Introduction to the 2006 Edition Lantern on the Levee

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Introduction to the 2006 Edition Lanterns on the Levee by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

This essay is not to be reproduced or reprinted without the permission of the author

The republication of William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son honors a work of literary art, enduring interest, and skillful accessibility. The novelist Walker Percy begins in his lively and sensitive introduction to the 1973 edition by referring to his “fabled relative.”1 The term is very appropriate with regard not only to the author but to his memoir as well. Will Percy, as he was known, created a grand Southern fable. As half-memoir and half-myth, his meditation on the past reveals his complicated but charismatic personality in a way that constantly delights the reader. As quoted on the back cover of the 1973 edition, a critic for the Saturday Review of Literature had commented in 1941 that the author’s “prose has dignity and vigor and style, and in every sentence he writes, his own character is manifest.” In 2004, Benjamin Schwarz wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Few memoirs are as haunting as William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee.”2 No doubt Will, who had hitherto composed slim volumes of poetry, would have been pleased with the continued success of his famous prose work. But he might have been mystified. Pessimistic about the future, nostalgic about the past, he would have graciously, we imagine, accepted the laurels of publication but then dismissed them with a self-deprecating laugh and a fleeting smile.

As a member of a fast-dying order of gentleman planters, memories of whom he lovingly recalls in these pages, Will Percy, a romantic and old-fashioned thinker, tried to keep alive a South of plantation ease and perfect decorum that had never really existed. He did not make common cause with those literary contemporaries who would establish a fresh and vital Southern literary awakening--William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Lillian Smith, W. J. Cash, and others. They boldly and often harshly challenged Southern intellectual and social traditions, questioned the chivalric past that Will Percy celebrated, and reflected a modernistic psychological realism about the region they all loved. Even though Percy, too, lamented the South’s vulgarity, intolerance, and materialism, these writers’ visions were not his.

There should be no genuine mystery, though, about why Lanterns on the Levee continues to engage us--and even tempt readers into second and third readings. The first reason is Percy’s display of extraordinary wit. Literary historians have often stressed the tone of pervasive melancholy of Lanterns on the Levee. Nonetheless, its quick thrusts into levity are no less important to its continuing appeal. Percy provides throughout both joy and gloom in equal measure. It would spoil the reader’s pleasure to offer examples of how he conjoins humor with deft encapsulations of an individual’s character and temperament or some gratifying insight. One brief sample will suffice. In his exquisitely realized chapter about his days at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, he notes that the liberal arts college was not strong in science, economics, or sociology. Yet its humanities curriculum instruction was inspiring. Will attended the course on Ethics under William Porcher DuBose, a renowned Episcopal theologian. “He was a tiny silver saint who lived elsewhere, being more conversant with the tongues of angels than of men. Sometimes sitting on the edge of his desk in his black gown, talking haltingly of Aristotle, he would suspend, rapt, in some mid air beyond our ken, murmuring: ‘The starry heavens—’ followed by indefinite silence.”3

Percy’s sense of the absurd could be infectious. The description he gives of a dinner party at Cambridge when he was a law student at Harvard presents another priceless moment of cheerful abandon which concerns an accidentally wayward torpedo-like dinner roll.4 It cannot be further recounted without diminishing the reader’s enjoyment.

Another reason for admiring Lanterns on the Levee is Will Percy’s sense of the dramatic—the pulse of recounted events that he makes seem momentous, whether he is writing of defeat or triumph. When incumbent senator LeRoy Percy ran for the full term in 1911, the campaign was far more vicious even by the crude standards of that era in the South. J. K. Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, racist populists, whom Percy justly ridicules in memorable scenes in Lanterns, were determined that the Percy grandee would be trounced at the hands of the hard-scrabble white farmers. As Will Percy brilliantly recounts the story, of how the senator’s brothers try to goad Bilbo into a lethal confrontation but, humorously, no anticipated shoot-out resulted. The senator is so roundly defeated that Will, an aide in the campaign, feels the loss as keenly as his father. He expresses his bitterness in his memoir: “Thus at twenty-seven I became inured to defeat; I have never since expected victory.”5 A longtime Percy supporter mourned as well: “The Bilbo-Vardaman triumph is complete. It simply proves that the ‘cattle’ of Mississippi are incapable of intelligent self government. The only salvation of the state is to restore the ballot to the negroes [sic]. Things would be at least no worse.”6

A second episode of nearly theatrical proportions was the memorable Percy-led victory over the Ku Klux Klan in 1922. Once again, Will Percy tells the tale with great expressiveness. What he does not highlight, though, was just how important it was to LeRoy Percy and the family as a whole to keep a grip on the levers of power in the Delta. Without LeRoy’s clever leadership and brave speeches against the Klan, the hooded order would have won control of the county offices, to the detriment of local Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and members of other ethnic minorities in Greenville. Former senator Percy considered his anti-Klan work not only more than a restoration of tolerance and good order but also a means to protect his wife Camille and her kin, who belonged to the much suspected Roman Catholic Church. Needless to say, he also was protecting his plantation interests along with other landowners. If threatened by Klansmen, the sharecroppers and tenants would quickly head for Northern city sanctuaries.

