The Last Gentleman (Modern Library)

ISBN: 0679602720
ISBN 13: 9780679602729
By: Walker Percy

Check Price Now


American Classics Currently Reading Favorites Fiction Literature Novels Southern Southern Lit To Read

About this book

Williston Bibb Barrett, the last gentleman of the story, is a displaced Southerner who has dropped out of Princeton owing to a nervous condition that his psychoanalyst associates with an inability to fit into groups. While living in New York City, our wayfarer-hero falls in love with a young woman he spies through a telescope...and sets out on a cross-country odyssey in search of home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

Reader's Thoughts

Sandra Willey

Technically should be about a 3.87. I'm glad I read it, but don't know who I'd recommend it was a book group selection. I initially thought, "Oh, no, not another Southern author with Russian literature plot advancement techniques (but wait! I must be losing my mind!) After the discussion, and after noting when it was written, and after letting it stew in its own juices a while, I think Percy demonstrates real skill at weaving in and through an almost existential quest for definition of self as well as self definition, characters with an archetypal halo just a few steps this side of Jungian, and sort of reminiscent/suggestive of Pinter and Albee (I know, different genre)


Walker Percy, a much-honored novelist, might be best known in some circles for his noble effort to get the great "Confederacy of Dunces" published after its author, John Kennedy O'Toole, committed suicide. Percy knows great writing when he sees it, and his 1966 novel,"The Last Gentleman," features some great writing.Like other Percy novels ("The Second Coming" and "The Thanatos Syndrome" come to mind), "The Last Gentleman" is not easy stuff. It features a cast of largely unlikable characters, including its protagonist. It doesn't follow traditional narrative. It suffers from the usual dated references of 60s novels concerning race and the South. But it's a great, often quite funny and moving, ride nevertheless.Briefly, the story revolves around a very confused transplanted Southerner who stumbles upon the girl of his dreams through a telescope while she is reading a cryptic note on a park bench. Then it gets weird. Key characters include the bizarre members of a Gothic Southern clan, the world's worst psychiatrist and a white filmmaker driving around the South pretending to be black. It makes a little more sense than that, but only a little. You sense Percy is playing games with the reader and you don't really mind.Percy is an often profound philosopher. His insights on the importance of place and the universal need for acceptance are brilliant and often profound. Some of his characters reach remarkable understandings via the title character, but not all of them. The journey is what counts -- and, with just a little patience, you'll enjoy the trip.


This was my first Percy, and it was by turns compelling and infuriating, much like The Idiot upon which it is loosely based. I didn't know anything about the book before I selected the unjacketed copy from the shelf at my local library, nor much about the author, save for what Charles Barber had to say about him during a recent reading on Book TV. My library is woefully understocked (though you can be sure they have every title for every lousy mystery writer from the last 50 years), and even for this regionally local writer they had only two titles - The Thanatos Syndrome, which Barber had mentioned, and The Last Gentleman. So I picked up the latter and read the first page and was instantly interested to see where it would lead, seeing as how the story opens in a place I know all too well, and spends the most part of its course in a place where I am unfortunately located at the present. So it's one of those uncanny deals where a book seems to call you out and make you rethink the unlikelihood of your own experience. Honestly, I don't know where Oates gets the comparison with Camus, and Faulkner is a superficial likeness. My sense was of a cross between Flannery O'Connor and Philip K. Dick, though the latter is probably due more to the comments made by Barber about the Thanatos Syndrome. Maybe Barry Hannah is a better clue, as I couldn't help but think of the title character in Ray when I encountered the young doctor Sutter in TLG. But it's pretty clear throughout that Percy has a thing for the Russians, and though The Idiot is certainly immanent, I find myself thinking of Anna Karenina now that I'm finished. Will Barrett is as much Levin as Myshkin, and Kitty is Kitty, at least by name. [a few days after finishing, I also find myself speculating as to whether Percy intends to remind us of Huck Finn, replacing Jim with Jamie and the photographer who pulls the racial passing stunt, the raft with the camper, the river with the road and Cairo with Ithaca. Both Huck and Barrett's fathers killed themselves, and each is confronting the problem of freedom as he understands it.]I thought Percy did an admirable job with the problem of 'potentiality' as Barret suffers it, or 'transcendence grasping for immanence' as Sutter likes to put it. I don't think it's as distinctly a Southern peculiarity as he would have us believe, but then I think he presents it as such for the benefit of Southerners, who are readily flattered in this way, and leaves the rest of us to put two and two together. The other characters are pretty spot on. They may seem like caricatures, but damn if I don't know people exactly like the Voughts. The thing that especially gets me about the book is that it doesn't really seem all that dated, though it's from the 60's. The region and the people Percy portrays are unlikely, in my mind, to be going anywhere anytime soon. They might even be getting prevalent, 'winning' as Barrett's father seemed to understand.

Jeff Miller

What more can you say other than it is a Walker Percy novel. Just stunningly well written. The story of the young man referred to as the "engineer" or "sentient engineer" who has episodes of amnesia and is finding his way through life. As an observer he is very insightful about people and comes to easily know them, yet does not know him self and seeks guidance. The family he comes to be involved with both deepens and confuses his search. Such great characters and writing and I have know started the followup novel The Second Coming.

Pete Camp

Very philosophical novel about a young man who buys a telescope and while searching for a falcon spots a woman and falls in love. Evoked images of Thomas Wolfes' Look Homeward Angel at times. Beautifully written and thought provoking novel. The ending had my head spinning in several directions.

