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We Unhappy Few

1.

For two generations and more the Old South’s upper crust—call them planters, gentry, aristocracy, cavaliers, or simply the ruling class—along with their New South heirs have been rather an embarrassment to historians of the region. Before the 1930s, historians as a rule joined with novelists, poets, and movie makers in treating them with a respect bordering on reverence. Heroes of the Lost Cause shared those favors. W.J. Cash was perhaps the last Southern writer of influence who dared write such a line as “Softly, do you not hear behind that the gallop of Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen?”

That was in 1941, and by that time historians had already begun their retreat from such rhetoric in the face of charges of romanticism, nostalgia, and myth-making. Besides, it could hardly be denied that the celebrated aristocracy had been slaveholders, fought a war against the Union to defend their property, and then joined the reactionaries to keep the emancipated from enjoying the rights won by the Union victory. How could a historian celebrate a class of this sort—and at a time when civil rights were becoming an issue, segregation was under attack, and reform was much in vogue? How could anyone defy all that to write with any sympathy about slave-holders and their posterity? Quite impossible.

Still, how was one to write about the South without including its most conspicuous and powerful class? A number of expedients appeared. One of them was to write about its opponents—the populists, for example, or the few Southern abolitionists, the numerous Southern wartime Unionists, and after that the occasional liberal or anti-segregationist. A Marxist such as Eugene Genovese could get by with books on slaveholders as critics of capitalism or as paternalistic toward their slaves. Biographers could even choose one of the plantation owners as a subject so long as he was rascal enough. With sufficient irony, even fuller accounts of the class proved acceptable. But on the whole it was safer to write about the planter’s victims—especially black people and women, white as well as black. To go beyond that was to court opprobrium from colleagues and critics.

It was not that these other subjects did not also deserve historical treatment. But what could be said of historians who slighted or ignored a ruling class because they did not approve of it or because it had fallen out of favor? Every society has a ruling class in which power is concentrated, and historians indifferent to power and the people who possess it risk losing their way, if not shirking their duty. But who would be bold enough to defy the taboo and face the consequences?

That Bertram Wyatt-Brown clearly has the strongest claim to have taken a different path and looked closely into the lives of the Southern gentry is evident in his impressive history of the Percy family under review.1 It was preceded in 1982 by Southern Honor which at first prompted questions about who could be interested in such a subject but was soon recognized for its new insights into the Southern code of noblesse oblige and gallantry, and the ways in which this rigid code affected Southern attitudes to the North.2 That book prepared the author for the greater task of writing the history of two centuries of the Southern Percy family, in all their tragedy and horror, and with their remarkable achievement.

Founded by “Don Carlos Percy,” an eighteenth-century adventurer who amassed a huge fortune, the Percy dynasty included, to name only four among many hundreds of members, the Confederate Civil War hero Colonel William Alexander Percy, the popular poet and novelist Sarah (Ellis) Dorsey, Senator LeRoy Percy, a leading Southern opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, and the novelist Walker Percy.

Wyatt-Brown writes that he has concentrated on “three main threads in the Percys’ historical tapestry,” which are specified in the book’s subtitle—honor, melancholy, and imagination. The Southern idea of honor derived from the antique Stoic tradition, and was shaped by frontier violence and family and class pride. Walker Percy and his two younger brothers, the last generation discussed by Wyatt-Brown, were presented with copies of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations by their uncle and foster father, William Alexander Percy. Walker, a Catholic convert, felt the Stoic code was more a gospel of endurance than of hope, but “despite his religious convictions, could not escape its influence.” Walker’s “Uncle Will,” a failed Catholic, was frank in saying he preferred the darker code of Stoicism to the hopeful one of Christianity. In whatever combination the code of honor persisted, the pursuit of happiness was not part of it.

Melancholy in the sense of chronic and pathological depression affected Percys of every generation in some degree, sometimes in its most painful and extreme forms. The familiar symptoms of depression—a sense of inadequacy and failure, and a persistent feeling of despondency—clearly were intensified by the high expectations and demands of the code of honor. The tendency of adult male Percys to die young could not have helped. For six generations the average age of male Percys at the time of death was thirty-nine. What was worse was the number of them who took their own lives—turning violence inward. Between 1794 and 1929 one male suicide occurred in each generation save the one in which a female member and one of her talented daughters both took their lives. Walker Percy lost both his father and grandfather in that way, and he himself suffered episodes of depression.

