- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

In "Rising Tide," his masterful history of the Mississippi river flood of 1927, John Barry devotes a chapter to the role in that drama played by William Alexander Percy. As chairman of the Greenville, Miss., Red Cross, the then middle-aged son of the town's most prominent citizen, lawyer and former U.S. Senator LeRoy Percy, Will was charged with the welfare of the tens of thousands of refugees that poured into the town from the surrounding farmland with their children, horses, cows and pigs, crowding its high ground and levees, creating chaos.
To Will Percy it seemed evident: The refugees must be evacuated to safer, more sanitary conditions south of Greenville. But his father feared the economic disruption of removing a large part of the black work force from the area. Only the white population, he felt, should be evacuated. LeRoy Percy quietly let it be known that he did not support his son's view of the situation; at an emergency meeting, the members of the relief committee reversed their previous support of Will's decision to evacuate Greenville's blacks. So whites were evacuated to Vicksburg; the blacks stayed in crowded, unsanitary camps on the levees where the situation later turned ugly.
Mr. Barry writes of Will that "his father had betrayed honor and his own son, for money." In Mr. Barry's telling, the defeat of Will Percy was emblematic of the larger story of the flood and its place in our history. It marked a distinct deterioration of race relations and the demise of a Southern ideal.
Will Percy himself personified that Southern ideal; he was an old-fashioned Southern aristocrat. In "Lanterns on the Levee" (subtitled "Recollections of a Planter's Son") the elegant, bittersweet memoir for which he is best known, he describes the South of his childhood, the values with which he grew up and the events both dramatic and trivial of a lifetime spent there. Published shortly before the author's death in 1941, the book has been in print since that time.
Contemporary readers no longer consider the South a problem needing to be understood; many will surely be offended by the author's views on race relations, yet the book still has extraordinary vitality. For, while it is evocative of a place and a particular moment in history, it is also a touching individual story, sometimes straightforward, sometimes evasive, the struggle of a man to find his own distinct place in the shadow of a father he adores and a world that no longer holds the values with which he was reared. That it is written in richly descriptive prose, contains a wealth of fascinating vignettes and a gripping account of World War I combat, and that it is also often funny all add to the appeal of this American classic.
Will Percy spent most of his life (he was born in 1885) in the Mississippi Delta, the rich farmland between Memphis and Vicksburg, bordered on the west by the area's defining feature, the river. His family was one of the Delta's most prominent with extensive cotton plantations, French ancestry on both sides and patrician traditions that went back several generations.
After college at the University of the South at Sewanee, a year of European travel, and three years at Harvard Law School (which he chose over the University of Virginia, because "I wanted to meet the damyankees") Percy settled down in Greenville, where he practiced law with his father. He also began to write and publish poetry. When World War I came, he joined the Army, seeing action in France and returning to Greenville a decorated war hero.
In the early twenties he was at his father's side when he spoke out against the increasing intimidation of the Klu Klux Klan and celebrated with him (and a huge, drunken crowd) when Greenville elected the anti-klan candidate for sheriff they had backed. His parents died a few years after the flood of '27 and Will inherited their three thousand acre cotton plantation, Trail Lake, and their town house (on Percy Street). The widow of his favorite cousin came to live with him there with her three young sons and when she died he adopted the boys. In his later years Will Percy traveled widely but home was always Greenville, "a lovable town."
The cornerstones of Will Percy's world were honor for men, graciousness for women, manners for all, education, hospitality and service. In loving detail he describes the figures of his secure childhood world the cheerful teenaged "colored nurse, Nain," who rocked him and sang spirituals; "Mur," the grandmother who "was my first chum," who laughed and cried with him over "Huckleberry Finn" and "Alice in Wonderland" and who habitually served two desserts ("Imagine ice-cream and pudding, ambrosia and pie!").
His father "could do everything well except drive a nail or a car: He was the best pistol-shot and the best bird-shot, he made the best speeches, he was the fairest thinker and the wisest … " Will adored his first playmates, Skillet and Ligey and Cora, the children of his grandparents' black servants. "Of nastiness and bad manners they taught me nothing; older boys of my own color and caste were later to be my instructors in those subjects."
Caste and color concern Will Percy; he grew up in a world dominated by them. To him, the Delta was "built of three dissimilar threads and only three." These were "aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good …" Aristocrats were taught, as he was, that "anybody who was anybody must feel noblesse oblige, must concern himself with good government, must fight, however feebly or ineffectually or hopelessly, for the public weal."
Of poor whites he writes that "their manual labor lost its dignity from being in competition with slave labor" and calls them "intellectually and spiritually … inferior to the Negro." It is they who perpetrate what Percy calls the "national disgrace," lynching. And all whites suffer from the temptation to "dishonesty and hubris" that comes with superiority, "be the superiority intellectual or economic."
Will Percy loves a great many individual black people and he is deeply and publicly committed to what he sees as fair treatment for them; at the same time, he regards them with stunning condescension. He describes blacks as having "an aptitude for crimes of violence" and "a moral flabbiness," and writes that in the 1927 flood "Negroes … had no capacity to plan for their own welfare; planning for them was another of our burdens." That this inability to plan for themselves might be a result of history rather than natural endowment does not occur to him.
One of the boys Will Percy adopted was Walker Percy, who went on to become a well known novelist. In his superb Introduction to The Library of Southern Civilization (Louisiana State University Press) edition of "Lanterns on the Levee," Walker Percy points out that in the Mississippi of his day Will Percy was considered a "flaming liberal" for his racial attitudes. And while distancing himself from aspects of his cousin's views, he also defends the philosophy that guides them. "The words 'paternalism, noblesse oblige' (are) dirty words these days. But is it a bad thing for a man to believe that his position in society entails a certain responsibility toward others?"
Walker cites the way his "Uncle Will" cared for his servants ("like a father") and the way he gave up "the freedom of bachelorhood" to raise three boys (ages 14, 13 and nine). "Will Percy did not chuck anything," writes Walker, "he shouldered somebody else's burden."
To the young cousin who grew up in his home, Will Percy was not an embarrassing throwback to a previous generation. Rather, he was "a fixed point in a confusing world," a representative of an aristocratic class that drew its stature not from genealogy or money or power. "His own aristocracy," writes Walker Percy, "was a meritocracy of character, talent, performance, courage, and quality of life."
These traits fascinate and attract the reader; the animation they brought to Will Percy's lonely and often frustrating life, light up the pages of this engaging memoir.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.


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