By Colin Woodward
Lanterns on the Levee
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee. It’s a classic memoir of growing up in the South as the son of a planter in the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi. Percy, who was born in 1885, died young in 1942, just a year after his memoir was published. However, he led an eventful life, including teaching English in Sewannee, Tenn., at his alma mater the University of the South, serving as a captain in World War I, and helping run the recovery efforts during the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927. He also was also Walker Percy’s uncle and adoptive parent after Walker’s father’s death.
The paperback copy I bought has an image of the 1927 flood on the cover. It’s a 2006 reprint, with Hurricane Katrina no doubt in the mind of Louisiana State University Press, which published it. Percy’s attention to the flood is one of the better parts of the book. Percy was a gifted and beautiful writer. His memoir is witty and wise. The book’s major weakness is its attention to race. Percy had no love for the thugs and overt racists in the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, which he helped combat.
But he was no enemy of the racial status quo either. He defended the sharecropping system and the South’s generally oppressive and unapologetic treatment of African Americans, using the more paternalistic aspects of the Old South pro-slavery argument to make his case. Percy seemed to have treated his black workers well. But he never thought them his social or intellectual equals. He treated them like children who couldn’t take care of themselves, and he thought northerners naive and hypocritical on race. Blacks, he believed, fared no better in the North than they did down south and northerners were wrong to tell the white South how to run its society
Still, Percy’s book is worth reading. The man was a poet and if the racism is hard to take, he doesn’t fall prey to moonlight and magnolias mythology. He’s too much of a modernist. However, he is not so much of a modernist that he is candid about his sexual appetites. One thing missing from the book is any kind of romance, for the simple reason that Percy was gay. At the time, it was much easier to be a racist than a homosexual.
The most recent issue of Oxford American contains a review of a new biography by Benjamin Wise that examines Percy’s life and sexual conquests in detail. While I didn’t know Percy was gay while reading Lanterns, I suspected it. He makes no mention of crushes on the Mississippi ladies, which would have been a rite of passage for a man of his wealth and education. True, Percy volunteered for the army during World War I, but military men of that period, such Wilfred Owen, were no stranger to homosexuality. Likely, more people today are apt to be offended by Percy’s racism than his love for men, especially since he kept all but the most veiled references to homosexuality out of Lanterns.
Percy defended the South of the early 20th century, when white supremacy reigned. Even for a man who survived the Great Depression, however, he would be appalled and saddened to see the condition to which his hometown of Greenville has fallen. Back in September, I visited Greenville, which is directly across the river from Lakeport plantation (one of my favorite spots in Arkansas). Greenville presents all the aspects of a depressed post-Jim Crown Delta town. On a Sunday, the downtown was abandoned. It was a warm and sunny late-summer day, but not one person was on the street. The downtown casino looked like a beached wale dying on the side of the levee. Had we wanted to, there was nowhere to grab a bite to eat downtown come dinner time.
We drove around a little, eventually hitting a pretty neighborhood, where I had read about a legendary book shop. To our dismay, the shop had recently closed after being in operation for 40 years. The only places that looked alive were the fast food joints. Places like Greenville can’t afford to lose bookshops: one of the surest signs of civilization.
The Legacy of Jim Crow
True, this was the poverty-stricken Delta in a post Great Recession economy. In Mississippi. But I couldn’t help but wonder what Percy would have thought. Would he have lamented the Fates who have punished the Delta economically? Or would he see Greenville’s decline as the inevitable consequences of the civil rights movement, in which well-meaning whites liberated a black population that was not ready for the change?
Obviously, one could counter the Percys of the world and say that southern whites’ short-sightedness set their communities up for failure: it was irresponsible for whites to not prepare their society for the inevitable changes that would come. Greenville is a troubled America in microcosm, where uncomfortable issues of race, class, education, and economics are on display. William A. Percy has been dead for 70 years, but the issues he addressed, and the legacy of his racial thinking, is very present in Greenville today. And America.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.