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Walker Percy’s Hurricane Theory: An Existentialist Hope for Survivors of Katrina

by Deborah Burst

By Northshore standards I’m considered a local, not a native, living here for more than 20 years, across Lake Pontchartrain thirty miles north of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Most of us are transplants from the Big Easy seeking refuge under a canopy of piney woods and fresh water streams, pioneers carving homesteads and building new schools, the best in the state. But the people kept coming, so we rallied to save our greenspace and then Hurricane Katrina barrelled her way through our heartland. Tens of thousands of people rushed to higher ground on the Northshore to build a new future increasing the population of St. Tammany Parish by more than a third.

Forgive me for mentioning the “K” word. For some it’s a worn out story but with Katrina’s impact still very alive, and after reading Walker Percy’s Hurricane Theory, I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have done and thought after his ancedotal predictions of an euphorichigh following a major crisis.

The man and his community

At the age of 71 Walker Percy celebrated a milestone; he was the oldest living Percy on earth. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916 and descendant of a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family Percy was haunted by a lineage of suicides and questionable accidents. His grandfather and father died from self-inflicted shotgun wounds and two years after his father’s death, Percy’s mother drove off a country bridge into a bayou. An accident that Percy later believed to be a suicide.

He and his two brothers were adopted by his father’s brother, Uncle Will (William Alexander Percy). A bachelor poet and man of strict literary convictions, he provided a solid foundation for the boys with readings of Shakespeare and Keats, and Will later became author of Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son.

Percy completed his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a degree in medicine from Columbia University in 1941. His future in medicine ended when he contracted tuberculosis doing autopsies during an internship at Bellevue Hospital. In Linda Whitney Hobson’s book Understanding Walker Percy, she noted that during his recovery at the sanatorium he became enthralled with Danish nineteenth-century existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

In 1946, Percy married his wife Mary Bernice (Bunt) Townsend and shortly after converted to Catholicism and in 1947 moved to New Orleans. Three years later he found the small town of Covington on the Northshore. Percy’s family settled in a Cajun cottage along a sandy cypress forest on the winding banks of the Bogue Falaya River not far from Jancke Street, a country lane set inside a tunnel of live oaks and towering pines lined with turn-of-the-century homes and two Catholic high schools, St. Paul’s for the boys and Saint Scholastic Academy for the girls.

Founded in 1816, the town of Covington was a perfect fit for Percy, a community dedicated to its historic culture with century-old cityscapes and a mecca for artists and aristians. A town he described as “neither here nor there…just an ordinary place in the pine trees” and in a 1979 article in Esquiremagazine “a pleasant little non-place” where nothing worth mentioning ever happened.

Notebook in hand, Percy penned much of his work lying on his back whisking away the hours of everyday life along the lazy river that curled through the town. A shy man living an ordinary life unimpressed by his own fame, and according to the book Walker Percy Symposium 1992, driving his pickup to the post office every morning with his little dog Sweet Thing stopping at the fast food joint enjoying a bacon cheeseburger and chocolate shake.

He liked his freedom, didn’t like to travel and enjoyed staying at home with his wife and watching his grandsons Jack and David play in their yard. Many people sought him out asking the hard questions about his writing and his philosophies on life such as existentialism. “I don’t know what it means,” he would tell them. He wrote to escape what he called the everydayness of life.

In his writing and his personal life, Percy combined the mental, physical and literary search for community with his theological vision of a mystical, spiritual community where man becomes one with God. In his search he formed a lunch group that met every week at Bechacs Restaurant on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in a nearby town called Mandeville (the restaurant is now boarded up due to damage from Hurricane Katrina). Bill Binnings, a young sculptor at the time (and now nationally recoginzed artist), was invited to attend by a close friend of Percy’s, an artist named Lyn Taylor.

“Everybody was equal but I was aware this was a pretty exclusive group of people,” said Bill Binnings, who met each week with what he called a pretty consistent group of seven to eight people, writers, community notables and even a hitchhiker who was on a pilgrimage from California to meet Walker. “I gained a sense of authenticity, felt very comfortable.”

Binnings admitted there was a perennial sadness that loomed in Percy, perhaps a haunting from his family’s history of suicide. “He often discussed suicide on an intellectual level”, said Binnings. “And he wrote about it often in his novels.”

Deep rooted philosophies

A constant theme and foundation in Percy’s works is the Kierkegaard philosophies which follow three spheres of human behavior: aesthetic, ethical and religious. People move back and forth among the stages, although most in the post modern western culture live in the aesthetic realm and rarely move to the religious. They often don’t realize they are in despair, and Percy perceives them as the happy consumer who builds their identity through materialistic means–clothes, car and home. It’s an elitist image controlled by buying the right things to be accepted, to live comfortably with everyday life. Inside Percy’s aesthetic sphere characters try to escape from everydayness repeating abusive behavior such as drinking, drugs, and casual sex.

