Walker Percy’s Fordham
By Miles Doyle
Walker Percy is not often associated with Fordham University, but, according to Gary Ciuba, Ph.D., a professor of English at Kent State University, Percy’s connections to the University are as deep and real as his Southern roots.
|Gary Ciuba, Ph.D., GSAS '79, '82, '86, connected Walker Percy to Fordham University at Alum-Inaries, an event that invites distinguished alumni back to campus to discuss their acadmic careers and fields of study.
Photo by Miles Doyle.
In 1954, a Fordham quarterly about ideas and culture called Thought published Percy’s first essay, "Symbol as Need."
“Percy’s first publication, aside form some college journalism, made him a Fordham writer,” said Ciuba, the author of Walker Percy: Book of Revelations (University of Georgia Press, 1991). "In a scant nine pages, Percy suggested the themes he would explore for the next 35 years in his fiction and nonfiction. The human being as symbol user. The symbol as a means to knowledge. The knowledge that is shared in the intersubjective act of naming."
Two years later, Percy returned to Fordham—this time for inspiration. He used the station outside the Rose Hill gates as the setting for a paradigmatic scene in his essay, "The Man on the Train," about a restless and alienated commuter traveling on the New York Central line who sees his life in a new light after suffering a heart attack.
"Percy’s Fordham publication was the medium that certified his writerly identity,” said Ciuba. "And I suspect that such an early affirmation explains Percy’s nod to the Fordham station out of all the available stations on the New York Central, when he published ‘The Man on the Train.’"
Percy, whose work focuses on existential questions, the South, and Catholicism, is best know for his novel The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1962. He became a Fordham author again in the fall of 1959 when Thought published his semiotic parable "The Message in the Bottle," which would later become the title piece of his 1975 collection of essays.
A few years later, Ciuba, who earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Seton Hall University, arrived at Fordham—via train—where he earned his master’s degree in English in 1979. He earned a doctoral degree at Fordham in 1982 and, four years later, earned a second doctoral degree at Fordham.
In 1990, Thought asked Ciuba, who wrote his dissertation on the apocalyptic vision of Percy's fiction, to pen an introduction to the journal’s reprint of Percy’s “Symbol as Need” in the their gala issue.
Later, Ciuba turned his attention to other Southern writers, like Flannery O’Connor, among others, before returning to Percy in 2002, at least in part, he said, because his adopted son is deaf— a trait shared by Percy’s adopted daughter, Mary Pratt.
"That sensory neural hearing loss led me to wonder about what it meant for Percy to write his fiction as the father of a deaf daughter," he said.
His current research involves bringing together Percy and deaf studies, a burgeoning academic field.
Ciuba laid out Percy’s Fordham connections at Alum-Inaries, a series that invites distinguished alumni back to campus to speak about their scholarly research and academic careers. Barbara Bono, Ph.D., TMC ’70, an associate professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, also spoke. A renowned Shakespearean scholar, Bono discussed gender and identity politics during her lecture, "Repetition and Remembering: Healing Sexual and Political Trauma in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale."
Sponsored by the Department of English, the event, which was held October 7 at the Rose Hill campus, was designed to foster the academic and professional growth of students, offering them living precedents for academic success. Alumni provide students with practical information and advice for students considering similar academic careers.
—Miles Doyle, FCRH ’01, is the associate editor of FORDHAM magazine.