Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The African American Presence in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer"


One of the first posts on this blog focused on Walker Percy's Lancelot (1977) and his portrayal of African Americans in that novel. Since then, I have written about the African American presence in novels such as The Great Gatsby and also about the white presence in Gaines's Catherine Carmier. Today, I would like to write briefly about the African American presence in Percy's debut novel The Moviegoer (1961) which chronicles Binx Bolling's "search" for his own identity in a declining South during the post war years in the mid-twentieth century. The novel takes place over Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and as Marcia Gaudet notes, Binx's search is a type of "internal carnivalesque," upending societal hierarchies for a period of time and reveling in the grotesque. I could discuss this aspect of the novel some, but I will not do so today. Instead, I will focus on Percy's portrayal of Mercer and other African American characters.

Binx's description of his Aunt Emily's African American butler Mercer presents him as the remnant of a by-gone era and also partly as a movement away from that era. When Binx arrives at his aunt's house in the Garden District, Mercer opens the door for him. Immediately, Binx notices that Mercer thoughtfully weighs how he will greet his white employer's nephew. Binx notes, "Today he does not say 'Mister Jack' and I know that the omission is deliberate, the consequence of a careful weighing of pros and cons. Tomorrow the scales might tip the other way (today's omission will go into the balance) and it will be 'Mister Jack'" (21). Mercer, like Procter Lewis in Gaines's "Three Men," consciously weighs how he will address this white man. Emily moved from Feliciana Parish to New Orleans, and Mercer followed her, continuing to serve as her butler. In describing Mercer, Binx says, "He is thought to be devoted to us and we to him. But the truth is that Mercer and I are not at all devoted to each other" (22). For Binx, Mercer wears a mask. Mercer does not "serve" the family; instead, through his actions, the family serves Mercer providing him, ultimately costing him the ability to define himself.  Lucinda H. MacKethan points out the effect that the city has on Mercer: "In Aunt Emily's house in the city he has changed, has become a 'city man,' although still a product of a racist system that makes him a consummate maskwearer. He is defined by but also dissolved in a role of 'devotion' that is placed upon him as the beneficiary of a country family's benevolence" (34). Mercer allows the paternalist Binx family to support him, providing him with material accouterments; however, by allowing them to support him, Mercer maintains the racial hierarchy that existed within the South, rejecting his ability to create his own identity.

Binx's identity exists in relation to Mercer's. The novel traces the story of  Binx, a man from a legitimate Southern family, and his gradual degradation of Southern manhood. Part of that decay can be seen in the form of changing race relations that appear to occur on the periphery. No mention of race relations, or changing times, really appears in the novel in regards to race. However, a closer look at Mercer seems to point to changing times on the horizon. When describing Mercer in more detail, Binx says that the way Mercer breathes reminds him of the rural, agricultural Feliciana Parish, an image of the plantation or Jim Crow South. Binx reminesces, "We might be back in Feliciana. Here is the very sound of winter mornings in Feliciana twenty years ago when cold dark dawns were announced by the clatter of the handle on the scuttle and Mercer's strangled breathing" (23). Discussing Mercer's history with Aunt Emily, Binx continues by saying, "Mercer has dissolved somewhat in recent years. It is not so easy to say who he is any more. My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age" (23). Here, Mercer appears to be an artifact of the South, one whose time has come to an end. He has "dissolved" and exists as a "connection with a bygone era." In essence, his time has passed, and the role of African Americans being treated as inferior has begun to dissolve as well.

Binx has admiration for Mercer, and to an extant, sympathy for him. Knowing that Mercer takes kickbacks and steals, Binx says that he can't be called a thief because "Mercer has aspirations" (23). Those aspirations, though, become muddled in the system that still exists. Binx refers to Mercer as a "remarkable sort of fellow" and as a person "who keeps himself well informed in science and politics" (24). Even with these aspects, Mercer still lacks a solidified identity. Binx finds Mercer uneasy to talk to because of his knowledge, and his feels sad for him because he notices the way that Mercer views himself, "neither [as] old retainer nor expert in current events" (24). At those moments, Mercer's "eyes get muddy and his face runs together behind his mustache" (24). In effect, he becomes stuck in between what Southern society expects of him and what he expects from himself. The conflicting expectations cause him to lose his own identity, conforming and wearing the mask in order to survive in a racist system.  

At the end of the novel, as Binx and Kate sit outside a church on Ash Wednesday and discuss the possibility of marriage, a car pulls up behind them and "a Negro gets out and goes up into the church" to receive ashes (233). Binx notices the gentleman and starts to speculate on why he is there at that church. Binx notes, "He is more respectable that respectable; he is more middle-class than one could believe" (233). The man exudes "respectability" and appears to be the opposite of Mercer, an African American man who has found his identity. As the man leaves the church, Binx observes him again. This passage is worth quoting at length:
The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for bother reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's importunate bonus? (234-235)
A couple of items stand out in this quote. One is that Binx notices that the man looks down at his seat, and he speculates about what the man be looking at. For Binx, the man looks at a sample case or insurance manual, two items that would place the man as a salesman. If this is the case, the man appears to be making his own way in the world, not tied down to the past as Mercer is, or, as I have not really discussed, as Binx is. The other point appears when when Binx asks in the man's presence goes hand in hand with "the complex business of coming up in the world." Again, this very question points to the man having a clear idea of his identity and what he wants to do in his life, unlike Mercer who remains tethered to the past.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What other characters appear in the novel that are similar to Mercer and the man at the end? Let us know in the comments below.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. "Redeeming Blackness: Urban Allegories Of O'Connor, Percy, and Toole."
Studies in The Literary Imagination 27.2 (1994): 29-39. Print.
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Faucet Columbine, 1996. Print.

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