WILLIAM ALEXANDER PERCY would ultimately become a large figure in his own right. Cultured, charming, a hero in the Great War, a poet and writer, his autobiography Lanterns on the Levee remains in print half a century after publication. He would travel about the world, sponsor young artists and writers, make the Percy home in Greenville a salon visited by people of international renown, and encourage northern scholarship about the Delta. Dissatisfied with the quality of the local newspaper, he would recruit Hodding and Betty Werlein Carter to Greenville to start one that would win a national reputation. His influence would be felt even more directly by his adopted son and blood cousin Walker Percy, who would become a National Book Award-winning novelist, and by Walker’s close friend, Civil War historian and novelist Shelby Foote. Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown calls Will “the best of the Percys,” “the subject of myths…. How effortless it was to idolize Will Percy.” Betty Carter says simply, “Will Percy was a great man.”
But if a large figure, Will Percy always felt dwarfed by his father. Short and slight, frail even and without his father’s thick chest, he was also blond, blue-eyed, and strikingly handsome, even beautiful. Forty-two years old in 1927, his features retained a boyish appeal. Even several years later Walker Percy described him as “quick as a youth…the abiding impression was of a youthfulness.” He had his father’s charm and added his own. He could talk about poetry and music, recalls Foote, “in a way that made you not only know the reality of it, but also appreciate the beauty…in a way that made you wish the conversation would hurry up and get over with so you could go home and read Keats.” He could also in an instant turn acerbic, wintry. Foote adds, “He could get as mad as anyone I’ve ever known in my life…. His anger was a fearsome thing to be around.”
The anger came from a deeper torment. For Will Percy could not escape the weight of his name, nor of his father, nor of the fact that he filled a place in the world that was not his and that he did not want. He had “beautiful and terrible eyes, eyes to be careful around,” Walker Percy said. “Yet now, when I try to remember them, I cannot see them otherwise than as shadowed by sadness.” David Cohn, a writer and national Democratic Party figure in the 1950s, called him “the loneliest man I have ever known…. [Loneliness] sometimes hovered as an aura about his head as he presided at his own table bright with laughter.”
To protect himself, all his life the son danced mannered and intricate steps around the father. He took those steps to insulate the life he clung to, a romanticized past—perhaps symbolically, he would never learn to drive a car—from the grit of reality. But the Mississippi River would send reality flooding through his world and mark the end of the life he romanticized. It would also mark failure, his own failure, and by his standards the failure of his father and their society as well. The lifelong dance of father and son is itself that story.
EVEN AS A YOUNG BOY, Will seemed to simultaneously embrace his heritage and seek something else. From the time of his birth, two months too soon after the marriage of LeRoy and Camille Bourges, his parents reciprocated his ambivalence. Will himself would note that his arrival “overjoyed no one,” including “Father and Mother.” Both parents always stood apart from him, distant. Will responded with reticence, a self-containment, a resistance. As a boy, he did not play baseball or take to horses or do mischief with the children of the black servants. He disliked fishing and found hunting “even more lacerating to [my] spirit.” Instead, he loved flowers and books. Nor, as he grew older, did he take to the plantation, or to gambling, or to drinking, or to any of the social vices so much a part of his father’s society.
Yet the father still dominated the son’s life. He dominated it not with orders or rules or discipline, but with what Will saw as his perfection. “I had not loved Father deeply, though I had admired him boundlessly,” he wrote. “It was hard having such a dazzling father; no wonder I longed to be a hermit.” Many years later Will worshiped small pieces of his father that appeared in others; since his father hunted and fished, for example, Will, despite his aversion to both pursuits, called fishermen and hunters “the most gentle and understanding people in the world, and I suspect anyone who isn’t one or the other.” Will blamed every failing, including the distance between him and his father, on himself, saying, “I must have been a hard child to get close to.”
