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  • On Naïve and Sentimental PoetryNostalgia, Sex, and the Souths of William Alexander Percy
  • Benjamin E. Wise (bio)

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Figure 1.

When his publishers advertised William Alexander Percy's life story, Lanterns on the Levee, they promised readers he was "The Old South, living and incarnate." One reviewer of Percy's now-classic memoir wrote, "The author is a part of his own region, and his region is a part of him." William Alexander Percy, courtesy of the Collections of the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library, Greenville, Mississippi.

"South! . . . These stars I know! . . . And south is Greece!"

—William Alexander Percy, "Night Off Gallipoli" (1920)

"We are homesick for 'the glory that was Greece.'"

—Raymond Ganger to William Alexander Percy, 12 November 1921 [End Page 54]

During his life and since his death in 1942, many people wanting to understand the American South have looked to William Alexander Percy. Understanding the man, it has seemed, might help us understand the region.

Born into a prominent southern family and educated at Sewanee and Harvard, Will Percy spent most of his life working as a lawyer, poet, and civic leader in Greenville, Mississippi. Percy was centrally involved in several key moments in the history of Mississippi and the South, serving as a lieutenant in his father LeRoy's 1911 senatorial campaign against James K. Vardaman, openly opposing the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s, and leading the Red Cross in Greenville during the monumental flood of 1927. He recounted these and other aspects of his life in his artful, charming, and often-evasive memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. When the publishers advertised Percy's life story, they promised readers he was "The Old South, living and incarnate." One reviewer of Percy's now-classic work wrote, "The author is a part of his own region, and his region is a part of him," while another suggested that "William Alexander Percy speaks for the Southern aristocracy." Evidence abounds in book reviews, obituaries, and reminiscences, as well as in scholarly books and articles, that Percy has become a place marker in southern studies for the genteel, paternalistic, and nostalgic elements of white southern life. He has been cast as a melancholic planter and dilettante poet whose gaze was fixed on his yearnings for the southern past, a symbolic role summed up in one of his obituaries: "Mr. Percy was the quintessence of the unreconstructed southerner."1

Will Percy, however, has never made a very good quintessential American southerner. In his life, he interacted with and was shaped by not merely the South but people, ideas, and experiences outside of the region and the nation. When he looked back in time with nostalgia, he was not always looking to the southern American past. In neither his prose nor his poetry was Percy nostalgic for the antebellum South so often embodied by mythical male ancestors, and he did not participate in the hero-worship surrounding the nation's Civil War. He joked about his suicidal antebellum family patriarch who walked "down to the creek with a sugar kettle, tied it round his neck, and hopped in," and he hinted at the contradictions of his war-veteran grandfather, who, though "an opponent of secession and a lukewarm slaveowner, was away fighting to destroy the Union and preserve the institution of slavery." Moreover, Percy was neither a champion of the bygone innocence of southern womanhood, nor of the closely related cult of the Lost Cause. He conjectured that "the lily-of-the-field life of the Southern gentlewoman" was an imaginative creation of "Northern critics and Southern sentimentalists," and commenting on the iconography of the Lost Cause, Percy dismissed statues celebrating Confederate valor as "dreadful" and "too pathetic" to be taken [End Page 55] seriously. The gendered nostalgia of many southern whites for Dixie, with its focus on Confederate soldiers and lily-white southern belles, was not Percy's.2


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Figure 2.

Born into a prominent southern family and educated at Sewanee and Harvard, Will Percy spent most of his life working as a lawyer, poet, and civic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 54-79
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-13
Open Access
No
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