A third factor gives the memoir a particularly current relevance. The tragedies arising from the Mississippi and Louisiana hurricanes of 2005, the renewed sales of John M. Barry’s Rising Tide, and the reprogramming of the PBS documentary, “Fatal Flood” that the calamity prompted all bring together two natural disasters in those same states, separated though they are by eighty years.7 Both Barry’s book and television’s “Fatal Flood” excitingly narrate the story of the Great Mississippi deluge in the spring of 1927, as if these productions were designed to foreshadow the events of August 2005. The very title of Will’s memoir speaks to us with special poignancy. Lanterns refers to the night patrollers, who, with lanterns in hand, looked for signs of where the river might be working its way underneath the levees and abruptly dissolving them in a wild rush of churning waters. William Armstrong Percy III, a cousin of the memorist, affirms that the memoir’s title is “evocative of Uncle Will’s lifelong sense that what remained of the Old South's aristocratic planter culture required vigilant defense, lest it too be swept away.”8 But, fatalistically, Will Percy recognized that the Southland he knew and loved in youth had already disappeared. “The Bottom Rail on Top,” the title of one chapter, expresses his disdain for the ranks of lower-class whites whose rough customs and conduct had replaced the old elitist order. Percy considered them narrow-minded and brutish—a purely Anglo-Saxon mob with no genetic benefit from the more cultured and wiser Anglo-Norman breed.

During the harrowing ordeal of the Great Flood, Will Percy served conscientiously as chairman of the county relief effort. Like the calamity of August 2005, the disaster also killed thousands. It produced over 700,000 half-starved refugees. The Mississippi River washed over 27,000 square miles, a wide and long expanse equivalent to the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts combined. Most terrifying were the huge crests of waves, sometimes thirty feet high, bearing down on levees, towns, and villages. Yet, government plans and preparations—whether federal, state, or local—to deal with natural cataclysms were hardly more adequate in 1927 than were the programs and their execution for hurricane relief in 2005. No doubt Will’s experience with Belgian relief under Herbert Hoover at the beginning of the Great War was a reason for his selection to direct the effort in Greenville. In 1915, he had shipped off to Europe partly to escape from his law practice, from parents, from Delta society, and from feelings of loneliness and uselessness. But his enlistment in Hoover’s agency was also to meet his craving for “self sacrifice” and fulfillment of some heroic duty.9 Nonetheless, in the 1927 crisis, he was simply an ordinary citizen volunteer who had to deal with a mountain of difficulties as best he could.

The crisis of the Mississippi flood was a momentous episode in Will Percy’s relatively short life. The chapter that he devotes to it here deals honestly and eloquently with those problems facing the Delta community. After the waters had subsided, Henry (Harry) Waring Ball, one of Will Percy’s neighbors and friends, recalled how a “pandemonium of terror and confusion” had overtaken Greenville in April. The “whole population” fled to the town’s levee, “many half-naked and shrieking in the midst of a chaos of terrified livestock. Even the most sensible people seemed to be either panic stricken or paralyzed.”10 Will’s directions of affairs helped to calm fears and restore order. As he explains herein, one of his first public decisions was to request a National Guard contingent. The state governor quickly met the emergency, a contrast with more recent events in Louisiana. Will Percy’s prompt and courageous response to the calamity was no surprise to family members. Phinizy Percy, youngest of the three Birmingham brothers whom he later was to adopt, recalls, “If he saw anything that approached a duty he would reach out and grab it.”11

Nonetheless, Will Percy did not wholly master the situation,, but for reasons not entirely of his own making. As he himself reports in Lanterns, his father, while often helpful, undercut his humanitarian effort to evacuate thousands of Greenville and Washington County African-American residents from the beleaguered city and its surroundings. The whites had been removed first and in an orderly fashion. The black workers and their families were supposed to follow. From his experience of many years running vast plantation operations in the Delta, LeRoy Percy was all too aware, however, that all too many of the stranded sharecroppers and tenants, would never willingly return once they had lost forever their ruined dwellings and began to settle elsewhere. This time the situation was even more perilous than it had been during the turmoil that the Klan had generated. Such a labor shortage on the rich alluvial soils of the Delta would desolate the plantation economy. Former senator Percy and his wealthy friends heartily agreed on that point. In conferring with his son, Percy would only have had to hint that their family would lose reputation, friendships, and power, if the order to evacuate were implemented. Will himself was in the greatest jeopardy. Some townspeople considered him effeminate even though he had been a decorated hero in the Great War. (When he signed up for enlistment, Percy was so slight of frame, as he explains in another memorable chapter, that he barely managed entry into the army during the Great War.) Meanwhile, the town fathers and planters loudly insisted that he should not permit any black laborer to leave the county. Outraged, Percy retorted that their wallets, not their consciences, were uppermost in their demands.

Unbeknownst to Will Percy until after his father’s death in 1929, as he recalls in the text, the senator had already persuaded his son’s colleagues to choose the safest course. Over Will Percy’s objections, they voted unanimously to scuttle the evacuation. After two hours resisting their decision, he finally capitulated and had to send the ship captains away. They naturally protested hotly the waste of time when they had other rescue calls to answer. But Percy held his ground. As a result, some 13,000 refugees, tentless, had to shiver on the cold, dark, and rain-soaked levee which stretched some eight miles downriver. They had no shelter, little food, and less warmth. Another 5,000 huddled in Greenville warehouses and other locations still above water. The situation was no less dire than the tragic plight of the New Orleanians at the Louisiana Superdome. It had made sense, however, as Will Percy points out in his memoir, to assemble as many flood victims in one place as possible in order to feed, house, and clothe them efficiently.