Still, Will was a Percy, and therefore a warrior. If he shared none of his father’s interests, he staked out his own ground and was determined to be worthy of him. He poured his passion into perfection. Nothing less would suffice. As a teenager, he frowned on sin, resented his father’s “unchurchliness,” and told his Catholic mother he wanted to become a priest. (She was appalled.) Despite the fine schools in Greenville, he was privately tutored and refused to continue reading Othello because it was “immoral.” His religiosity, he said, “was anguish and ecstasy, but mostly anguish, to me…. I was determined to be honest if it killed me…. I wanted to be completely and utterly a saint; heaven and hell didn’t matter, but perfection did.”
His intensity reflected a kind of masochism, a self-flagellation, a ripping at one’s own flesh. It was also passionate and ferocious. With his life largely internal, he began writing poetry, which like his religiosity seemed ill suited to the son of the father. When Will was fifteen, his parents sent him away to a military school at Sewanee to become a man, but also gave him permission to enter the nearby University of the South at Sewanee instead if he qualified; he did, and began college.
By then, Will had a brother named LeRoy, six years younger and fashioned in their father’s image. Outgoing, animated, everything that Will was not, young LeRoy rode his pony bareback, explored the black sections of town, and was what Will called him: “all boy, all sturdy, obstreperous charm.” His parents doted on him; clearly he would be the one who would carry on the Percy tradition, thus releasing Will from it. Will himself called him “the swell brother who should be representing and perpetuating the name.” But his father gave LeRoy a rifle. When he was eleven years old, another boy accidentally shot him with it, and he died. Crowds overflowed the house and yard for the funeral, while blacks lined the street outside the house paying tribute.
The death did not bring father and remaining son closer. They grieved separately. At the time, Will wrote a poem that included the line, “I am your son, and you have slain my brother.” Such a critical thought about his father was rare. It only complicated their relationship further, for he still idolized his father.
His parents did not idolize him. He graduated from Sewanee at nineteen, then spent a year in Europe. In letters home he complained that he had not heard from them, complained of “this one-sided correspondence,” wrote, “Mother Dear—it was certainly good to get your letter tonight after what seemed an interminable wait,” and, later, “Mother Dear, Things are progressing very pleasantly except for the fact I haven’t received a line from you or father.”
He needed his parents then. Europe had awakened in him something he found hypnotizing and frightening. In the Louvre, he “was always happening upon a hermaphrodite, in some discreet alcove, and I would examine the sleazy mock-modest little monster with horror and fascination.” And he became “sick for a home I had never seen and lonely for a hand I had never touched.”
Fleeing from that loneliness, he returned home and submitted to his heritage. His father, grandfather, and two uncles were prominent attorneys. Will went to Harvard Law, even though his father had not pushed him to do so, and found no pleasure in it. For the new, other, greater distance between father and son was showing itself most obviously in his poetry.
IF WILL’S POEMS have not endured, in his time he developed a sizable reputation. He became the editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and his work was praised and solicited by such people as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, leaders of the “Fugitives,” southern poets who rejected industrial society in favor of a more honorable agrarian one. As an editor, he advised one poet: “[L]et your writing reflect only the wisdom of pain or of delight which life has most deeply revealed to you. Nothing else is worth your time or the time of any reader.” He told a friend that poetry’s “first requirement is sincerity and the single aim should be to write as though there were no audience other than the writer’s own heart.”
Many of his poems spoke of his father. With the one exception quoted above, in them his father was always heroic. In a poem titled “L.P.,” he was asked: “‘How many trees in your forest?’ / ‘One:’… / When storms run…the tree bows like Jacob wrestling with God.’” In another he wrote: “There is no certain thing I can lay hold on / And say, ‘This, this is good! This will I worship!’ / Except my father.” In his autobiography Will defined himself, shortly before his death, as only a reflection, a son. It is subtitled Recollections of a Planter’s Son; in it he stated simply, “Father was the only great person I ever knew.”
His poems also spoke of other things, and the single poem he cited as his truest was “Sappho in Levkas.” It is a long poem, seventeen pages long. It sings of passion. It also speaks of confusion, vacillation, anger, torment, and his father. In it, the narrator, ostensibly Sappho, becomes obsessed with a youth and, riveted by the boy’s beauty, spies on him, dreams of him, and finally loves him. For loving him, the narrator trembles equally with love and self-hatred.