Percy takes both his hero and his reader on a “sovereign voyage” until they find the power to change their lives discarding the materialistic demons. Just as his character finds faith, the book ends perhaps testament to Percy’s belief that faith should remain a personal journey.

The Hurricane Theory

The hurricane theory is another theme within the aesthetic sphere where Percy dictates that in times of crisis people find they are freed from everydayness. Social habits are brought to a minimum. With no television or outside culture interferences couples find the lost art of conversation, eating and talking by candlelight, sharing a drink, making love more frequently without the pressures of career and family. Life’s priorities shift gears and for a short time, there is a rebirth, a desire to live life to its fullest.

Ironically his prophecy of the collapse of American civilization rang true with the social ills created by Hurricane Katrina. In his Hurricane Theorypeople come together with a renewed sense of energy and discovery in a sense of annihilation. When real danger saves them from the everydayness, they are happy.

My husband and I experienced this same “high.” We fought our way through jungles of debris days after the storm to witness our home pelted by trees, but questioned why we felt so alive. Although the eastern edge of the parish suffered storm surges and devastating floods, the remainder of the parish lay wounded with layers of ten-story pines strewn across homes and highways. But yet, we were calm, we blamed it on surges of adrenaline. Survival of the fittest and it lasted for months.

This story was repeated by many couples. No jobs, water, food or electricity. We worked hard from sunup to sundown clearing debris, ate by candlelight with food grilled on the barbeque pit and bathed each other with bottles of water distributed by national guardsmen. Our lives were made simple and we practiced the existential way of life, alone building our own world one day at a time. Everyone was affected; everyone was starting a new life. Even if you didn’t lose your home, you knew someone who did and often you housed this family for a long period of time.

But our fellow Americans came to our rescue. Thousands of volunteer groups poured in across the Louisiana and Mississippi coast and still do. People of all ages rallied their support taking their college breaks or week long vacations sleeping on cots working all day clearing debris, pulling out molded sheetrock, lending a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on.

Just as Percy predicated there are thousands upon thousands who have seized countless opportunities to build new lives, businesses and communities. You can literally feel the enthusiasm walking on New Orleans city streets and surrounding communities. We have all escaped the everydayness of life. Even our football team had a renewed sense of energy making the NFL championship playoffs–the first in their forty year history.

Close friend and one of the younger members of the lunch bunch at Bechacs Restaurant Lyn Taylor, in a recent interview, believed Percy would have realized his prophecies with Katrina’s recovery:

He wrote about people coming together to help each other, our government failing to act, and entire communities losing their social structure in Love in the Ruins and there was a hurricane in Lancelot. He would have been thrilled with Katrina because he would have felt so alive in the danger, horror, and destruction.

Percy died in 1990 but crafted six award winning novels, his first The Moviegoerwon the National Book Award for fiction in 1961 and today appears on many school reading lists. Writing was always a peculiar art in Percy’s mind. He wove his medical background, existential philosophy and Catholicism into a therapeutic theme of diagnostic storytelling dashed with shadows of death and suicide. His love for the south comes alive in his brillant backdrops and characterizations prescibing moralistic cures entertaining readers with a self-aborsbed poetic prose.

In Closing

I live only seven miles from downtown Covington where the residents still talk about Walker Percy and drink coffee with his wife Bunt each Saturday at the weekly farmer’s market. To think I lived so close and never read one of his books until after his death makes me sad. Percy called Covington his hometown and the people still love him. A trip to the Louisiana section at the Covington branch of the St. Tammany Parish library proudly displays a huge framed photograph of Percy, laid back in his blue jeans sitting on his porch swing. A couple feet away legends of the great philosopher stack the shelves, both his novels and books about him. Therefore, it’s time for me to get reacquainted with Mr. Percy and hope his Hurricane Theorystays alive in the hearts of people all across the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Visiting New Orleans and the Northshore

The soul of New Orleans is very much alive in its world renowned food and music. Hotels, restaurants and all the popular tourism locations welcome visitors with a heaping helping of southern hospitality. Ride the street car down Canal Street, visit the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium, stroll the historic French Quarter and waste away the day on a park bench in Jackson Square next to St. Louis Cathedral.

For more information about New Orleans visit www.neworleansonlinecom
and the Northshore, www.louisiananorthshore.com and the city of Covington, www.cityofcovingtonla.com.