In Rising Tide and in appearances in the documentary “Fatal Flood,” Barry finds considerable fault with how well the forty-two-year-old attorney, working under the Red Cross, managed the Greenville calamity. Admittedly, as Barry contends, Will Percy’s treatment of the black residents was sometimes typical of the Delta plantation style, in which he was raised.12

Although good-hearted, Percy had no doubts that the races were unequal and should remain so. Hortense Powdermaker, a Bronislaw Malinowski-trained anthropologist from Yale University, whom Will Percy befriended in the mid-1930s, concluded that “any attempt at any kind of social equality [between blacks and whites] would result in some disaster so overwhelming that it is dangerous even to talk about it and so terrible that it cannot be thought of concretely but must remain vague.” The Northern researcher found that in the Delta a white planter would deplore such obvious transgressions as cheating tenants and lynching. Yet, even these evils were “part of the status quo which it is in his interest to maintain. It is therefore to his interest to consider them inevitable.”13

Under such circumstances, Percy’s complacent and demeaning attitudes, as passages in Lanterns attest, would be roundly and justly condemned in these racially more enlightened days. Even before the memoir’s publication, Percy’s friends Huger Wilkinson Jervey, Dean of International Studies at Columbia, and David L. Cohn, a Southern author, who shared most of Percy’s political and social views, urged him to omit all his aspersions against the race. On the other hand, Alfred Knopf, highly pleased with the manuscript, advised him not to change a word. Unfortunately he took his publisher’s counsel. All the same, having experienced chaos and horrifying conditions of trench warfare in the First World War, Will Percy, during the flood and on many other occasions, showed a much stronger sympathy for the black community than for Mississippi poor whites, who lacked, he writes in Lanterns, “mental attainments.”14 His defense of blacks charged with criminal offenses was famous throughout the Delta. In so many other ways as well, he helped the black residents more than any other white Greenvillians of his class. For instance, Walker Percy recollected, “I can remember black people coming to the house who'd been imprisoned and beaten-up, and he would take them in and defend them and attack the sheriff's office or the chief of police, in public, and was branded as a nigger lover and such.”15

One has to admit, however, that for managing the Great Flood Percy did not possess the hardheadedness, instinct for grasping power, and emotional stamina of his father. He would have been the first to acknowledge those imperfections. Unhappily during some weeks of the crisis, former senator Percy was busily lobbying elsewhere. He was seeking from Washington politicians and business leaders large investments in the flooded region. In the absence of cautionary advice from his father, who knew the local situation far better than he, Will Percy did make mistakes. Although he vigorously protested, he could not prevent the abuse delivered on the backs of the black populace. Mrs. Percy McRaney, a black Greenvillian, recalled in a 1977 interview how poorly her people had been treated. For four months the poor had to live on the levee. The whites patrolling it treated them wretchedly: “Kicking them and beating them and knocking them around like dogs—hungry people, they wouldn't feed them sometimes.”16 Nor could he stop the price-gouging, and, above all, the political squabbles that crippled efforts to obtain the relief funds that other Delta counties received. In any event, if federal bureaucracies, designed to manage natural calamities, failed in so many respects in 2005 and 2006, it is hardly a wonder that someone like William Alexander Percy should have been overwhelmed at moments of grave need.

Although the memoirist does not so indicate, the harsh criticisms he heard from white Greenvillians, the lambasting he took from the northern African-American press, which he thoroughly describes, and the sullen resentments of the local blacks took their emotional toll. He felt deeply humiliated and depressed. After the Mississippi returned to its original banks, he took a long vacation to Japan which gradually restored his spirits. Quite remarkably, Percy’s memories of the flood do not sink into self-pity. Nor is there any finger pointing at specific leaders. Quite the opposite. Upon returning from Japan, he reports that he discovered that he had not been indispensable. Another committee member had been doing a fine job with the reconstruction work that Will had forsaken. He states quite simply and handsomely that he learned from the experience just how “hellish” and “divine” human beings can be when they suffer under enormous stress.17 He meant himself as well as others.

Another element that makes Lanterns pertinent to our times is Percy’s struggle with his sexual nature. Films, biographies, television sitcoms, talk shows, and public confessions have flung wide open the closet door wide open. Two generations, though, have passed since the days when the lonely bachelor struggled unfalteringly to keep it firmly locked. Percy knew that he could offer only hints. How dexterously he handles the matter in Lanterns becomes evident in his expressive sketches of young male perfection--in the flesh or in statuary--that he visually consumed abroad. His reticence on this subject was certainly necessary for any similarly inclined figure of prominence in the Deep South.

Almost from the very start of his conscious life, Will recognized that he did not meet his father’s criterion of manliness and interest in those things that boys are supposed to love--hunting, fishing, sports, and guns. LeRoy thought him “a queer chicken,” although he probably meant that as a mark of pity rather than a reflection on his son’s sexual orientation.18 Moreover, Camille Bourges Percy, from a once-rich New Orleans family, shared her husband’s views of their son. She was a formidable matron of Gallic disposition. Percy remarked to his close friend and cousin Janet Longcope, “She’s one lovely & lovesome person. It’s an awful pity I have such a wide queer streak in me—she would have enjoyed so a lot of normal children.” That sort of self-mockery pervades Lanterns on the Levee.19 He seemed to love his grandmother Armstrong Percy--whom he called “Mur”--more than his mother. She was his “first chum,” and his description of her undressing ritual is priceless. He comments that in early life he felt so “lonely.” As the philosopher William James remarked in 1890, “The great source of terror in infancy is solitude.”20 That was a hazard that Will had to deal with from childhood onward. Walker Percy’s introduction movingly addresses this aspect of his cousin Will Percy’s makeup.21

Complicating Will Percy’s life was the death of his younger brother, age eleven, in 1902 when Will was a sophomore at the University of the South. He was then only sixteen. LeRoy, Jr. had been accidentally killed by a rifle, his father’s birthday gift. The boy and a friend had been playing with it at a summer resort in Arkansas. Young LeRoy had been all the things his father could hope for in a son. He and Camille were inconsolable over the loss. Sensitive to their emotional needs, Will thereafter could not boldly venture to find fulfilment in his own identity, sexual or otherwise. He had to be truer to his father’s dreams than to his own.

Percy is quite self-revealing in the pages of this autobiography about his worshipful yet confused relationship with his father. In contrast, his sexual activity remains today more a matter of conjecture than verifiable fact. Even those occasional allusions in Lanterns tell little about what he did and only suggest what he thought. Book reviewers in 1941 and 1942 completely missed or chose to pass over in silence Will’s homoerotic references in silence.

Despite all appearances, though, the Greenville attorney was not committed to complete secrecy at least when he was out of the South. He did not hide his friendships with men of similar inclinations, and for good reason. Will’s comrades were not simply brothers in a fraternal order, duck blind, or poker club. His wide circles of friends shared his temperament and interests and also his thirst for knowledge and aesthetic engagement. All of them were intellectually alive and dedicated, as he was, to art, literature, and fine music. In that era it was quite common for gentlemen to enjoy close personal but purely social ties with those of their own class and sex without arousing suspicions. Women suitable for respectable marriages seldom met a man’s need for bonded companionship. Will Percy, however, did have very close ties to his cousin Janet Dana Longcope, who was married to Warfield Longcope, a distinguished physician who became Head of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Another favorite was Charlotte Gailor of Sewanee, an artist and serious botanist. She read the manuscript of this memoir but worried about the title. “Recollections of a Planter’s Son,” would not catch the public eye, she proposed. Instead, she thought he should add “Lanterns on the Levee,” and he wisely did so.22

During the First World War, Percy had worked in the army with Gerstle Mack, whom he geatly liked. Mack later became a noted architectural expert and author of well-received biographies of Gustave Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Cézanne.23 Together after the war, Mack and Percy became acquainted in London with Siegfried Sassoon. Will Percy told a young cousin and artistic protégé, also gay, about the encounter with the famed English war poet. Will told his cousin that Mack had been acutely “‘fascinated at the man’s intellect and physical beauty and so was I, I suppose.’” Percy’s cousin explained to me that Sassoon “was a British Army Officer, staggeringly handsome, sensitive, with great talent, a homosexual whose masculinity placed him beyond most gossip and innuendo.” But on the latter point, he misspoke. The Englishman’s sexual partialities were much more defiantly open than Will Percy’s ever were.24

In addition to gaining much from his association with gay men of talent and substance, Percy also found in embarking on a liner or taking a train a welcome release in the widening of his experiences. Will Percy was an inveterate traveler, fleeing from Greenville for great stretches of time. He was not only in flight not only from whispers in Delta circles but also from the small-town atmosphere that any intellectual of his kind would quickly find wearisome and stultifying. He wrote some of his best lines when away in distant parts. For instance in 1918 while still in France, he wrote these lines:

We are the sons of disaster,

Deserted by gods that are named,

Thrust in a world with no master,

Our altars prepared but unclaimed;.

Wreathed with the blood-purple aster

Victims, foredoomed, but untamed.25

Poetry, it seems, was a secure outlet for his inner and his sexual feelings. He declared, :What I wrote seemed to me more essentially myself than anything I did or said. . .When you feel something intensely, you want to write it down--if anguish, to stanch the bleeding; if delight, to prolong the moment.”26 It could be said that his best poems were written as he gazed out of his hotel-room window at Taormina, which was nestled beneath Mount Etna. That Sicilian village had become a favorite sanctuary for those Europeans and Englishmen with tastes similar to Percy’s. Some of the Taormina vacationers, whom Percy knew well, belonged, like Sassoon, to the English upper classes. (The playwright Tennessee Williams, also from Mississippi, was later a frequent visitor there.)27

In Florence and Capri, Percy was drawn to the charismatic and well-traveled Norman Douglas, a best-selling fiction writer whose Villa Daphne on Castiglione hill, “the fairest spot on Capri,” was a popular gathering-place. His satirical novel, South Wind, extolled ancient pagan ways on “Nepenthe” (or Capri) and mocked Victorian prudery. It is now largely forgotten. According to the young and artistic cousin, whom Will Percy had befriended, the Scottish novelist “had never been very reticent about his preference for the companionship of young men. Will was more circumspect, at the same time enjoying the Douglas group.” The novelist was sometimes in trouble with the Fascist police for imposing himself on teenage boys. Douglas himself boasted of his “‘jovial immoderation’” and “‘frolicsome perversity.’” That was far from Will Percy’s style. Nevertheless, like others who knew Douglas, Percy did find the Scotsman most amusing and intelligent.28 Douglas had Percy pen a foreword to his rather precious Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology.29 He died a suicide from an overdose of drugs in 1952.

In New York after the Great War, Percy often joined up with his fellow bachelor friends. They were men of considerable achievement and stature. Huger Jervey, who later became dean of the Parker School of International Affairs at Columbia, had been one of Percy’s favorite instructors at the University of the South. In 1925 the pair had bought a sandstone house, Brinkwood, for summer vacations. It perched over a beautiful valley called Lost Cove, a few miles from Sewanee proper. Another companion was the poet Lindley Williams Hubbell, who then worked at the New-York Public Library. He was first published in 1927 in Will Percy’s Yale Series of Younger Poets. The New York band of bachelors used to venture uptown for an evening’s entertainment in such places as the Sugar Cane Club, where Ethyl Waters, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and other black performers held the spotlight.30 William Armstrong Percy III writes, “Like Carl Van Vechten [a novelist and New York Times music critic], Will haunted Harlem nightspots, where he befriended the gay black poet Langston Hughes.” The Percy brothers clearly remembered Hughes’s visit because Percy had the temerity to let Hughes give a public poetry reading. The lines recited were not what white Southerners were accustomed to hearing from a black man regarding the sins of their kind. But, Walker observed, “My uncle was absolutely fearless. He wasn't afraid of anybody.” Only his cousin, William Armstrong Percy, mentions that, when Hughes first entered “Will’s Mississippi home,” he came through “the front door much to the astonishment of local blacks.31” Will Percy’s degree of worldly sophistication—–and social courage—was not only remarkable not only for a white Mississippian but for almost anyone else in 1920s and 1930s America.

According to Benjamin Wise, who is writing Will Percy’s biography, his closest companion on his earlier trips to Europe had been another New Yorker, Harold Bruff. They had been classmates at the Harvard Law School and had gone to France together in 1908. Bruff was particularly keen about Will and wrote him suggestively in September 1910: “I know N[ew] Y[ork] is not the place for us. And there are so many distractions that seem to frighten away the desired mood but maybe—who knows?”32

However fulfilling the trips to New York or still more distant locales were, Will Percy could not break with the people of the Delta and their conventions. It was his ambivalence and pathos that help to shape the memoir and deepen its dramatic tension. When a young cousin had him read his fledgling novel about the author’s love for another male, Will claimed to admire what was really an immature work. He warned the aspiring writer, however, that “due to the subject treated, and to the subsequent repercussion upon your family (in a small community) it is just not for today. Perhaps some years hence all the inhibited things will become less so and the world will develop a policy of live and let live (although I doubt this, and don't count on it).” On another occasion, Percy praised the would-be novelist for “keeping quiet” about such things.33

In his own autobiographical work, Percy’s unhopeful outlook, like his doubts of a future liberality, assumes a more universal character. He does not permit himself to sink into bathos or self-pity. Yet, the strain is always manifest between his love of family and region and his alienation from both. Under his father’s tutelage, the unmarried attorney dutifully practiced law—and hated it. He served on local boards, and took part in the civic routines expected of him, even after his parents had died in 1929. That approach made it possible for him to survive in the Delta. As one of his friends wrote, “throughout his life innuendos were inevitable, [but] facts [were] never to surface.”34

Will Percy’s loneliness was not an uncommon reaction to the inhibitions that closeting forces upon any of his sexual persuasion. But there was an additional component to his sadness. Percy recognized that his family, past and present, and not he alone, was subject to the relentless tides of melancholy. Charles Percy (or “Don Carlos,” as the memorist prefers) was the family’s founder. A Spanish magistrate and indigo planter, this Percy was the first of several male suicides in direct line. Leroy Pope Percy, one of Charles Percy’s great-grandsons and Will’s bachelor great-uncle, took an overdose of laudanum in 1882. In 1917 John Walker Percy, who was Will’s uncle and also Walker’s grandfather, a Birmingham, Alabama, attorney, shot himself in the chest with a hunting rifle. He had been the attorney for the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in Birmingham, Alabama. Twelve years later his son LeRoy Pratt Percy, another Birmingham attorney, LeRoy Percy, Walker’s father, did likewise in an almost perfect replication of his father’s means to end life. He was the novelist Walker Percy’s father. Walker himself, though never suicidal, suffered acutely from the genetic complaint.35 “OK, I wrote for the last 15 years, did what I wanted to do, succeeded—so what? There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of point,” the novelist wrote his daughter Ann on one occasion. “Middle-age depression no doubt, plus a Percyean disposition toward melancholia.”36

Lanterns on the Levee mentions but does not spotlight these tragic deaths. Nor does the work disclose that several Percy women, while never suicidal, also inherited the malady. Some had to be hospitalized.37 Clearly the author knew that the family faced a mysterious curse. To handle the disorder as best they could they developed an extraordinary, creative proficiency—in acquiring wealth, power, and literary prominence. After reading the hundred or so letters that Gerstle Mack had sent to Will Percy, Walker wrote to Shelby Foote about his guardian’s poor health and low spirits after the boys and their widowed mother had arrived from her hometown, Athens, Georgia. She had died in 1932. Walker Percy reflected that it “makes you see how much fell on him in such a short time, death of parents in 1929, the Depression, [my] mother's death, having to lawyer, bad health (do you remember how often he got the ‘flu’ and took to his bed for days?)”38

In addition to these burdens, Will Percy had adopted the ancient ethic of honor, to which his memoir makes frequent reference. The code contributed to his depressive moods. Living up to the strict rubrics of honor, rooted in a warrior culture long since vanished, was a nearly impossible task. Failure to do so could bring on an agonizing sense of shame. Christian faith was no alternative, as “Uncle Will” saw it. Walker told an interviewer, “Will Percy was a lapsed Catholic who aesthetically admired the rich heritage of his Creole mother, but remained fatalistic, adhering only to what he called ‘the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius.’”39 In fact, the Meditations of the philosophical Roman emperor was his Bible. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus offered a refined ideal of honor. It was more than a matter of warrior valor and a striving for glorious reputation, although both aims were important. The second-century emperor believed in the Stoic virtues of prudence, temperateness, fortitude, justice, and devotion to honorable duty. It was a cheerless code, but it highly informs Lanterns on the Levee. “Uncle Will” once wrote young Walker, “My whole theory about life is that glory and accomplishment are of far less importance than the creation of character and the individual good life.”40 The “broad-sword virtues,” as Will summed up the Aurelian message, should guide the three young Percy brothers in their separate pursuits.

Percy’s moral prescriptions set the goal of human perfectionism, but it was an emotional burden that he well knew he could not himself wholly master. How was it possible to reconcile these old virtues, that is, the conventions of the Old cavalier South, with its modernizing twentieth-century character? Only a Faulkner or an O’Connor, or, indeed, a Walker Percy could grasp the region’s complexities. At the same time, Will found an outlet from melancholy in warfare. The novelist remembered that “Uncle Will” had been elated over the prospect of going to war against Adolf Hitler as if military glory meant more to him than that he liked to admit. “The only time he was happy,” Walker reports, “was in the Argonne Forest in 1918 when he was shooting at Germans.” But when war broke out in 1941, Will Percy “became miserable when he learned that he was too old” for military service.41

In his chapter “For the Younger Generation,” that is, for his three wards most particularly, Will Percy upholds the aristocratic virtues in a credo that he found compelling. The realm of chivalry, Percy continues, lies “not outside, but within, and when all is lost, it stands fast.”42 . Like Francis I of France after Charles V at Pavia defeated his army at Pavia, he means, “We have lost all, save honor.” Percy mourns that “the Old South, the old ideals, the old strengths” have vanished.”43 Thus, like Walker Percy in his literary work, he brings elements of despondency and honor together in the same scheme of things.

Perhaps in compensation for his own limitations, Will Percy in his memoir goes to some lengths of distortion. He followed a strong Southern tradition of myth making that was most visible in the adoration of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall,” and other great war heroes. In Lanterns, “Uncle Will” does not dwell so much on the Confederate “Lost Cause,” with its inartistic statues of veterans and “sentiment driveling into sentimentality, poverty, and, I fear, lack of taste.”44 He makes little mention of graceful antebellum ladies in hooped silks, cheerful slaves, and benign, julep-sipping gentlemen-planters. Instead, he turns to family history to provide color, drama, entertainment, and sardonic comment to his account, all done with a certain military flavor.

The first example is his satirical treatment of the Percy family’s founder, Charles Percy—"Don Carlos" of English West Florida, which, during the American Revolution, became Spanish Louisiana. The memorist renders the progenitor as a figure of fun and enigma. After all, he had abandoned a wife and two children in England, lived for a time with another woman on the island of Bermuda, and had established a new family on a plantation in what years later became Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Will embellished on family stories that strongly suggested noble warrior blood from the earls of Northumberland coursing through Charles’s veins. Perhaps a bigamist—or even trigamist—Don Carlos had carefully hidden his true identity even as he pretentiously titled his modest dwelling on a Mississippi River tributary, “Northumberland House.” That was the name of the Northumberland dukes’ immense London residence whose gardens once ran from the Strand just east of Trafalgar Square to the banks of the Thames. He claimed to have been an officer in the Royal Army during the Seven Years’ War. According to the investigations of a London law firm in 1894, a Charles Percy turned up not on a list of officers after all. But that name, with an "I" by it to signify "Irish," did belong to a foot soldier in the short-lived Irish Eighty-third Regiment of Foot. He was, as far as the lawyers could ascertain, the only Irishman so named in the entire country. The troops quite briefly served under "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne in the Portuguese campaign. Thus, “Don Carlos” was neither an officer nor a member of a distinguished unit nor even English or Scottish by birth.45

Jane Percy Sargent Duncan, an enormously wealthy New York descendant, had hired the attorneys. But, in addition to these unpleasant details, she was horrified to learn that her ancestor could have been—dare one say it—shanty Irish. For a Fifth Avenue dowager who had sold her Long Island mansion to J. P. Morgan, that was too much. She spirited the damning evidence into a trunk and never mentioned the matter to her daughter, Janet Dana Longcope, Will’s close friend, nor to anyone else in the Percy clan. (The relevant documents remained hidden in a western Massachusetts attic until this writer was allowed to see them.)46 Jane Duncan, however, could well have over-reacted. Charles Percy’s handful of surviving letters were written in a respectable hand, and their literacy suggests a gentleman’s upbringing. Also, he was known to have collected a number of literary works in his backwater of West Florida. He was no ordinary rake, but was he kin to the Northumberland nobility? That’s another matter. While composing his memoir, Will had no means to obtain the facts that Jane Duncan had uncovered. Instead, the memorist speculates that “the old bird” might have fought under the black flag of a pirate ship or possibly was a distant heir to the immense Northumberland holdings in England. Wisely, though, he declares, “Playing Tarzan in the family tree is hazardous business; there are too many rotten branches.”47