To think nobility like mine could be
Flawed—shattered utterly—and by…
A slim, brown shepherd boy with windy eyes
And spring upon his mouth!…
Before Thine eyes to strip my passion till
Naked its evil gleams…
Drinking the poison of his loveliness…
To see his bending body in the dance…
That lithe and burning youth…
Father, it seemed not evil then—so sweet
He was; and I, who, most of all the world,
Loved purity and loathed lust,
Became the mark of my own scorning…
Defeat or victory alike—is utter ruin…
Oh, always beauty was to me,
Thyself half seen, my Father…
And this same beauty now betrayeth me…
O home! O Lesbos!
O gods, and grant this boon!
Bear me back home to Lesbos and the boy!
Steep me but one short hour in his love!…
I would forswear song—beauty—Zeus, my father…
I would long to be
Freed from that loneliness men call esteem.
Sappho, he made clear, truly represented his heart, and other poems expressed similar desires. In one, he wrote longingly of “some young god, / With blown, bright hair and fillet golden, came / And stretching forth the blossoming rod of beauty / Upon me wrought a pagan spell.” Such desires had to torture him.
Had it not been for his father, Will might have abandoned Greenville and his name, and freed himself from the loneliness of men’s esteem. But worshiping his father, he could not do so. And having finished law school, he needed to begin his adult life. His father still would not embrace him. Though LeRoy advised one young man that Greenville was “the best place in the Delta for a young lawyer to start practicing,” he confided to his brother, “I am considerably bothered about Will, whether to advise him to settle here or in Memphis. On his own account I am strongly inclined to Memphis.”
But in 1910 Will did return to Greenville, and his father’s law firm became Percy & Percy. Will was twenty-five years old. Meanwhile, LeRoy was bestowing his favor on his nephew, Will’s first cousin, LeRoy Pratt Percy, a Birmingham attorney whose own father had killed himself with a shotgun. It was this nephew with whom LeRoy now hunted and gambled and joked. It was this nephew whom LeRoy now expected to carry on the family tradition. (The nephew, like his own father, would later kill himself.)
The closeness between father and nephew, Will’s cousin, must have reminded the son of his own failings. Will lived at home with his parents, and there was constant tension, violent arguments. He was not weak and could explode with ferocity and truculence. His tongue could keep even his father at bay. “But it wasn’t fun,” Will said. “I had attacks of nausea, but not of tears.” At least some of the tension centered on his lack of interest in women. In an unpublished manuscript Will confessed: “My father and mother looked at me strangely…. My father said, ‘It is in the spring that the seed is eager, is it not?’ But my mother would cover his lips with her hands. ‘Do not speak,’ she would say, ‘We do not know what we may be saying.’” In Greenville other people began to wonder why he did not marry, not quite saying something else.
He often returned to Europe. The Sicilian village Taormina became a favorite spot. There a German photographer had taken famous photographs of nude shepherd boys portrayed as satyrs and ancient Greeks, and English homosexuals who worshiped young male nudes had largely adopted the town. Will moved in their circle but could not embrace that life fully. Yet in Greenville there seemed nothing for him. He wrote his cousin and confidant Janet Dana Longcope: “I’m about convinced that my usefulness down here is ended, and certainly all chance for happiness is. From now on it would be a ‘petering’ out process, which of all things I most despise.”
When the Great War began, he was in Taormina climbing Mt. Etna. The war, he told his cousin, was “the center of the world. To miss this war is to miss the opportunity of this century or to refuse the opportunity.”
IN 1916, BEFORE the United States entered the war, Will went to Belgium to help run Hoover’s food distribution program, along with other young Americans. At thirty-one he was one of the oldest there.
Suddenly, for the first time, Will was eclipsing his father, who had never been to war. Their relationship changed. The day Will left for Europe, LeRoy wrote John Sharp Williams, who was still in the Senate, advising him on strategy for a flood control bill and confessed, “That boy of mine has gone to Belgium today and I am lonesome.”
