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William Alexander Percy

The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker

Benjamin E. Wise

Publication Year: 2012

Best remembered for his autobiography, LANTERNS ON THE LEVEE (1941), Mississippi planter and poet William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) maintained an ambivalent approach toward local views regarding masculinity and sexuality. Percy's encounters while traveling abroad informed his thoughts on gender, sexuality, and race; Wise engages the paradox of the life of Percy--a sexual liberationist, cultural relativist, and white supremacist in late Victorian Mississippi.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Introduction: Stories of Belonging

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pp. 1-13

The fifth of December that year was a rain-soaked Monday. In the mail Percy received a letter from Harold Bruff, his best friend and likely his lover from Harvard Law School. Bruff, recently diagnosed with tuberculosis, informed Percy that he was leaving the country; his doctor had advised him...

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1. The Stage of Southern History

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pp. 14-29

William Alexander Percy’s Mississippi Delta in 1910: a world of sprawling cotton plantations worked by sharecroppers. A disproportionately large African American population. A small but powerful white population. A political system run by white people and by Democrats yet still fiercely...

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2. Childhood, Remembered Queerly

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pp. 30-41

In May 1885, the month Will Percy was born, Greenville, Mississippi, was still a frontier town with muddy roads and wooden sidewalks. The pages of the Greenville Times displayed notices of land for sale and industry in need of capital. Merchants advertised their plows and razors and pistols and...

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3. Sewanee

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pp. 42-58

In July 1900 Percy boarded a train bound for Tennessee. He was alone; his parents had left for a two-month tour of Europe a few weeks before. His father sent him with a letter of introduction. “His mother and I, of course, feel some solicitude about him, as he has never been away from home alone...

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4. Southerner in Europe

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pp. 59-72

LeRoy and Camille Percy traveled to Sewanee in June 1904 to attend the graduation of their only son. Their other son, LeRoy Percy Jr., died in a hunting accident in 1902. He had loved to hunt and fish and play sports. He seemed destined to follow in the hearty, sturdy footsteps of his namesake. Even after...

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5. Harvard

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pp. 73-91

On May 20, 1905, Percy boarded the SS Saint Paul in Southampton, England. The Saint Paul was an icon of the Gilded Age—a fast, luxurious steamship that ferried travelers, merchants, and immigrants from Europe to New York City. American and European steamship companies had been competing...

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6. The Senator’s Son

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pp. 92-120

September 1908 found Will Percy again on a train bound for Mississippi. Much had changed since he boarded a train in Greenville in July 1900, a fifteen-year-old southerner bound for college. He had lost his faith in Christianity, though not necessarily his faith in God. At Sewanee he developed...

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7. On Love, Poetry, and War

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pp. 121-143

Percy had been writing poetry since law school, but after Harold Bruff’s death in 1911 his work became more focused. Over the next few years, he wrote a series of poems he published as a book in 1915: Sappho in Levkas and Other Poems. Taken as a whole, the poems in Sappho in Levkas amount to an...

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8. The Soldier

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pp. 144-160

In early 1916 the war in Europe was nearly two years old. Trenches stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland on the western front, the main theatre of a war also being fought in Russia, Turkey, Italy, and other places and now involving over forty countries. British, French, Russian, and Italian armies...

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9. The Naïve and Nostalgic Poet

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pp. 161-178

In April 1919, Percy returned home to a Mississippi that was similar in some ways to northern France—a farming region, a religious culture, and a place once torn apart by war. But Percy set himself to neither farming nor faith. Instead, he set himself to finishing a book of poems, In April Once, which he...

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10. The Klan

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pp. 179-188

As Percy was writing In April Once and subsequently enjoying its reception, he was also practicing law and living at home with his family. He maintained the pattern of living that characterized his working life: he would work enough to save money and then take a long, distant trip. He competently...

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11. On God, Sin, and the Mediterranean

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pp. 189-209

“I’m now regarded as a citizen of Capri,” Will Percy proclaimed to his parents from Italy in August 1922. Shortly after his father had delivered his anti-Klan speech at the Washington County courthouse, Percy left for the summer. In Greenville, his father remained embroiled in the Ku Klux battle and his legal...

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12. The Flood and After

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pp. 210-225

Early 1927 found Will Percy writing a letter to his friend Witter Bynner. Bynner was a poet who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and who counted among his friends artists such as D. H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Igor Stravinsky, and W. H. Auden, among others. He was a part of the circle of intellectuals...

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13. Uncle Will

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pp. 226-242

In July 1929, Will Percy’s cousin LeRoy Pratt Percy committed suicide in the attic of his Birmingham mansion. He was a successful lawyer who loved his wife, Mattie Sue, and his three young sons, Walker, Roy, and Phinizy. He was a hunter and a sportsman, and he traveled often with his Uncle LeRoy...

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14. Samoa, Sharecropping, and Race

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pp. 243-260

On June 24, 1936, Will Percy boarded the SS Monterrey in Los Angeles to sail just under 4,000 miles to Samoa. He had traveled to Polynesia before in 1931, and his fascination with the South Seas resembled those of a number of American and European intellectuals and artists before him. The French...

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15. The Autobiographer

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pp. 261-276

In the spring of 1937, Percy was thinking about his flowers. The camellias were already in bloom, and so were the tulips and redbuds and azaleas. He was thinking about a summer trip to Sewanee, where he and Leon Koury, Tommy Shields, and Huger Jervey were to spend June and July. He was...

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Epilogue: On Sex, History, and Trespassing

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pp. 277-283

At the time, I was doing the research for this book, and I took a trip to the archives at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. An academic history conference happened to be meeting at Sewanee at the same time, and the conference organizers offered a guided tour of Brinkwood. I went on...

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pp. 285-288

To borrow a phrase from Will Percy, it has taken a lot of other people’s love, goodwill, money, time, and energy to make something out of me that doesn’t look like the Good Lord slapped it together absentmindedly. So it goes with this book. It is a singular pleasure to put in writing what I feel about the...


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pp. 289-347


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pp. 349-355

E-ISBN-13: 9781469601908
E-ISBN-10: 1469601907
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807835357
Print-ISBN-10: 0807835358

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942.
  • Poets, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
  • Landowners -- Mississippi -- Greenville -- Biography.
  • Plantation life -- Mississippi -- Greenville.
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