Excerpt: William Alexander Percy, by Benjamin E. Wise

In an evocative biography, Benjamin E. Wise presents the singular life of William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), a queer plantation owner, poet, and memoirist from Mississippi. Though Percy is best known as a conservative apologist of the southern racial order, in this telling, Wise creates a complex and surprising portrait of a cultural relativist, sexual liberationist, and white supremacist.

From William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (pp. 6-9):

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In 1910 Greenville, Mississippi, was a New South port town. Situated behind a levee on the Mississippi River, Greenville boasted its own opera house and a new four-story hotel with a telephone in every room and hot water in most. For a small southern town, it was bustling and diverse. Russian and Greek and Chinese immigrants ran many of the storefront businesses downtown. The Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad’s trains came and went fifteen times a day. Steamboats docked at the landing and off-loaded whiskey and burlap and dry goods from New Orleans and Memphis. Blacks outnumbered whites eight to one in the surrounding countryside, where their labor on cotton plantations created wealth for families like the Percys. Will Percy’s ancestors were among the first white people to settle in the Mississippi Delta in the 1830s and 1840s, and the Percys remained among the South’s foremost families. In 1910, Percy’s father, LeRoy, was campaigning for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Will Percy lived with his parents in a mansion on a tree-lined avenue named Percy Street.[1]

That summer and fall of 1910, LeRoy Percy’s senatorial campaign consumed the energies of the Percy family. Prominent men and women came regularly to Percy Street. One evening, a journalist from Jackson was in the parlor drinking whiskey highballs with LeRoy when Will Percy came home from work. “He was a shy, timid, slender, soft-spoken youth, a bit effeminate,” the journalist later remembered. Will Percy offered a hasty greeting to the visitor before going upstairs to his room. LeRoy Percy turned to his guest and said, “Fred, that’s the queerest chicken that ever hatched in a Percy brood.” The journalist wrote that people in Greenville thought Will Percy was “somewhat of a sissy” and that they “could not understand him.” He described Percy as “a poet, a dreamer, an idyllist, an aristocrat by heredity, high-strung, temperamental, a lover of peace.” There were other queer folks in Mississippi, too, and this is how journalists and others tended to write about them: they called attention to their gender nonconformity but stopped short of categorizing them. Percy was “a bit effeminate,” “a sissy,” “a dreamer”—and people in Mississippi knew what this meant. By and large, though, they felt no need to speak more explicitly about sexuality in public. It remained an “open secret.”[2]

Will Percy wrote in his diary on October 17, 1910—perhaps even the same night as this encounter with his father and the journalist—about the difficulty of living in Greenville. He had just returned from visiting Bruff [his best friend and likely his lover from Harvard Law School] in New York. Greenville, it seemed to Percy, was too much of his father’s world. Percy wrote that he was a poet above all; he was a lover of the sublime and the possibilities of art. Greenville was too busy for art, he felt, too concerned with daily living. It was a place with real problems that could and should be addressed by strong men with practical minds. “Poets are always needed but it takes an effort to realize it,” he wrote, “while it takes no effort to see the good a practical man with a passion for righteousness could do here.” As he would occasionally throughout his life, he concluded before going to sleep that night: “I’m the right man in the wrong place.”[3]

Percy’s unease in Mississippi, his sense that sometimes Greenville felt like “the wrong place,” should not be understated. Nor should the first part of his pronouncement: “I’m the right man.” Percy struggled with depression, loneliness, and physical sickness, but he was also resilient and confident. “I am never surprised at people liking me,” he later wrote. “I’m always surprised if they don’t. . . . I feel they’ve made a mistake.”[4] Percy was in fact well liked by others for his charm, his sense of humor, his kindness. He also liked himself. He achieved a significant measure of self-realization—of his talents, of his sexuality, his gift of empathy. His was a halting, often ambivalent state of self-realization, but the evidence suggests he did not absorb the sometime disdain of his townsfolk, who called him “queer” and “sissy.” “They’ve made a mistake,” he tells us.

