Letter to Times Literary Supplement regarding Michael O'Brien's article about Will Percy
Times Literary Supplement
26 May, 2000
Sir, -- Michael O'Brien expresses "surprise" about having been "reproved" by someone "claiming to be Will Percy's nephew" in his reply (XX) to my comments (XX) on his C. Van Woodward eulogy (XX), in which he describes Lanterns on the Levee, I'll Take My Stand, and The Mind of the South as works that "few had noticed" -- an assertion laugh-out-loud wrong, as I hope my letter made plain. O'Brien attempts to extricate himself with the peculiar suggestion that he was "mimicking" the opinion of certain mid-fifties scholars and members of the reading public, who, newly attracted to things Southern because of the escalating debate on race that marked that decade, may not have been familiar with the titles in question. I do not challenge O'Brien's right to mimic -- may he mimic 'til his dying gasp! -- but I do question the practice, grossly evident in his piece, of presenting such impersonations as historical fact. While it is indeed true that the painful realities of the American South received more national attention during the fifties than they had before, that scarcely means that seminal texts bearing on the question hadn't long since been "noticed." O'Brien's eulogy gives the impression that Lanterns, for example, made its mark on the public mind only when Woodward et al. "dug up" the memoir -- a Knopf bestseller, etc. -- from the deepest obscurity. O'Brien's reply to my letter fails to correct this error, and other errors as well, such as his ludicrous insistence that I'll Take My Stand was a "marginal" work, a claim he repeats in the face of the fact that a standard textbook on American history notes that the book received "an enthusiastic national following."
But let us not dwell on errors, egregious though they are in the case of eulogist O'Brien. Of far greater moment to me is his doubt about my right to refer to Will Percy as my uncle. I find it astounding that he should be sufficiently well-informed about my family that he knows that Will's only sibling died in childhood -- which, apparently, in O'Brien's view renders uncle hood impossible -- and at the same time not be aware that other members of my generation of the family, including the novelist Walker Percy, who had precisely the same blood relation to Will that I do (first cousin once removed), thought of Will as "uncle" and routinely addressed him as such. The reason for this was simple: Uncle Will, queer sort though he was (he spent much time on Greek islands and Anatolian hill¬sides, often in the company of that dashing Uraninan, Norman Douglas), became the family patriarch following the death of his father, Senator LeRoy Percy of Mississippi. In such circumstances, "cousin" did not quite fit, but "uncle" did, and does. I could go on about this at some length, but will refrain, except to conclude that O'Brien has no understanding whatever of the nuances of the American South.
William A. Percy