Author Walker Percy’s works celebrated at St. Francisville event

The first Walker Percy Weekend celebrating the author’s works wasn’t your ordinary literary conference.

Between panels of experts speaking about Percy’s life and writings at the event this weekend, celebrants enjoyed a crawfish boil and a bourbon tasting. And they toured Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Entergy Nuclear Plant — two sites that figured in one of Percy’s novels.

Organizer Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative and author of “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” said he wanted to create a fun festival that would celebrate both Walker Percy and the author’s home state.

“That’s why we’re having the bourbon tasting,” Dreher said. “There’s no better way to talk about ideas than when you’re having fun.”

Percy is best known for his National Book Award-winning 1961 novel “The Moviegoer” and for facilitating publication of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” A professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, Percy lived in Covington and set many of his novels in Louisiana. He died in 1990.

Locals and visitors from as far away as London gathered at Dreher’s home in historic downtown St. Francisville on Saturday afternoon, eating gumbo and discussing Percy’s significance.

Micah Mattix, a literature professor at Houston Baptist University and a contributor to the American Conservative and The New Atlantis, sat in Dreher’s living room talking to Ari Schulman, editor of The New Atlantis.

Mattix argued that Percy’s enduring legacy is of a novelist who recognized that fiction can reveal truths about the world.

“Here’s a guy who understood that literature is important and essential to life and to what it means to be human,” he said.

But appreciation of Percy’s work wasn’t his only reason for attending the festival.

“I love Louisiana, and it was an excuse to come back and have Louisiana food,” Mattix said.

After lunch, some festival-goers walked around the block to attend panel sessions at the St. Francisville Courthouse and Temple Sinai while others headed to Angola for a special tour.

Angola and the Entergy nuclear plant in St. Francisville were key settings in Percy’s 1987 novel “The Thanatos Syndrome.”

“Hard-core Percy fans want to see those places,” Dreher said.

The idea for the festival came from Audubon Pilgrimage Festival organizer Nanci Vinci.

“She came to my wife, Julie, and me and said we need a new festival to reflect the way (St. Francisville) is changing,” Dreher said.

The Walker Percy Weekend is meant to bookend the old Audubon Pilgrimage Festival, not replace it, Dreher said.

Vinci is also involved with the Julius Freyhan Foundation, which is focused on refurbishing the old Julius Freyhan High School in St. Francisville and turning it into a community center. Proceeds from the Walker Percy Festival will go toward the effort. When completed, the community center could serve as the festival’s headquarters, Dreher said.

He decided to focus on Percy in part because there were no festivals celebrating the author. Percy’s sensibility and focus on the place also reflect the tension between old and new in St. Francisville as well as the South as a whole.

The festival’s success astonished Dreher.

“I thought we’d be lucky to get 100 to 125 people. We sold 300 tickets, and we had to turn people away because we didn’t have the capacity. Next year, we’ll have the capacity,” he said.

Percy’s daughter Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell came from Covington to attend the festival. “I got an email from her and she said how much it pleases her that people are showing love and respect for ‘Daddy.’ That’s what she calls him,” Dreher said.

For the 2015 festival, Dreher plans to include other arts and literature of the modern South.

“This has shown that there is a real hunger around the country for discussion, fellowship and good food. People want to know about Louisiana,” he said.