Percy was also strongly attached to his home and family. His parents loved him deeply, even while they did not fully understand him. He never moved out of his parents’ house, even after they died. He was their only living son, his younger brother having been killed in a hunting accident at age ten. Percy walked to work with his father every day, and they talked about politics and the river and the price of cotton—all things that had concerned the Percy family for generations. Near the end of his life, Percy would begin and end his memoir with images of Mississippi soil: his story opens with the rich, alluvial dirt from which sprang acres of cotton and the livelihood of his people; it closes with the cemetery at the edge of town in which the bodies if not the souls of his loved ones lay buried in the ground. Will Percy was from first to last a white Mississippian of the planter class, an identity that sat lens-like before his eyes, coloring his perspective of everything he saw.

Percy’s self-acceptance and love of place coexisted with his prejudice and conceit. He shared a sense of racial and class superiority with other aristocratic white people. Even as he was writing in his diary in 1910, hundreds of black sharecropper families lived in poverty, mired in debt, on the Percy plantation outside of Greenville—a labor situation Percy described as “one of the best systems ever devised to give security and a chance for profit to the simple and the unskilled.” He called poor white people “peckerwoods” and “rednecks” and spoke of them as one might speak of dogs. “The virus of poverty, malnutrition, and interbreeding has done its degenerative work,” he wrote. “The present breed is probably the most unprepossessing on the broad face of the ill-populated earth.” Percy benefited from his position atop the racial and class hierarchies in the South, and he did much to perpetuate them.[5]

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. Percy’s story grounds these broader historical developments in his particular experience across the world. The landscape of Percy’s world included both what has been called “the most southern place on earth,” the Mississippi Delta, and what has been called the “gay male world” of the early twentieth century. In his life, these seemingly separate worlds become one.[6]

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From William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of A Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, by Benjamin E. Wise. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Benjamin E. Wise is assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.

 

  1. [1]Any historical account of the Mississippi Delta must begin with James C. Cobb, The Most Southern place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). See also Robert L. Brandfon, Cotton Kingdom of the New South: A History of the Yazoo Mississippi Delta from Reconstruction to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967); John C. Willis, Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001); William J. Harris, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947); Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi, 2 vols. (Hattiesburg, Miss.: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973); Neil McMillian, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989): John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Nancy Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861-1875 (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2003); Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925 (Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1951); John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New York: Doubleday, 1949); and Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (New York: Viking, 1939).
  2. [2]“Will Percy’s Book,” Jackson Daily News, n.d.; clipping in AKP. On the existence of “open secrets” and the lack of rigid sexual categories in Mississippi, John Howard has remarked about a later period: “In Protestant evangelical Mississippi, religious principles guided understandings of the queer as more a range of sinful but forgivable behaviors than an identity or way of being. Conceptions of sexuality and gender nonconformity did not comport easily to dyads of homosexual versus heterosexual.” He notes that “Mississippians could live with homosexuality, like other unpleasantries, as long as it went unremarked.” See John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 261-62. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick theorizes about the “open secret” in Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), esp. chaps. 1 and 2; Leslie J. Reagan also provides useful insight into the concept in When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), chap. 1.

    For examples of depictions of queers in southern newspapers during this period, see Lisa Duggan, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000); Duggan, “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America,” Signs 18, no. 4 (Summer 1993): 791-814; Lisa J. Lindquist, “Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 1 (July 1995): 30-61; and John Howard, “The Talk of the County: Revisiting Accusation, Murder, and Mississippi, 1895,” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003), 142-58.

  3. [3]William Alexander Percy Diary, William Alexander Percy Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss., October 17, 1910, William Alexander Percy Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss.
  4. [4]Percy, Lanterns, 94.
  5. [5]Ibid., 282 and 20.
  6. [6]Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth; George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

One Comment

  1. I have just finished reading Lanterns on the Levee and admired it entirely.
    Writing like this about its author did not please me as much as the memoir did.
    Sometimes too much information, no matter how factual it is, can be disruptive. If William Percy wanted me to see the south and himself as he portrayed it so beautifully in his book, then I am sorry I read this. It was sent to me so I read it, but I am sorry to have done so.
    He may have been “queer”, he may not be up to present day standards of thinking and behaving about blacks, but he was ahead of his time for his day. I admired him with all of his shortcomings and it spoils it for me to have him spoken of in this dismissive way.
    Perhaps it is because I just finished the memoir that I take umbrage so easily at what I just read here. But Percy was a man, not an angel. And who is without some error or sin who can judge him or his kin?

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