More was involved here than merely an effort to lampoon a Southern pastime of genealogical obsessions. Musings about the possible aristocratic and soldierly elements in the family’s history constituted part of the larger vision of how Percys were to present themselves to the world. Colonel William Alexander Percy of Alcorn's Brigade, Army of Mississippi, for whom the poet was named, won a high reputation for valor and was called “the Gray Eagle of the Delta” for his military daring. Even he seems less significant in the memorist’s mind, though, than the first Percy in America and the first to die at his own hand. As I have written elsewhere, to Will Percy “ancestor Charles represented the transitory nature of life, rank, and pretension, the rise and fall of families and nations--ideas thoroughly typical of the Southern conservative mentality.”48

A second example of these seemingly disparate elements appears in Will’s depiction of his father’s political cronies. Captain John Seymour McNeilly, General Thomas L. Catchings, General Samuel Wragg Ferguson, and others scarcely belonged where Percy in this book places them: “on the west portal of Chartres with those strong ancients, severe and formidable and full of grace, who guard the holy entrance.”49 The image is stately and grand. No doubt Percy was subtly referring to Henry Adams, whose Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres celebrated the great cathedral’s statuary, stained glass, and soaring gothic architecture.

Absurdity, however, could give way to a more profound angle of vision. Adams’s closing words to his magisterial work seem so appropriate to Percy’s reference to Chartres and to his myth-making inclinations. The Yankee historian wonders how a structure like Chartres Cathedral seemingly defied the laws of nature in its stubborn fixedness through the ages—for instance, the improbable “leap downwards of the flying buttress.” “Faith alone supports it,” Adams insists, and a “danger” of the edifice collapsing “lurks in every stone.” The author concludes, “The delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt is buried in the earth of its last secret.”50

That tension between the weight of fact, massiveness, and history and the relative insubstantiality of imagination and artfulness was so much a part of Will Percy’s reminiscence that one suspects an intellectual indebtedness to this melancholy author of another, more famous memoir. It might indicate, too, that the fighting in France had been much more unsettling than Percy cared to admit despite his stress on warfare, medieval or modern. In reference to his bland letters home from the front, he confesses that soldiers seldom describe the horrors they witnessed, the stench they endured, the bloody grimness of the struggle. Even his memoir underplays his experiences in France. On returning home, Percy declares, however, “I have never before or since felt so incapable of emotion, so dead inside.”51 Indeed, Will Percy “faced a world in which meaning had been lost, but he soldiered on,” suggests the historian Anne Rose. His faith in the old Stoic values that inspired his gothic analogy could well have been a way to hide a quite different mood, one shared by the disillusioned poets and writers Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens, Erich Maria Remarque, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Percy does argue that German aggression and the Allied response had destroyed the happy world he had loved. Anne Rose speculates that beneath the sometimes optimistic surface of his memoir, Percy could have been conversant with the “defiant emotional pose of existentialism,” finding a meaningless universe, especially in relation to the simpler and less problematic era whose loss he mourns.52

Finally, readers of this memoir will discover a most remarkable but complex personality as well as a gifted writer. Shelby Foote once wrote Walker, “What a thing it would be to try really to recapture him as he was in life . . . All we can do is take pieces of him and distribute them here and there through our books, and all of them together don’t [sic] add up to more than a fraction of what he was.” “Uncle Will’s” relationship with the orphans Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizy was extraordinary. He brought them into a world few other Southerners of that time knew anything about—the realms of art, classical music, and literature. Moreover, Will Percy’s house was filled with such distinguished guests as psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, historian and poet Carl Sandburg, journalist Jonathan Daniels, poets Stephen Vincent Benét and Vachel Lindsay, and many others. Phinizy remembered that the house “always seemed to be full of people, all the time. You never knew who was going to be at dinner. It was almost like living in a hotel.” Another writer, David L. Cohn, came for a weekend and stayed a year to complete his Delta memoir, God Shakes Creation. The North Carolina journalist Jonathan Daniels was particularly impressed with Percy's character and interesting lineage. He called a chapter of a book on the contemporary South, “Hotspur's House,” to celebrate an unforgettable visit in Will Percy’s house with its many guests. Hard on their neighbors’ foibles, they were a witty band, Daniels reminisced, and lit “with anger and humor a darkness like despair” and shared “an unloving knowledge of the people on the land which they loved.”53 The boys especially enjoyed Carl Sandburg when he unpacked his guitar. He sang “none too well,” Walker remembered with amusement. On another occasion during the Depression a black transient with a harmonica appeared “from God knows where” and “played the blues” with greater effect than had the Chicago poet.54 Entertaining and stimulating though the Percy household was, Will could be a formidable presence. “He had one of the fiercest tempers of anybody I ever saw. We were scared to death of him,” Shelby Foote recalled not long before his own death.55

Here was a singular bachelor serving as father to three boys, the eldest of whom, Walker, who was just entering his teens. If ever demonstration were needed that gay individuals can provide a decent, loving, and honorable a home for children, Will Percy could easily serve as exemplar. Selfless and concerned for the boys’ well-being, he did everything necessary to assure them a normal and secure upbringing. For instance, young Phinizy had accompanied been his mother in the car in 1932 when the car in which they were riding plunged over a rail-less bridge into a deep-water creek. He escaped through a window but suffered from night terrors as a result. “Frequently I would wake up sometimes screaming from a nightmare, and he would come in and we would go in his sitting room and he would try to talk to me about what the nightmare was about, and then he would read to me, Greek mythology or something. You know it might have been a night when he had been throwing up for the fear of a trial . . . His only thought was comforting me and getting me to go to sleep.”56

