May 14, 1885 – William Alexander Percy:
“It is a very nice world -that is, if you remember that while morals are all-important between the Lord and His creatures, what counts between one creature and another is good manners.”
He was a queer plantation owner, writer, cultural relativist, sexual liberation pioneer, and white supremacist.
Percy was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and he was the cousin and adoptive father of the Southern novelist Walker Percy (1916 – 1990). He was a lawyer, a poet, literary mentor, heir to a great family fortune, friend of William Faulkner, and he had a bestselling memoir, Lanterns On The Levee (1941) about his time as the top relief administrator during the Mississippi Delta Great Flood of 1927.
A real underachiever, Percy was as an army officer on the front lines in France during World War I, and an aide to his father, Senator LeRoy Percy, during the notorious 1911 campaign against the race-baiting James Vardaman (1861 – 1930), elected in 1912 to the Senate in the first popular vote for the office, following ratification of the 17th Amendment.
Percy was an unabashed elitist who scorned the American South’s poor whites and patronizingly presided over his hundreds of sharecroppers, thinking that they were incapable of taking care for themselves.
He enjoyed trysts with many, many men while traveling the world. But, Walker Percy and his brother were both grateful to Percy for rescue of them after the suicides of both their parents, and they always denied their adoptive father was gay.
Percy never married. He shared his summer house with his Sewanee: The University of the South professor and mentor. They were lifelong loving companions. The professor was noted for romanticizing classical homoeroticism in literature. Percy abandoned his devotion to Catholicism to become a sexual and religious ”freethinker”.
His father was a wealthy businessman, plantation owner, politician, hunter, and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ruggedness he unselfconsciously adopted. He was also a leading member of the Mississippi’s powerful white elite who controlled the Delta’s large black majority, in contrast with the poor whites in the hills to the east, for whom he loathed. Percy’s mother was Roman Catholic and a descendant of New Orleans’ landed gentry.
Percy’s commitment to the Delta’s white aristocracy was inherited from his parents. His paternal grandfather had led the struggle to suppress the postwar Reconstructionist movement and their newly freed black allies. They restored white rule using intimidation and voter fraud. Mississippi’s African-Americans were largely disenfranchised, and the carpetbaggers were sent back north.
The Percys livelihoods depended on cheap black labor. They never used the harsher racial rhetoric of the rest of Mississippi; they thought of themselves as the protectors of vulnerable blacks, and they also feared that their workers would flee to higher wages up north.
The 1911 senate campaign between incumbent LeRoy Percy and former governor Vardaman was a fight between elitists and populists. After his inauguration as governor in 1903, Vardaman called for the repeal of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship for freed black people. In 1909, the Mississippi legislature deadlocked for two months over filling an empty Senate seat, finally narrowly choosing Percy over the popular, but much-feared, Vardaman.
The New York Times celebrated the election of Percy, but Vardaman’s own newspaper, The Issue, promised:
”…the fight between the classes and the masses, between the corporate influences and the people is on, and it will be a fight to the finish.”
Percy campaigned for his father. After attending Harvard Law School, he practiced law, while reserving his passion for travel and literature. His parents never understood their son. His father called him queer, and his mother cried over that queerness. Yet, Percy continued to work in his father’s law firm.
Senator Percy was a pompous man who was not interested in ordinary people; he once publicly described them as ”cattle”. Once, while giving a speech, he was heckled. His son described them as
”…the ill-dressed, surly audience, unintelligent, and slinking. They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They are undiluted Anglo-Saxons, the sovereign voter; and it was so horrible it seemed unreal.”
The crowds carried signs boasting of their status as cattle.
Percy’s father lost to Vardaman in a landslide, resulting in a historic statewide shift away from the elite planters and businessmen in politics. He never sought elective office again, but 10 years later, in the early 1920s, Percy stood by his father when he led the fight against Ku Klux Klan by defending a more benign white supremacy that didn’t need masks, secrecy, or violence. When Klan candidates were decisively defeated in elections, the Percys hosted a party at their home featuring bootleg whiskey.
Although they thought him queer, the Percys deeply admired their son’s service in World War I. His letters from France to his parents describe the horrors of the battlefield, and when the war was over, the Percys traveled to New York City to welcome their son home.
But Percy clashed with his family in 1927, when Mississippi floodwaters broke the Greenville levee forcing 100,000 to flee. Percy presiding over the flood relief. He quickly evacuated white women, children, and elderly, and planned to evacuate the blacks, many of whom were encamped on the levee. He wrote:
”They had no capacity to plan for their own welfare. Planning for them was another of our burdens”.
Rescue crews were standing by to relocate them, but LeRoy Percy, distressed that he would be losing his black laborers forever, quietly persuaded the relief committee to go against the command of his son. Percy was humiliated as black workers were forced into labor.
His parents died in 1929. His cousin committed suicide the same year, leaving a widow and three young sons, including Walker Percy, who would later remember Percy as:
”A personage, a presence, who radiated that mysterious quality we call charm.”
The children were invited to live with Percy in Greenville. They discovered world full of artistic treasures, books, servants, and constant visitors, white and black, including the gay poet Langston Hughes. Faulkner came to play tennis. The children’s mother killed herself in 1932. Percy adopted all three boys.
Percy had ill health in the 1930s. When not bedridden, he continued his global travels, which took months by trans-oceanic steam ships. In 1936, he visited Samoa, having read anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s claim that Samoans were sexually uninhibited. He believed that how they looked at sex, in contrast to repressed Westerners, left Samoans ”superbly healthy, handsome and happy ”.
The publisher of Lanterns On The Levee deleted most of these conclusions from the manuscript, focusing on Percy as an archaic Southern aristocrat, including his racial views. His memoir sold tens of thousands of copies, received praise from reviewers, and brought him hundreds of fan letters.
Prematurely old and sick, Percy appreciated the book’s success and was also cheered by America’s entry into World War II. He died a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. He was just 56 years old. No Mississippi clergyman would conduct his funeral except a Catholic priest who delivered a 45-second homily without removing his coat. Percy thought that the church, and especially St. Paul, about whom he wrote a contrary poem, had corrupted the real message of Jesus Christ. He wrote that Christians didn’t love their bodies the way ancient Greeks did.
A book of his irreverent poetry provoked a Kentucky reader to complain to the publisher that:
”…the men’s Bible class of the Methodist church here wish to enter a protest against this”.
”To the Orthodox I can only say, if this be treason, make the most of it.”
Walker Percy wrote five bestselling novels, including The Moviegoer (1961), which won the National Book Award. He also wrote The Message In The Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, And What One Has To Do With The Other (1975).
For more, try William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012) by Benjamin E. Wise.