Alabama has its share of famous citizens, but when discussing literature, the conversation often stops and starts with Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and, if one is feeling generous, Winston Groom. Those are impressive names, but when discussing Southern literature, Alabama is often wedged between the Georgian Flannery O’Connor on the one side, and the Mississippians Eudora Welty and William Faulkner on the other. Yet Birmingham can claim the novelist Walker Percy as one of its own.
Born here at St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1916, Percy spent his formative years in the Magic City before relocating to Athens, Georgia, and then finally moving to live with his famous uncle William Alexander Percy in Greenville, Mississippi. There he befriended a young Shelby Foote and would eventually settle down in Covington, Louisiana, and write several of the most consequential novels of the late Twentieth Century. While much of life was lived outside of Alabama, these early years among the hills of Mountain Brook and Birmingham’s Southside show up most prominently in Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman.
The Percys were an Old South family, well known back in Greenville, Mississippi, and then ensconced in the New South city of Birmingham. The author’s grandfather, also named Walker, settled in Birmingham in 1886, marrying Mary Pratt Debardeleben, and securing work as a lawyer within Birmingham’s burgeoning coal and steel industries. He was a founding member of the Country Club of Birmingham, and portraits of both he and his son LeRoy Percy still hang in the club today to mark their terms as president, Walker in 1909 and LeRoy in 1925. Just as the elder Walker had married into the prominent Pratt and Debardeleben families, LeRoy married Mattie Sue Phinizy of a likewise prominent Georgia family.
Walker Percy’s childhood was a tragic one, losing his namesake grandfather to suicide while just an infant. His father also took his own life when Walker was 13. His mother died later, when Walker was 15, in what the author also considered a suicide. Yet despite the suicides of his grandfather, father and possibly his mother, he went on to make sense of life amid deeply held religious faith and left the world with an array of novels, letters and essays.
His time in Birmingham corresponds with a number of important institutions and traditions. The great author often made the drive from the Southside over the mountain into Mountain Brook, and gives us fresh eyes to see Birmingham and Mountain Brook as they were then —new, troubled, invigorating and blooming with possibility.
Young Walker and his two brothers, LeRoy and Phinizy, attended the Birmingham University School, which would later merge with the Brook Hill School to become the Altamont School. Percy biographer Jay Tolson notes the boys’ friends and classmates were the sons of the young city’s elite, suggesting that this was the world in which Walker grew up. All the same, Walker spent a great deal of time in Five Points South, then as now, a lively, bustling neighborhood of diverse residents and businesses. Walker’s father moved his young family into his father’s home on the corner of Highland and Arlington Avenues, a large gothic home that had been the sight of the elder Walker’s suicide in 1916.
While his father was an Episcopalian, Percy’s mother was a Presbyterian. Upon their marriage, LeRoy and Mattie Sue joined South Highland Presbyterian Church, only to follow the Rev. Henry M. Edmonds when he left South Highland to form Independent Presbyterian Church in 1915. While little is known about their devotion to the theological shift that led to IPC’s formation, the Percy family was an important building block to one of Birmingham’s most beautiful and storied congregations.
LeRoy Percy found his own legal career to be very prosperous and in 1924 moved his family over the mountain to the new suburb of Mountain Brook, on a tract of land that would overlook the soon-to-be-built Country Club of Birmingham. Designed by famed Birmingham architect Hugh Martin, the home is today occupied by Tony and Dana Davis. Like the home Percy described in The Last Gentleman, it sits on a slight hill, overlooking a beautiful golf course. The home has long been a source of intrigue for Percy fans, allowing the Davises to assist Percy’s biographer, Jay Tolson, and hosts numerous Percy fans, including Shelby Foote, the noted author of The Civil War and Percy’s friend since high school.
Tolson’s biography is not the only one to offer great detail on Percy’s life in Birmingham. In Walker Percy: A Life, Father Patrick Samway of Saint Joseph’s University provides readers not just with the narrative of Percy’s time in Birmingham up to and including its tragic end, but also weaves in powerful examples from Percy’s work that parallel his young life in Birmingham. Perhaps the most delightful anecdote is the tale of Percy and his brothers attending Camp Winnepe in Eagle River, Wisconsin. The camp was directed by Coach Homer Thomas of Birmingham, and one of its counselors was a young football player from the University of Alabama, Paul W. Bryant, nicknamed “Bear” and destined to roam the sidelines of Legion Field and Denny Stadium for three decades.
Samway went on to further detail Percy’s Birmingham life in a brief book entitled Walker Percy in Birmingham, which was created for The Altamont School’s centennial celebration. (Good luck finding a copy—the press run was limited to 500 copies.)
In many ways Walker grew up with Birmingham. He saw his first movies in Five Points South, an experience reimagined in The Moviegoer. When Charles Lindbergh came to Birmingham, Walker and his family were among those who greeted him at the Tutwiler Hotel. At the Country Club of Birmingham, LeRoy once surprised members by introducing a surprise partner for a round of doubles: the famed golfer Bobby Jones, who was an old friend of Mattie’s family back in Georgia. While much of the Percy family’s life in Birmingham was marked by tragedy, they moved in and out of many of Birmingham’s, and Mountain Brook’s, most important moments in the early Twentieth Century.
All in all, to know Percy and his life story is to know Birmingham and Mountain Brook in their infancy and their promise.
Recommended Walker Percy Reading
Percy’s first novel, which won him the National Book Award in 1962.
The Last Gentleman
A disenchanted lawyer on a search for meaning finds himself with a family in a house along a golf course, a setting that should be awful familiar to Birmingham residents.
Love in the Ruins
A scientist searches for love and meaning in the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Louisiana.
Signposts in a Strangeland
A collection of Percy’s best essays, including his essay “Bourbon,” which includes his recipe for mint juleps.
Biographies & More:
Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy
By Jay Tolson
Perhaps the best-known Percy biography, Tolson’s work shows Percy as Twentieth Century pilgrim, very much like his own protagonists.
Walker Percy: A Life
By Patrick Samway
A fine biography with a strong emphasis on Percy’s Catholicism.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage
By Paul Elie
A literary biography of the letters and friendships shared between Percy, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor.