The House of Percy Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family, and: The Literary Percys Family History, Gender, and the Southern Imagination (review)
- Southern Cultures
- The University of North Carolina Press
- Volume 3, Number 4, 1997
- pp. 79-84
- Additional Information
reviews Our regular review section features some of the best new books, films, and sound recordings in southern studies. From time to time, you 'Il also find reviews of important new museum exhibitions and public history sites, and retrospectives on classic works that continue to shape our understanding of the region and its people. Our aim is to explore the rich diversity of southern life and the methods and approaches of those who study it. Please write us to share your suggestions, or to addyour name to our reviewer file. The House of Percy Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family By Bertram Wyatt-Brown Oxford University Press, 1 994 454 pp. Cloth, $30.00; paper, $17.95 The Literary Percys Family History, Gender, and the Southern Imagination By Bertram Wyatt-Brown Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures No. 37 University of Georgia Press, 1994 1 10 pp. Cloth, $19.95 Reviewed by Tom McHaney, Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature at Georgia State University in Adanta. As he did with his work on southern honor (Southern Honor: Ethics andBehavior in the OldSouth and Honor and Violence in the Old South), historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown has made two books of very different scale out ofhis formidable research into the long and richly peopled chronicle of the American family now best known for producing two of the twentieth-century South's most interesting writers, the epigonic poet and modern memoirist William Alexander Percy and the philosophical essayist and postmodern novelist 79 Walker Percy. Both books, for very different reasons, deserve our close attention, not merely as contributions to southern letters but equally as models of good judgment and good writing under the aegis ofnew American historiography. The House ofPercy shares much thematic ground with Southern Honor. The Percy family, in its living as well as in its writing, demonstrates, in Wyatt-Brown's interpretation , that a specifically southern code of behavior, based on the concept of honor, ruled and sometimes misruled the lives of southern males and the mythicizing of southern families. This code helped create a society unique in many respects even as that society participated in pursuits and occupations common to an international anglophone economy. But the Percy books are not absolutely driven by the earlier work on southern honor, though this theme is important. They are driven, instead, by allthe elements that can drive ambitious and engaging men and women through seven generations of complex living in one of the most problematic sub-regions ofAmerica. Though beautifully scaled— 3 5 5 pages ofnarrative— The House ofPercy is a work that deserves in the very best sense that much cheapened term epic. The people, not politics or war or the rich southern land and its crops and weather, are the main story. The cast of named Percys is supported by a well-drawn set ofcollateral kin, distinguished friends, and significant acquaintances in America and abroad. Members of this family succeeded, generation after generation, in managing enormous tracts ofnew land in the rich Delta region and elsewhere in Mississippi, in Louisiana, and in Alabama, controlling whatever means of production were the standard in their time—African slaves or black and white sharecroppers, financial credit or the subdeties of twentieth-century politics and law. They made and lost fortunes, children, grand houses, and even a secessionist nation, but their greatest adversary in WyattBrown 's epic is themselves, though rarely one another. The recurrent foe in the Percy connection, from the first Charles Percy, who acquired land in the Natchez district ofMississippi in the eighteenth century, to the thoughtful and retiring twentieth-century author of The Last Gentleman and Lancelot, who setded in a "non-place" called Covington, Louisiana, is a melancholia that manifested itself in both men and women over the generations. It repeatedly led to nervous collapse or its most acute outcome, suicide. Behind this melancholia, as even the two tides of the novels by Walker Percy cited above might suggest, lay not only a family disposition to this illness but, in WyattBrown 's construction, the problematic encounter with southern honor. Beyond this melancholia, however, lay a potential compensation, the third term in WyattBrown 's subtitle for The House...