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A Southern Gentleman

By Nicholas Lemann

William Alexander Percy was one of those consummate, now long-extinct Southern Gentlemen--he was a poet, a plantation owner, a lawyer and a leading citizen of Greenville, Mississippi. And by the time he wrote his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, in 1941, he was something of a living anachronism, baffled and bewildered by the modern world.

Percy must have written Lanterns on the Levee knowing he would be perhaps the last person to set down on paper his kind of life and values. As a result the book reads like an elegant manifesto for the old South, including all of the things aristocratic Southerners once held dear. Percy begins the book with lengthy descriptions of the Mississippi Delta country he lived in, its people, and his relatives, as if he could not begin to describe himself until he had first described his setting and background.

Percy seems to have gotten his first inklings that something was amiss with the world he grew up in after he came back to Greenville from an idyllic education at Sewanee, in Europe and at Harvard Law School. His father, LeRoy Percy, ran for re-election as a U.S. senator and lost to the notorious James K. Vardaman, an archetypal Southern cracker, in a bitter campaign; the defeat sent the Percys scurrying off to Europe to lick their wounds.

After that, although Percy became a First World War Hero and a civic leader in Greenville, it was pretty much all downhill. As local chairman of the relief committee during the 1927 Mississippi River flood, he came under sharp attack from Northern black newspapers because, among other things, he forced Greenville's blacks to live on the levee and unload relief boats instead of letting them go back to their homes. Later, Percy got more criticism from Northern liberals for having the work on his plantation done by black sharecroppers.

Percy's attitudes on race, though liberal for his time and place, seem repugnant now; he was a paternalist and he treated blacks with kind condescension. For instance, in a passage that is rephrased throughout Lanterns on the Levee, Percy writes:

A superabundance of sympathy has always been expended on the Negro, neither undeservedly nor helpfully, but no sympathy whatever, so far as I am aware, has ever been expended on the white man living among Negroes... To live habitually as a superior among inferiors, live among a people whom, because of their needs, one must in common decency protect and defend is a sore burden in a world where one's own troubles are about all any life can shoulder.

And blacks get kid-glove treatment from Percy compared to poor whites, for whom he saves his real bile. In the Southern scheme of things, Percy wrote, there are three rigid classes--in descending order, aristocratic whites, blacks and "white trash." It seemed natural and proper to Percy that the aristocratic whites, being wise and educated, should lead--almost regardless of encumbrances like free elections. The aristocrats, he wrote, "were leaders of the people, not elected or self-elected, but destined, under the compulsion of leadership because of their superior intellect, training, character and opportunity."

It would be easy simply to condemn Percy as a racist and oligarchist, the kind of person responsible for the things that have always been most objectionable about the South. But even if there is nothing even slightly redeeming in Percy's views on Southern society, it's hard to avoid being charmed by Lanterns on the Levee. Besides being beautifully written, and besides evoking sympathy for Percy as a man terrified of the modern world, Lanterns catches the things about the South that appeal to Southerners.

Percy obviously cared about people on an individual basis, but more than that, he had the kind of mind that fuses nature and art and life into a single, albeit often inconsistent vision. Being a planter, a statesman and a poet all at the same time is an attractive idea to Southerners because it implies having a unified, romantic world-view, where the things that govern men are the same things that govern poetry and nature. With this way of looking at the world, Percy could write about politics in one sentence, Greek drama in the next, and "the savage nature and austere beauty of the river" after that.

However, in the course of Lanterns on the Levee art and life draw farther and farther apart. Percy used to escape to Greece and Italy from time to time for spiritual revitalization, and towards the end of Lanterns he frequently drifts off into reveries that start in Greenville and end up on the slopes of Parnassus. The connection between reality and the ideas Percy holds dear becomes increasingly tenuous.

It would be possible to see Percy the same way liberal Southerners tend to see the South: in large measure politically reprehensible, although perhaps changing, but noble nevertheless. But, sad to say, the separation between the good Percy and the bad Percy, and for that matter between the good South and the bad South, may not be all that easy. Percy's ideas about race and class are logical, organic outgrowths of his Southern ideas about gentility, dignity and culture. And the things liberal Southerners love about the South may be inextricable from the things they hate.

Lanterns on the Levee was reissued this spring in paperback by the Louisiana State University Press, with a new introduction by William Alexander Percy's cousin, the novelist Walker Percy.

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