- William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker by Benjamin E. Wise
In this excellent biography that analyzes the life of William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), historian Benjamin Wise accomplishes a number of things. At the most basic level, he delineates Percy's multiple identities: scion of a family of wealthy Greenville, Mississippi, planters; lackadaisical lawyer educated at the University of the South and Harvard; poet of stilted homoerotic verse ill at ease within the high modernism of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost; naïve soldier during World War I; foremost civic organizer in Greenville during the disastrous flood of the Mississippi River in 1927; and adoptive father of a set of Percy cousins orphaned in 1932, including future novelist Walker Percy. But, through a careful reading of Will Percy's essays, letters, journal, and other archival materials as well as, perhaps most important, his poetry, Wise also rescues Percy from being understood only through his melancholic autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1941), a work Wise rightly characterizes as a book "of contrasts, of deliberate omissions and careful inclusions" (p. 262). Finally, he deftly keeps in play simultaneous analyses of constituent elements of Percy's contradictory identity: region, sexuality, gender, race, religion, and class. As Wise clarifies in his introduction, the first two are his central focus: "Percy's life story, then, becomes a window onto two cultural identities, 'southern' and 'homosexual,' that were contested and in flux during his lifetime. A central aim of this book is to illuminate the history of these two frameworks of meaning through one man's engagement with them" (p. 9). Nevertheless, the study also smartly discusses Percy's views on race as "halting, ambivalent, and often contradictory" and it repeatedly analyzes the class privilege of the Percy family (p. 253).
Wise is at his finest, though, when negotiating Percy's sexuality, which has been ignored, dismissed, or oversimplified in scholarly treatments such as those by McKay Jenkins, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Richard King, and John Barry. Contextualizing Percy among sexual [End Page 105] freethinkers at the turn of the twentieth century, Wise convincingly details a historically specific male homosexuality that was rooted in Hellenism and fostered in elite educational institutions and that marked Percy as well as his extensive coterie of friends. And yet, for all the valuable work Wise contributes here to "the beginnings of a history of the queer subculture in Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century," he is refreshingly not invested in queer hagiography and suggests the less attractive elements of this homosexuality, including its rootedness in class privilege and cultural elitism (p. 281). Although perhaps not its main focus, Wise's biography also reminds of the national and global circumnavigations of Southerners of this era, particularly those of the upper classes, and Wise writes, "To understand Percy's life story is to travel with him around the world": England, France, Greece, Italy, Brazil, Samoa (p. 13). This checks notions of southern provincialism, as do the careful notations of regional multiculturalism. Percy's Mississippi Delta, Wise records, was a locale not only filled with immigrants from Russia, Greece, China, and Lebanon but also one marked by a range of religious believers, such as Protestants, Catholics (like Percy's maternal family), and Jews, and nonbelievers, such as Percy himself.
To accomplish all this, Wise structures his study around a brief introduction, fifteen chapters that move through Percy's life thematically and chronologically ("Sewanee," "The Soldier," "The Flood and After," and so on), and an epilogue entitled "On Sex, History, and Trespassing" that meditates on Wise's personal relationship to Percy and the project of the biography. Wise writes throughout in clean, readable prose, deploys jargon sparingly and strategically, and rarely becomes repetitive, usually with key argumentative points. Fifty-eight pages of notes are positioned at the end of the book, which furthers the readability of the study, but scholars may feel that the biographical narrative itself might...