort of polyphony of voices that Bakhtin discusses.  Since then, when I've had the opportunity to write about Percy, I've tried to examine the parallels and connections between Percy and Bruce Springsteen (who's a lot louder and more famous than Bakhtin).

I'm working now, however, on an essay that examines the changing fortunes of the literary reputations of Percy and Richard Yates respectively.  Yates' signature novel Revolutionary Road had been nominated for the National Book Award alongside The Moviegoer, and both books-at least on a superficial level-occupy a similar territory, following the lives of their protagonists in the new suburban landscapes of America (although to very different effects).  Yates felt that his loss of the National Book Award dramatically altered the trajectory of his career; the sales of his books were at best uneven, and by the end of his life virtually all of his work was out of print.  And yet, over the last decade or so, Yates' work has enjoyed a significant revival.  Everything is back in print, and Revolutionary Road is now seen as a classic work of post-war American fiction and is-here's an important component of my argument-a canonical work within the discipline of creative writing in particular.

By contrast however, it seems as though Percy's work, which was far more celebrated when both Percy and Yates were alive, receives less attention these days.  Yes, there remains a loyal audience of Percy fans (I'm reaching out to many of you right now), but his work isn't taught and discussed in the same way that Yates' work is now.

At least that's my perception.  And this is one reason why I'm reaching out to all of you.  Do you agree that Percy's work and reputation have become a little more obscure to the culture at large?  If so, can you think of evidence that supports this perception?  Any thoughts on this or help will be much appreciated.

Michael Kobre, MFA, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of English and Creative Writing
Queens University of Charlotte
1900 Selwyn Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28226

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