Buried in the Utne Reader library is nearly every issue of the sorely missed DoubleTake magazine. That’s where I stumbled across this letter from Walker Percy to Bruce Springsteen in 1989. When Springsteen finally responded, in 1993, it was to Percy’s widow. It’s a charming and intriguing correspondence that touches on the Catholicism and work of both men. DoubleTake ran the letters with a discussion between Springsteen and Percy’s nephew Will.
Here’s the exchange of letters:
Feb 23, 1989
Dear Mr. Springsteen—
This is a fan letter—of sorts. I’ve always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field.
The immediate occasion is that my favorite nephew, Will Percy, has even a higher opinion of you. He is a level-headed perceptive young lawyer and generally knows what he is talking about.
Of particular interest is from learning—from an article in America, the Jesuit weekly—that you are Catholic. If this is true, and I am too, it would appear that the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I as a writer, a novelist and philosopher. That—and your admiration for Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine, though she was a much more heroic Catholic than I. The whole time I knew her, she was dying of Lupus Erythematosus, a fatal and extremely unpleasant disease. A prime example of her faith: she was participating in a seminar with some modish ex-Catholics like Mary McCarthy. Mary, thinking to be generous toward the church, said something like: “Well, it is true, some of the Catholic rituals, like the Eucharist, are good symbols.” To which Flannery, who hadn’t said a word, responded with a single sentence: “I say that it it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” You will recognize Flannery’s tone.
This is to say only that I am most interested in your spiritual journey, and if there is any other material about it, I’d be obliged if you will tell me.
Unfortunately, I have cancer and am taking radiation for it. I am far from well and am not able yet to receive visitors.
Since I don’t know your address I am handing this to Will who says he knows where to send it.
All my best wishes for your superb career.
+ + +
Dear Mrs. Percy,
This is a letter so long in coming I’m almost embarrassed to write, but I’ve gotten to know Will a little bit and he’s encouraged me on, so here we go.
A few years back when I received Dr. Percy’s letter, I wasn’t very familiar with his work…my memory is that [his] leter was written on a yellow legal pad and, as is mine, his handwriting was not the easiest to decipher. It was a passionate letter about the comforts and difficulties of reconciling the inner life of a sophisticated man, a writer’s life, with the Catholic faith. I recall Dr. Percy’s explaining how one had brought depth and meaning to the other for him. He was curious to know how I handled my issues of faith….
It is now one of my great regrets that we didn’t get to correspond. A while after receiving Dr. Percy’s letter, I picked up “The Moviegoer,” its toughness and beauty have stayed with me. The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issues are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write. Today, I would have had a lot to put in that letter….
I hope this letter finds you well and that someday when I’m down in your neck of the woods or you’re up in mine we can meet. I’d love to have you come to a show, you might like it!
P.S. I’m in Australia at the moment and I’ve just begun “The Message in the Bottle.”
Image courtesy of German Federal Archives.