Lance Kinzer

I liked this book the first time I read it ten years ago, but it stuck me much more profoundly upon this recent re-reading. Percy tackles many issues in this book, all of which ultimately relate to how meaning and thus life itself can be possible in a demystified and inverted modern world. There is a fair amount of farce in The Last Gentleman, but it is farce in service of a serious purpose - the exploration of the absurdity of so much that is taken for granted. The path forward Percy suggests requires a merging of the immanent with the transcendent, In Percy's world this is what everyone is searching for, haltingly, wrongly even absurdly. But where this merging is found in its true and ultimate form there is yet hope.

Mary Burns

I love the gentle tone of Walker Percy's voice. I like it that his characters, especially Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman, are never sure of themselves but are always open to discovery. I love Percy's imagination, the connections he makes ..."He had caught a lilt in the old man's speech, a caroling in the vowels which was almost Irish." His descriptions: "Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they'd have a beer or fill the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they'd show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all I got to say is, don't walk off and leave the keys in it - and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance or rhetoric and a whole share set of special ironies and opposites. He was home."It was wonderful to renew my acquaintance with this book. Percy deserves more than one read.


I read this at 17, but found that, ten years later, I couldn't remember it at all except for the opening scene in Central Park. I haven't changed that much in ten years. I just re-read it and really wanted to like it, took my time with it, trying to understand the metaphors and trying to picture the scenes in my mind - but I just didn't get much out of it. Maybe I'm not philosophical enough...I do like the descriptions of Southern culture as a New Yorker with some Southern experience...

Jo Ann Hall

Walker Percy creates the insider's sense of what it is like to be a Southerner, but more importantly, what it means to be a sensitive soul destined to be an observer only, if he cannot find the means to disconnect from the observer position and move into one in which he lives his life. Themes present in The Moviegoer are explored and enhanced here. The Last Gentleman is funny, poignant, and hopeful, even though the characters don't always inspire our sympathy. I read this slowly, savoring the dreamy language and ideas which often pulled me up short because I had thought them myself. Deja vu, indeed.


I have pretty mixed feelings on this one.It started out beautifully, reminding me of the first part of Winter's Tale: an early 20th century urban fantasy set in New York; a romance triggered by stealth and coincidence. But the romance was just a gateway to the rest of the novel, which alternately frustrated and charmed me. More often the former. The weak plotting and characters ultimately felt like mere devices for Walker Percy to pontificate about spirituality (immanence vs transcendence anyone?), but it never felt clear to me what exactly was the point. Nevertheless, something about Percy's writing was appealing to me. I picked up a used copy of The Moviegoer while reading this one. Though The Last Gentleman frustrated me, I'm intrigued enough to give Percy another read, somewhere down the line.

Nicolas Shump

There is something about Percy's work that lingers with you after you have finished reading it. I think part of it is the lack of true resolution in his novels. I suppose this is related to Percy's view of humans as wayfarers. Our journeys last our whole lives. It is springs from the characters and ambiance that he creates.I cannot recall much plot detail in his first novel, The Moviegoer, but I have never forgotten about his concept of "everydayness." It still haunts me. Similarly, from The Thanatos Syndrome, his last novel, I remember the character of Father Smith, the idea of women "presenting rearward" in this novel, and Percy's discussion of the Weimar Republic and the ideas of eugenics and abortion that were popular in this society.With The Last Gentleman, there are Will Barrett's "fugues", Sutter, Jamie, Val, and Kitty. Each of these characters is well-defined. The ideas are there too, but I think a reader would appreciate the novels without being an expert on the writings and beliefs of Soren Kierkegaard. I found myself wanting to find the resolution of Will and Kitty's relationship. The specter of suicide hangs over this novel. Will Sutter kill himself? I cannot forget about the discussion of suicide, Sutter's practice attempts either. I know that Percy is heavily influenced by Existentialism, but I wonder if the suicide of Percy's father is not at play too. After reading this book, I want to skip to the second Will Barrett book, but I'll probably try to go in order and maybe even tackle some of his semiotic writings too.


There was a natural cadence to the dialogues in "The Last Gentleman" that felt like eavesdropping on actual conversations; these proved to be the most enjoyable parts of the novel for me. However, the descriptive passages seemed to extend on into dreamy unintelligibility, almost as if Percy's thoughts started to run away with themselves while he was writing. I noticed both of these qualities while reading "The Moviegoer," which I feel is the superior work, and though I appreciate the former more than latter, both contribute to a style that is uniquely Percy's. NB: Percy frequently describes the smells of the South as "ham-rich" or "rich as ham," which leads me to conclude that the reason for the high rates of obesity in that region of the country is the constant smell of pork products! Mmmm, bacon...algghhhhh.


I don't know what it is about Walker Percy--I always seem to think I'm going to like his books more than I do. This one in particular felt like I needed to devote more time to it and try to finish it faster but it's pretty long to demand that. And I found it rather slow-going. Some parts were funny, sad, and interesting but others seemed really bizarre and unconnected--like the excerpts from Sutter's casebook. I was left not fully understanding the novel but maybe that's to be expected.


Huh. The official description of this book seems a little lacking. The Last Gentleman was about so much more to me.Walker Percy really captured this certain state of mind so well--of being lost, not quite in your body, not quite rooted, constant low level anxiety, lonliness--and the way it resolved itself at the end was very powerful to me. This is a very moving and beautiful book, one of my favorites. After reading other people's reviews of the book I want to read it again very much.

Osvaldo Ortega

Wow! Just finished this wonderful journey of a book. Barrett is a wonderful surreal character living on the edge of his own life. He holds in his soul the confusion and disorientation that comes from living old in a modern world. Incredible. Percy is a master of both dialogue and the stream of consciousness. This last gentleman is a tragic but enviable character. For those living in the South, or familiar with this strange place facing the Gulf, Percy's references will truly hit home. The author is a master of his native domain. Looking forward to the sequel.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *