Percy, William Alexander
William Alexander Percy (May 14, 1885 — January 21, 1942) was a gay American lawyer, planter and poet from Greenville, Mississippi. His autobiography Lanterns on the Levee (Knopf 1941) became a bestseller, the public not catching its gay subtext. His father LeRoy Percy was the last United States Senator from Mississippi elected by the legislature. Ever afterwards rednecks elected racists in that state. And in that bigoted state, in addition to being homosexual, Will championed the Roman Catholicism of his French mother until he entered Sewanee at age 15.
Percy attended the High Church Anglican University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a postbellum tradition in his family, spent a year in Paris, and then earned a law degree from Harvard, and practiced law in his father's firm in Greenville. He served in the U.S. Army in World War I, earning the rank of Captain and the Croix de Guerre. From 1925 to 1932 he edited the Yale Younger Poets series, the first of its kind in the country. He also published four volumes of poetry himself with the Yale University Press.
A Southern man of letters, Percy befriended many fellow writers, Southern, Northern and European, including William Faulkner. He socialized with Langston Hughes and other gays in and about the Harlem Renaissance. Will was a sort of godfather to the Fugitives, or Agrarians, as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren and others were often called, at Vanderbilt. The Fugitive was a literary magazine at Vanderbilt. The contributors were believers in formal techniques in poetry and were preoccupied with defending the traditional values of the agrarian South against the effects of urban industrialization. Some of the Fugitive poets went on to form a second group, the Agrarians.
Percy's cousin once removed was Walker Percy, whom he adopted along with Walker’s two siblings after their mother, Mattie Sue Phinizee, the widow of Will’s first cousin, drowned in a car "accident". This was likely a suicide, a fate met with by her husband, her father-in-law (Will’s Uncle Walker), and his first cousin LeRoy Pratt Percy, Walker’s father. William Armstrong Percy III, historian and gay activist, like Walker, is also a first cousin once removed. Will introduced a young Shelby Foote, the most handsome and talented teenager in Greenville, half Jewish and half Southern aristocrat, to Walker when the teenage Walker moved there.
Will never married and had many boyfriends (or tricks if you prefer), both black and white, in New York and Europe — places he visited whenever possible so that he could more openly carry on the homosexual life he was forced in Mississippi to lead in secret. He visited and cruised Japan and the South Seas as well as Capri, Taormina, Greek Islands and Anatolian hillsides. Will had in succession three teenage African-American boyfriends in Greenville, each a servant of his.
Will's other works include the text of "They Cast Their Nets in Galilee", which is included in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (Hymn 661), and the Collected Poems (Knopf 1943). Another of his poems is included under the name A.W. Percy in Men and Boys, an anonymous anthology of Uranian poetry (New York, 1924).
A friend of Herbert Hoover from the Belgium Relief Effort during the early years of World War I, Will was put in charge of relief during the great flood of 1927, when an area larger than all New England (minus Maine) was inundated.