All three Percy brothers married, fared outstandingly well in their careers, had children, and proved no less caring and affectionate in their rearing of offspring than Will Percy had been himself. Phinizy, the only brother still alive, declares that “Uncle Will not only set an awesome example of self-sacrifice and family loyalty but also tried to instill in each of us a sense of morality and compassion and an idea of what was truly worthwhile in this life.”57

At the same time, “Uncle Will” did offer advice but never commanded the brothers to adopt a career ill suited to their own capacities and desires. “Pressure” to take up medicine, Walker’s first vocation, “didn’t come from him,” the novelist reported. But, Walker Percy continued, Greenville happened to produce a remarkable number of writers--himself, Shelby Foote, Kenneth Haxton, Josephine Haxton (Ellen Douglas), Charles Bell--a total of “64 authors (or perhaps it is books),” estimated Walker Percy. He continued that David Cohn liked to say that “‘every white lady in Greenville keeps a thesaurus under her mattress.”58

Why Greenville? “I think Shelby would agree,” Walker reflected, “that it was Uncle Will. He had this extraordinary capacity for communicating enthusiasm for beauty. He had this great love which I’d never seen before, which was unusual and is even now, to see somebody who actually gets a high delight, great joy,” from listening to music or reading great works of art. And he had standards. Walker once composed a poem with Poelike intimations of death and other horrors. He wrote it for a high school contest. The entries were all submitted anonymously, and he took first prize. “Uncle Will” was the judge, but said to his ward, “Well, I’m sorry you won.” There was no need to get happy over it, “because it was the worst bunch of poems I’ve ever had occasion to judge.”59 As a longtime editor of the Yale poetry series, he knew whereof he spoke.

Poetry was indeed the creative effort that most engaged him. But he proved a master of prose. A visit from Alfred Knopf to Greenville set the wheels in motion for the writing of his biography. Knopf had published his Selected Poems in 1930 and wanted him to compose a memoir of a small-town attorney. “Damned if I'll write about the law!” was Percy's reaction. In the summer of 1936, however, Percy sailed to Tahiti from Los Angeles. On the way back, according to his journalist friend Ben Wasson, he began a study of the island people, an effort in prose that inspired further experimentation. David Cohn urged him to try his hand at reminiscence, and Percy began in earnest. Considering Percy too poetically inclined to write prose, Janet Dana and others had doubts of his success, however, and he put the manuscript aside. On a hot summer day while seated in the Percy library, Cohn found some loose pages stuffed behind the cushions on a sofa. Scooping them up, he went out to the gallery and read them with growing interest. Excitedly he told Will that he had no choice but to resume work on a very promising autobiography that was marked by a tone of reflective nostalgia and deep insight into the human condition.60

In preparing the document, Will was seldom critical and appeared to suffer fools almost gladly. Without boasting, he displays his generous nature throughout the text. He drew so many others to him with his ready wit, outbursts of laughter, and open heart. The Greenville bachelor had long before turned agnostic. He could no longer in conscience go to service and confession when a student at Sewanee, as he explains herein. Yet he was imbued with a very strong sense of what the Christian life entailed. He knew the meaning of self-sacrifice and practiced it. Sadly, though, he always felt unredeemed despite the joy and wisdom he dispensed to those who knew him best. His kindness to others led Cynthia Ware of New Orleans, one of his many admirers, to declare, “I have known two saints in my life, and Will Percy was one.” The poet Lucas Myers was introduced to him at age ten at Sewanee in 1940 and remembers him as the most arresting figure he had ever met, aside from the dapper and equally animated poet Allen Tate, another resident on the Sewanee domain. Hodding Carter, a fledgling journalist whom Percy had recruited in the 1930s to run the local newspaper, recalled that his patron “sent penniless youngsters to college, helped jobless men find work, set up ambitious people in small businesses.” The problems of any friend or relative became his problems. He hated to see suffering and did his best to make things go well for others--even when he was himself in deep mourning or ill from fatigue, as he often was. For instance, he used to have two penurious and irascible aunts, Lelia and Nana, to dinner every Sunday noon. Walker recalled to me that the old ladies would have “two cocktails and then wine with the dinner” and later “complain of having a ‘hairpin headache’ when actually they were having hangovers. No doubt Will was secretly amused, but his kindhearted spirit prompted him in 1930 to finance Nana’s holiday in Europe.61 This approach to life was an essential part of his sense of Stoic honor but also, one suspects, his acceptance of the Christian ethic while rejecting the Roman church of his youth.

For all the reasons sketched above, Lanterns on the Levee reaches the distinction of a classic. A fellow Mississippian, friend and literary critic, Roark Bradfordwrote in 1942 that “Will Percy plucked his own lyre and sang his own songs to the stars and to the wind and to the dawn.” In poetry and in prose he was always true to himself. The scholar Fred Hobson recently called Lanterns one of the most “brilliantly conceived and controlled works of art” in Southern literature.62 That judgment is true because the writer and his art were so intimately joined together. The memoir belongs in the American literary galaxy along with the more famous writings of the Southern Renascence. With his expansive spirit of beauty and of sorrow, William Alexander Percy will live on for many years to come in the unforgettable pages of Lanterns on the Levee.


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