Literature Annotations


Elliott, C. & Lantos, J., eds.
The Last Physician: Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine


Genre Anthology (Essays) (167 pp.)
KeywordsArt of Medicine, Catastrophe, Depression, Doctor-Patient Relationship, History of Medicine, Human Worth, Impaired Physician, Individuality, Loneliness, Love, Medical Advances, Medical Education, Medical Ethics, Ordinary Life, Patient Experience, Physician Experience, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Religion, Science, Society, Spirituality, Suicide, Survival, Technology, Tuberculosis
Summary

Carl Elliott and John Lantos have brought together a collection of 12 essays that explore the complex work and person of Walker Percy. Personal reflections and stories capture the importance of Walker Percy in the lives and work of several of the essayists, while others offer commentaries on various aspects of Percy's life and work. All of the contributors reveal their affection and appreciation of Walker Percy as physician, novelist, and philosopher.

In addition to the editors, the contributors include Robert Coles, who was Percy's friend; Ross McElwee, the documentary filmmaker; Jay Tolson, Percy's biographer; author and historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown; scholars Martha Montello and Laurie Zoloth; and physicians Brock Eide, Richard Martinez, and David Schiedermayer.

The collection covers many topics and themes. Percy's biography is reviewed: the early losses of his father and grandfather by suicide, the early death of his mother, his medical education and subsequent struggle with tuberculosis, his turn from medicine to philosophy and literature, his marriage and conversion to Catholicism, and his long and productive life as a philosophic novelist.

The essays explore Percy as both physician and patient, and how, as diagnostic novelist, he gives us characters and stories that caution about the technologic-scientific worldview that dominates not only medicine but western life. The many wayfarers are discussed, including Binx Bolling from The Moviegoer, Will Barrett from The Last Gentleman, and Dr. Tom Moore from Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. [These novels have been annotated in this database.]

Percy's spiritual and religious views are reviewed, along with his moral concerns about a post-modern world before anyone had coined the term. The problems of isolation, alienation, and struggle for meaning are apparent in all of his works, and many of the essayists explore the connection between his novels and these existential concerns. The importance of Kierkegaard in his work, his theory of language, and his early essays are discussed.

The contributors give examples of how Walker Percy's life and work are incorporated in medical education and the practice of medicine, both in personal and theoretical terms. Percy's work reminds practitioners of the necessity for human connection in the midst of scientific and technologic paradigms that distance practitioner from patient. Likewise, medicine and medical education shaped Percy the novelist, where keen observation and sustained searching for answers are to be found in all of his fiction.

A feminist critique of Percy's development of women characters, reflections on physician characters in Percy's work, his personal struggle with a family history of depression, and his attitudes about psychiatry and psychoanalysis complete the collection.

Commentary

As one of the contributors to this collection, it is hard to conceal my enthusiasm for Walker Percy and his work. As with many of the contributors, Percy shaped my personal and intellectual life. Affection and enthusiasm are evident in all of the essays. For those who are already fans, this collection will provide stimulation and further thought about his works. Many will be able to use one or more of these essays to assist with readings of Percy's work.

Extensive familiarity with Percy's novels or essays is not necessary to appreciate this collection. The writing is strong, diverse, and eclectic. There is something here for everyone--the teacher of literature, medical student, psychologist, theologian, writer, philosopher, scientist, and the medical practitioner, to name but a few.

PublisherDuke Univ. Press
Edition1999
EditorsCarl Elliott & John Lantos
Place PublishedDurham, N.C.
Annotated by Martinez, Richard
Date of Entry 11/16/99
Last Revised 12/21/99