Thursday, September 1, 2011

A. J. Liebling, Jean Stafford, Walker Percy, and the 1962 National Book Award for The Moviegoer

Jim Santel’s beautiful recent essay in The Millions revisiting how The Moviegoer changed his life “like a slow-release drug” reminds us that Walker Percy’s novel is among several remarkable works of fiction celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. The finalists for the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction, all published in 1961, included Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, A New Life by Bernard Malamud, The Château by William Maxwell, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

What may be less well known is that the publisher of the winning book, a first novel, did not submit it for consideration. The Moviegoer had sold less than 5,000 copies and Knopf had placed its bet on The Château. Jay Tolson tells the story in Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy:
Unlikely as it sounds, The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in large part because of writer A. J. Liebling’s interest in Earl Long and Louisiana politics. Having finished a book on the colorful and corrupt governor [The Earl of Louisiana], Liebling happened to read a review of The Moviegoer that mentioned the book’s New Orleans setting. Liebling bought a copy of the novel, read it, and was so impressed that he recommended it to his wife, Jean Stafford, who was then serving on the NBA fiction panel, along with Herbert Gold and Lewis Gannett. Stafford was equally taken with the novel and thought it far better than anything she had so far read. She asked the National Book Foundation to send copies of the books to the other two judges. When the three judges met in early March, they came swiftly and unanimously to the choice: The Moviegoer.
Percy did not learn of how he came to be nominated until Gay Talese published an account in The New York Times two days after the award ceremony, which prompted Percy to write Stafford:
. . . I will ask you to pass on to Mr. Liebling the gratitude which I am only just now making out the dimensions of. (I’ll call him Joe if you all come to Louisiana—right now the habit of literary respect is too great.) If I understand it correctly, had it not been for Mr. Liebling (and his recent interest in Louisiana) The Moviegoer might never, would never have been considered. To think then, that if it hadn’t been for old Earl, etc. For the first time, I feel kindly to the Longs.
Talese reported that “Apparently [Stafford] convinced the other two fiction judges of the merits of the novel,” which incited an editorial in Show magazine denouncing Stafford and Liebling for cheating “Joseph Heller’s brilliant farce-tragedy” out of the award it deserved. Liebling responded by publishing a letter in Show detailing what happened and noting that the two other judges had been out of the country until they met to make their final decision.

As part of his award-winning ordeal, the reticent Percy had to appear on The Today Show the morning after the awards. Asked by host Hugh Downs why the South produced such good literature, Percy famously answered “Because we lost the war.” Shortly after returning home to Covington Percy received a congratulatory note from a fellow Southern writer whose opinion he highly prized:
Dear Mr. Percy,
I’m glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award. I didn’t think the judges would have that much sense but they surprized [sic] me.
Regards,
Flannery O’Connor
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings (includes The Earl of Louisiana); William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories (includes The Château); Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works

1 comment:

  1. The sequel of this was that Alfred Knopf, who published both The Moviegoer and The Chateau and who much hoped that William Maxwell would win the NBA, was profoundly irritated that Percy was chosen instead. That was one reason Percy left Knopf soon afterward and made Farrar Straus Giroux his hardcover publisher for the rest of his career.

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