When America declared war, Will came home and joined the Army. In France he continued to write poems and sent them home. LeRoy was proud enough to show some to Williams, who in turn showed them to the president. Wilson commended them. LeRoy also sent some of Will’s letters to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, which published them.
More interesting were the letters LeRoy kept to himself. “Dear Father,” Will wrote in the summer of 1918. “There were patches of blue corn-flowers which always remind me of mother’s eyes. I lost all interest in field of fire…and sniffed the air and watched the very blue distant hills and before the morning was over nearly lost my job for sheer incompetence. Being competent is certainly a difficult matter, and, when the world strikes you as particularly lovely, impossible…. When I go up front and see the handful of youngsters that stand immediately between us and the enemy—so full of spirit and so completely ‘on their own,’ I return with an awful sense of their warm flesh…. My work, I suppose, will always be among the chess-players at the top, but my game will never be a good one for I’ll never be able to think of the pieces as pawns. And as yet, I haven’t seen any of the real horror.”
His father, both of them knew, could see soldiers as pawns. And Will would soon see the real horror; in combat he would remain cool, determined, and controlled.
Barely a month later, he wrote: “Dear Father,…To be shelled when you are in the open is one of the most terrible of human experiences. You hear this rushing, tearing sound as the thing comes toward you and then the huge explosion as it strikes, and, infinitely worse, you see its hideous work as men stagger, fall, struggle or lie quiet and unrecognizable. A company broke and I saw a colonel trying to rally and direct them. So I joined him and took over the company…. It was a vivid, wild experience and I think I went through it calmly by refusing to recognize it as real. You couldn’t see men smashed and killed around you, and bear it except by walking in a sort of sleep, as you might read Dante’s Inferno. The exhilaration of battle—there’s no such thing, except perhaps in a charge. It’s simply a matter of will power. As for being without fear, I met no such person under this barrage, though men played their part as if they were without it.”
It was a far cry from the ecstasy Andrew Humphreys had felt at Fredericksburg. Will took pride in his performance, writing his mother, “honor I deserved,” but he took no pleasure in it. He had only done his duty. After the Armistice he wrote, “Dear Father,…This war will furnish the material for great literature for generations to come, but I’m afraid my mould is not heroic enough or else I’ve seen it from too near to be able to turn the horror into beauty.”
He returned as a captain with the Croix de Guerre and gold and silver stars. Father and mother were proud and met him at the dock in New York. He had been to a place his father envied and could not reach. Their relationship had matured and mellowed. They became closer. Will returned home and resumed living in the family mansion on Percy Street. He and his father walked to work together each day, and talked. Will later said, “Of all my experiences, our daily walks…are those I least want to forget.”
But they had only built a bridge across a chasm between them. The two did not so much see things differently; they saw different things. Ironically, Will, who had been through a war that made most intellectuals bitter cynics, remained the romantic. And as if to compensate for what he must have regarded as his own personal evil, in Greenville he continued to insist on moral perfection and condemned scandal. LeRoy, perhaps remembering the timing of his own marriage, tolerated human weakness and condemned no one. LeRoy understood passion; Will endured it.
They viewed blacks differently as well. LeRoy saw all men, including blacks, as pieces in a larger game. It was almost entirely a question of economics to him, and he could accept an individual Negro as a man, if not a social equal. But then he accepted few whites as social equals. He wrote John Sharp Williams: “The negroes are going to leave the South gradually more and more until the standard of wages is raised throughout the South more nearly to the level of what it is elsewhere. When the negroes once scatter throughout the United States, there would cease to be any sectional or local negro issue, and any issue there would be, would be an issue between the whites and blacks throughout the entire country.”
