The Walker Percy Weekend is an annual gathering in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Due to its setting in a small town with limited hotel and meeting areas, it has remained delightfully intimate.
Walker Percy was a novelist who lived in nearby Covington. His first novel won the National Book Award in 1962. He wrote a half dozen novels and other works dealing with philosophy, language and man’s estrangement from the universe. He was a convert to Catholicism and died in 1990.
The visitors to this event run to several types. First, there are people who love Percy’s work on a literary and philosophical level. Second, there are lots of folks who are Catholics, especially converts. Third, there are many followers of writer and blogger Rod Dreher, a local boy who has been involved in the festival since the beginning. Many are some variety of social or religious conservative, and some are regular commenters on Dreher’s blog.
This is the sort of festival where you can find yourself chatting up a young Jesuit from New Orleans or a woman from New York City, a lawyer who came to Catholicism on a journey that started in Pakistan. Then there’s the proud pagan, descendant of Balkan Jews, whose intelligent good nature endears him to many.
This year they invited some writers who have made names for themselves. Walter Isaacson has written many biographies, notably of Steven Jobs. It turns out that as a boy he knew Percy. I bought his book on Leonardo da Vinci and his Einstein biography.
J.D. Vance had a hit three years ago with his “Hillbilly Elegy.” It recounts his childhood in southern Ohio and how he was raised by his grandparents, hillbilly emigrants from Kentucky. The book is being made into a movie directed by Ron Howard with Glenn Close in the role of Vance’s grandmother. Vance was affable and approachable after giving his talk in the town’s Episcopal church, one of the few venues large enough for a few hundred people to gather.
David Brooks also spoke about his new book “The Second Mountain.” In his previous book “The Road to Character” he provided brief biographical sketches of people he admired. Now he has turned his attention to his own journey.
His talk was based on the best chapter in the new book, the one on his own spiritual development.
For the past decade I’ve followed his columns in The New York Times. He used to be a conservative political writer — I called him the apostle to the liberals — but he has written less in recent years about partisan politics. Instead, he has written about human psychology, about the nature and limits of reason, about the need for belonging and community, about character and living a good life, and now about his own spiritual journey. I found his tale moving and sincere.
We chatted on the front lawn of a lovely old home, a stop on the Bourbon crawl after the presentations and just prior to the crawfish boil. He cheerfully signed a copy of one of his books.
I used to watch Brooks on the PBS News Hour when I still watched TV. (When I mentioned to him that I don’t watch TV anymore he said, “Good for you!”) I felt as though I know him.
We talked about writing weekly columns, the tyranny of the word count, and the blessing of being able to write what we want. He was gracious and engaging.
Seeing old friends and making new ones has made this an annual event for me.