For the better part of two centuries, the family tree of the Percys of Mississippi yielded an uncommon literary harvest. They were children of the Delta, and their genealogy was deeply-rooted in that region’s soil, living a gracious existence in the planter class they were born to, in a world they had helped to create, a world in which the family unit was rampart and fortress, the redoubt from which its members made forays outward, bringing their various gifts to Mississippi and the world beyond. The fact that those gifts were often of a literary nature set them apart, their prose and poetry leaving traces of the Percy sensibility for succeeding generations to ponder.
Percy scholar Bertram Wyatt-Brown locates the first literary Percys in the early nineteenth century—Eleanor Percy Lee and Catherine Ann Warfield, sisters with a superficial resemblance to the Brontes, the likeness limited mostly to their sisterhood and not to their respective literary talents. Wyatt-Brown describes their work as determinedly conventional, but together they published a total of eighteen volumes. Other writers in the Percy tribe followed, but it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the apotheosis of the Percy literary mind found its most accomplished talents in the books of poetry and a memoir by William Alexander Percy and the novels and philosophical musings of his cousin Walker. The story of Will Percy’s adoption of Walker and his two brothers after the deaths of their parents is well-known. Ultimately it resulted in an apprenticeship between the elder and the younger Percy in which Walker was introduced to the world of culture by the worldly and accomplished man he called Uncle Will.
In an unusual convergence of two writers who were blood kin, the 1973 edition of Will’s memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, included an introduction by Walker, the only time the two men would have their work published between the same covers. Walker was already famous as the author of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, and was rapidly becoming a cult figure. As the younger Percy noted, almost two generations had passed since the first publication of Lanterns, and Walker knew that many of Will’s opinions, especially those about race and the tenant farm system, both of which were strikingly anachronistic even in Will’s time, would likely be ridiculed by modern readers. So he chose his words carefully, praising what he saw as the book’s undeniable virtues and chiding it for the parts he saw as giving courage to Old South reactionaries. The result is a sensitively balanced feat, the work of a grateful man who had successfully found a tactful way to navigate the shoals of his beloved kin’s conservative views, knowing that the moment of those views had decisively become indefensible.
The privileged and gifted man who would leave behind Lanterns on the Levee as the testament of his life could be said to have lived a charmed existence. He grew up in secure circumstances and was loved by parents who, like many of their class, tended to be negligent with their children, allowing them the independence to become themselves. Growing up, he was entranced by the Mississippi River that flowed by his town and by the boats that churned its waters. Late at night he listened raptly to their calls, which, he wrote, “hung inside the heart like a star.”
His education was a priority for his mother and father. It was first entrusted to a local parochial school, his family being members of the Roman Catholic community of Greenville. Later he was the student of private tutors who gave him an unorthodox education, as he was handed down one by one to a series of local eccentrics who taught for the love of it and who gave him a classical education that filled him full of Greek and Latin. By the time he went to Sewanee, and later to law school at Harvard, he was thoroughly grounded in the Western intellectual tradition. As a result, his memoir abounds with literary references. Everything seemed to remind him of a line from Shakespeare or Sophocles. At Harvard he learned to socialize with Northerners and attempted to penetrate the mysteries of formal dining. (At one dinner party he seized the linen napkin next to his place and snapped it smartly. To his amazement, a hard roll fell out of an interior pocket and tumbled onto the floor, while his hosts pretended not to notice.)
His sense of adventure and patriotism led him to enlist in the First World War, where he was recognized as a leader of men, later winning the Croix de Guerre for bravery. Back in Greenville, he settled down to writing poetry, practicing law, and managing the 3,000-acre plantation left him by his father. Concerning the latter, Will considered himself a poor overseer and looked on helplessly as the plantation cultivated so successfully by his father steadily lost money. As redemption, he turned his home into a kind of literary salon that was always filled with the excitement of intellectual ferment. In the kind of selfless act his personal code demanded, he adopted as his own his cousin Walker and his two brothers, but he never married himself and never had children of his own. (He called the sexual act “rutting” and thought it an unsatisfying and awkward activity.)
In spite of the grace and good fortune of his outward life, Will was afflicted by the Percy melancholia, a malady that had brought low many members of his family, some by mental illness, some by the extreme of suicide. (Walker himself struggled with the gene all his life.) Will’s melancholia had its provision of gloom, but it made him more introspective than he might have been otherwise, more of a brooder, who turned to art for his greatest satisfactions.
War and human folly caused him to lose faith in his brethren except when heroism or unselfishness called on him for transcendence. When he was put in charge of rescue during the catastrophic flood of 1927, he was stunned to find himself criticized for neglecting the safety of the black population of Greenville, the part that he believed he’d exerted the greatest effort for. He was similarly disconcerted when a black family retainer told him that the other black tenants on his farm believed he wanted them returned to slavery and shipped back to Africa. And despite his unquestionable service to his town in civic and social matters, he more often than not felt himself a man without a country in Greenville.
He vociferously defended the morality, as he saw it, of the tenant farm economy as fair, even generous. After all, he reasoned, it was the planter who took all the risk, providing the tenant family with shelter, the seed to plant, and the implements for cultivation and harvest. At harvest time, he gave his tenants half of what the crop brought. (In his case, Will took half of the proceeds from 150 farms.) He believed the black man’s psyche was fundamentally flawed. He was either an innocent who required the white man’s protection for survival, or he was reflexively violent and without conscience when it came to his dealings with duress. The task of reconciling Percy’s contradictions—the sensitive poet versus the self–interested planter—will in all probability never be resolved.
Although he’d been raised a Roman Catholic, in maturity Will rejected the consolations proposed by religion, which he’d come to think of as founded on a literature of uncertain authenticity and passed down in a haphazard manner that made it untrustworthy as scripture. Instead, he turned to the bleak comforts of poetry and the writing of his memoir, the latter perhaps containing a more authentic poetry than his verse. The imprint of the man is always behind the words, though, whether in poetry or memoir, as he guides both to the extraordinary last chapters of Lanterns, in which he crafts a series of meditations devoted to opening the truths of self-revelation, the truth he thought he’d found at the philosophical heart of things, won over a lifetime of self-inquiry. In the chapter entitled “Jackdaw in the Garden,” he wrote this: “Having gone on for half a century, you find to your surprise you have passed the crest and are going down the shady side of the mountain.”
While the evidence suggests that the Percy literary line ended with Walker’s death in 1990, a case could be made that a crucial hinge in that line was Will’s memoir. In it he had looked back at the planter sensibility that had guided his family’s customs for generations and described it in minute, loving detail. He had also documented its decline and his ensuing loss of faith. Looking to the future, it can be said that that decline created an opening for the existential anti-heroes of Walker’s novels, men and women looking for and not always finding anchorage in a world made unreliable by a breakdown in time.