Will had less tolerance for racial differences than his father. In 1921, while LeRoy lobbied former Senate colleagues against all immigration restrictions, Will wrote Williams, “I can’t see why we should not adopt a definite policy for the exclusion of Orientals.” His feelings about blacks were far more complex, beginning with a naive paternalism. In his autobiography he claimed that the Delta was settled as “slaveholders began to look for cheap fertile lands farther west that could feed the many black mouths dependent on them.” His father would have considered absurd the idea that slave owners moved hundreds of miles for the good of their slaves.
Will did protect blacks out of a sense of noblesse oblige. He stopped wearing a hat because that meant tipping it to a white woman but not to a black, and later would have blacks—such as the poet Langston Hughes—as guests in his home, an extraordinary occurrence in the South of the time. Yet, unlike his father, he had difficulty seeing an individual black as a full man. To Will blacks were unknowable, primal. Their mystery and darkness drew him. He wondered, “[W]hat can a white man, north or south, say of them that will even approximate the truth?” He envied “their obliterating genius for living in the present” and noted, “The Negro’s moral flabbiness is both his charm and his undoing.”
He certainly knew of the liaisons between white men and black women, many semipermanent, and of the huge house on Blanton Street called “The Mansion,” where nice clean colored girls entertained white gentlemen. He disapproved, even while suffering his own passion, even while continuing to travel around the world to pursue—and evade—his own dark places and the hunger that repelled him. He wrote a poem about Taormina, home of the dark-skinned young shepherd boys. In the Delta, blacks presented an opaque smiling face to whites, but they were everywhere, unnoticed but knowing everything about whites. Some, it was rumored, might know Will far too well. He called his black personal servant in Greenville “my only tie with Pan and the Satyrs and all earth creatures who smile sunshine and ask no questions and understand.” Sometimes self-disgust filled him. In his poem “Medusa,” he spoke of “turn[ing] to stone with terror of facing quietly a flawless mirror.”
Yet he demanded respect, and got it. He was after all a Percy. But his father had never demanded respect; he had commanded it. So had LeRoy’s father, William Alexander Percy, after whom Will had been named.
Indeed, by the time the first William Alexander was forty-two, he had led a regiment in war, reorganized the state’s levee system, faced down a mob to stop a lynching, led the “Redemption” of the county, started a railroad, and served as Speaker of the state legislature. By the time LeRoy himself was forty-two, he had brought railroads to the Delta, hunted with the president, maneuvered with and against the Mississippi River Commission, run plantations totaling 30,000 acres, negotiated with the mayor of Rome for Italian immigrants, defended Negroes against white demagogues, advised such financiers as J. P. Morgan, and become the strongest figure in the Delta and one of the strongest in the South.
Will was known only for being his father’s son, even while others of his generation had emerged as leaders, such men as Billy Wynn, also a captain in the war whose law office was in the same building as Percy & Percy. Five years earlier when LeRoy had confronted the Klan, Will had stood beside him, always steadfast, always courageous, yet still in the shadows. Even in the midst of that battle he had been busy filling their library with delicate and exquisite volumes, conducting a warm correspondence with bookshops in New York: “I understand that Harper’s has published the first volume of Elie Faure’s History of Art, translated by Walter Pach. Won’t you please get this for me? Have you been able to find ‘Nostrom’ yet?…The dark blue limp leather edition is the one I like best.”
He had accepted a few community tasks, such as raising money for good causes. Fellow alumnus Monte Lemann of Monroe & Lemann in New Orleans convinced him to raise money for Harvard Law School. And he became chairman of the Washington County Red Cross. He disliked asking for contributions, but it was his duty and he realized that only with difficulty did someone in the county refuse a Percy.
The Mississippi River had abruptly changed everything. Now, in the emergency, he suddenly had real responsibility. Now the mayor of Greenville, after a conversation with LeRoy, named Will head of a special flood relief committee. The appointment, coupled with his chairmanship of the county Red Cross, gave Will near absolute control over the county during the emergency, and over the care of tens of thousands of refugees. The job would require more of Will than he had ever given anything except his poetry. It would also put everything that mattered to him at risk.
It would be Will’s chance to prove himself a true Percy, and to learn precisely what that meant. What he did would have an impact far beyond the Delta, on the nation at large.