Plans are underway for a second Walker Percy Weekend Literary Festival in St. Francisville — a welcome development for those of us who cherish the late resident of Covington who achieved international fame with novels like “The Moviegoer” and “Love in the Ruins.” More information about the festival, slated for June 5-7, is available at walkerpercyweekend.org.
News of the festival made us think about Percy’s deep love of Louisiana, a state he wrote about with a fond but critical eye quite often until his death in 1990. “As the question goes these days, what’s wrong with Louisiana?,” Percy asked in a 1985 newspaper op-ed that still rings true today.
“The state is beautiful, unique, and there are no better people anywhere,” Percy told readers. “If the United States takes pride in being a melting pot, in the sense that many ethnic types tolerate each other, that is, generally don’t kill each other as they do in Lebanon, here in Louisiana as amazing mix of people not only tolerate each other but by and large get along well and have a good time.
“But I don’t like what has happened to this state,” Percy continued. “The facts are melancholy and all too familiar. One need not dwell on them. Here’s a state richer in mineral resources than any other Southern state, the top gas producer in the country, possessed of the largest port, endowed with a natural wealth which in its use might have been expected to yield manifold benefits for its people. The upshot … its marshes plundered, and polluted, one of the highest cancer rates in the country, the loss of fifty square miles of wetlands yearly.”
Percy recommended a number of reforms, but his main suggestion was improving public education.
“Time will tell,” he concluded. “We either continue our present course and become a somewhat comic, albeit slightly sleazy playground for tourists and conventioneers — as indeed Louisiana is already perceived by much of the country. Or we can realize our unique potential, keep the good times, but conserve our natural wealth and that greatest wealth of all — our young people. There’s the hope.”
That was Walker Percy, writing in 1985. It’s striking to consider what has changed — and what has not — since he made those observations about Louisiana.