Remembering a legendary teacher
Walker Percy Wrote Under the Influence and Was a Better Writer for It
In the summer of 2011, I had dinner at the Italian restaurant Volare in Chicago with a few friends. Beneath the reverberating hum of the L train, while eating enough garlic and drinking enough red wine to begin emitting Italy from our pores, we discussed literature, politics, religion, and anything else worthy of debate.
The subject of my book on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walker Percy came up. I related to these friends, two professors and an editor and his wife, my exhilarating discovery of Percy’s obsession with Dostoevsky, which I had recently uncovered in his manuscripts and papers. I couldn’t contain my excitement and was rambling with blushing cheeks and hurriedly gesturing hands when one of my friends, the editor, interrupted me. “But why does it matter?” he asked. My ecstasy was instantaneously muted, and he took another bite of pasta. Yet, seeing my perplexed and disappointed expression, he continued, “It seems like you should make a bigger argument about what influence even means.”
He stressed the word influence. His suggestion continued to gnaw at me as I began writing my book, what became Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence (Ohio State University Press, 2017). What I realized in the process of writing was that my book mattered most because of what it revealed about influence.
My argument counters a false supposition about human nature that plays out in a couple of ways in literary studies: the sovereignty of the individual as it affects the motivation of the author as well as, for the reader, the necessary death of the author. In the 1970s, Harold Bloom, the guru of literary criticism, made influence a dirty word, claiming that it is both unavoidable and yet undesirable. All writers, argues Bloom, wrestle against their predecessors to come out from under influence, react against it, or overcome it.
My reading of medieval authors, however, seemed to resist Bloom’s theory. I often teach literature survey courses from Plato to Shakespeare, or even Aristotle all the way to Flannery O’Connor. What I noticed was an opposite attitude toward influence, especially among Christian writers. Consider how Shakespeare draws on Chaucer for his Troilus and Criseyde, which Chaucer initially borrowed from Boccaccio, who may have copied his Il Filostrato from Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Le Roman de Troie, which claims in its prologue to be derived from eyewitness accounts from Troy (Sarah-Jane Murray discusses this in the opening chapter of From Plato to Lancelot: Benoît gives credit to a discovered manuscript by Trojan Dares, “a supposed firsthand witness to the fall of Troy”).
These writers sought influence. This motivation did not fit in Bloom’s schema. Why would any writer choose to be influenced by another writer? Because the writers were not motivated by self-promotion. Rather, these writers believed that good, true, and beautiful stories should be shared anew in each new century and country.
Bloom, following writers from the Romantic poets onward, misconstrues influence as negative because he views the writer who is influenced as the passive recipient. Yet, if influence is unavoidable, as Bloom claims, then we should celebrate those writers who actively choose their influences and intentionally emulate the good. The alternative is the writer who struggles against the inevitable, only to produce work that is unknowingly and unwillingly enslaved to prior writers.
When I began to study Percy’s connection to Dostoevsky, I felt like Sherlock Holmes. I had a clue as to Percy’s debt to Dostoevsky but not much about what it meant or entailed. I hunted through his manuscripts, letters, book annotations, essays, and interviews to uncover how Percy himself perceived this influence and how it affected his work. I discovered an anachronism: a twentieth-century medieval writer. Percy wanted to speak to his American contemporaries about how to live the good life as he had uncovered it through his conversion to Catholicism as an adult. He hit a wall, in that the majority of his readers no longer found belief in God to be viable. To overcome this hurdle, Percy began searching the great writers of the past to find a master who could show him how to write about belief for unbelievers. And he wanted story to be his medium. As Percy writes in a letter to a friend, “Dostoevsky knew the answer.”
My book considers Percy and Dostoevsky as a case study for how influence could be viewed positively again in the arts. To echo my friend the editor, “Why does this matter?” If, on the one hand, a writer or artist views her work as self-expression, attempts to fly in the face of previous virtuosos, and convinces herself of complete originality, then the work produced will likely be a lie, for the writer has bought a delusion and her very motivation is suspect as self-serving. The work will be hard-pressed to tell the truth about reality when the artist cannot see the truth about herself. Moreover, such a compulsion perpetuates the illusion of individual autonomous authority, a dangerous heresy, which writers such as Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor suggest leads to violence. Words such as self-expression and originality sound harmless, yet they should be watchwords for artistic falsehood.
On the other hand, so much is to be gained by reading those writers who saw themselves as part of a universal and timeless conversation, who pursued permanent things, who imitated those who mastered the craft, and who bring forth for us again the truth in imaginative ways.
Percy, in his imitation of Dostoevsky, is such an artist.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University, where she also serves as the Associate Director for the Honors Scholars Program and the Director of Giving Voice: A Festival of Writing and the Arts. She is the author of three books Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wipf & Stock, 2017), Walker Percy, Dostoevsky and the Search for Influence (Ohio State University Press, 2017), and A Guide to Walker Percy’s Novels (Louisiana State University Press, 2018). Visit her website at jessicahootenwilson.com.
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