This record, so far as we know, had never been discussed in depth or even fully assembled by the family itself. To establish what had happened, Wyatt-Brown “scoured the archives, libraries, and courthouses of the South, from Galveston and Hattiesburg to Nashville and Baltimore” as well as repositories in Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California, and abroad—fifty-three listed, ten in other countries—these in addition to numerous private collections.

Confined to the themes of honor and melancholy and their pathological aspects, such an investment of time and labor might not have been justified. But there was also the third theme of imagination. This took many forms, in public affairs as well as the arts, in the Old South as well as the New South. Most rewarding to the historian of the family because of what they reveal about its members are the numerous poets, novelists, and intellectuals scattered over two centuries. Of special importance, however, were the two most gifted Percy writers of the twentieth century, William Alexander Percy and Walker Percy.3

The Percys set themselves apart from their fellow citizens in several ways, according to Wyatt-Brown. “They were Stoics in a time of epicurean license, conservatives in a time of liberalism, Catholics (at least some of them) in a Protestant region, and aristocrats in a country devoted to democratic principles.” And yet, he concludes, “for all these differences they still represented the ideals of their region,” not least the cult of ancestry.

The founding father, Charles Percy, announced his claim to noble birth during the 1780s by naming his new plantation residence near the Mississippi River Northumberland House, after the seat of the Percy family in England. Neither investigation by his descendants nor the more systematic research of their historian has unearthed anything definite about his place of birth, family origins, or ties to the noble house that bred Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur. But then Charles had cultivated a talent for covering his tracks. In the middle of the 1770s he had deserted his wife Margaret and their two children in London to seek his fortune in the New World. There he took up for a time with a lady in Bermuda, who claims he married her. Since records of the marriage have not been found, her later charge of bigamy cannot be proved. And since she died before his third marriage on the Mississippi he cannot be called a trigamist—only once and possibly twice a bigamist.

Service in the British army entitled Charles to a land grant in what was then British West Florida, a wilderness “where few questions would be asked.” Starting with a grant of six hundred acres in 1777 and having somehow acquired nine slaves, he bought another four hundred acres, and more slaves, and within three years acquired two more large plantations. His loyalties to successive powers claiming the western wilds in these chaotic years were governed more by expediency than patriotism. During the American Revolution he was a Tory loyalist who hated the rebels and briefly took up arms against a handful of marauding Continentals, thereby sparing his own plantation from a looting. Charles lost no time in adjusting to Spanish rule when the Spanish crown took over part of Florida in 1781, and delighted in the honors and offices conferred on him by his friend the Spanish governor, especially the office of alcalde (local magistrate) that entitled him to be called “Don Carlos.” He prospered hugely.

The Don and his new wife, daughter of one of the richer planters, had launched the first generation of native Percys with seven offspring when they were confronted by a certain awkwardness, the sudden appearance on the scene of Robert, Charles’s long-deserted English son, whose existence was unknown to the present wife and family. Shock that this must have been, it was not enough to explain Charles’s almost immediate plunge into deep depression, paranoid delusions, and psychosis. But he had only recently lost his favorite American son on whom he had doted, as well as two other children. In 1794 he threw himself into the river with a heavy weight around his neck, the first of the long succession of Percy suicides.

With prosperous means and a much milder temperament than his desperate father’s, the handsome Robert won over his bereaved American relatives and overcame the “very delicate” matter of being the only legitimate heir to the large estate by agreeing to a generous compromise that left Charles’s widow well endowed. Robert bought a schooner, slaves, and a large plantation in the neighborhood of Natchez, in Mississippi. In that center of Southern social and intellectual life, he and his wife became prominent, rearing a brood sometimes called the “English Percys,” who seemed to inherit Robert’s sunny disposition rather than his father’s melancholy. It was not their side of the family that most often suffered a tragic fate.

The other side of the family, the “American Percys,” was now headed by Thomas George, Robert’s half brother. It was his generation and progeny who continued the tradition of melancholy, though this was not manifest in Thomas himself. He was regarded in the clan as “an anomaly” for his indomitable good spirits, his lack of ambition, his extensive library of the classics, and his magnificent plantation. All this in spite of his many reasons for being gloomy: the suicide of his father, the early death of two brothers and a sister, the insanity of his sister Sarah, and the mental illness of one of her daughters.

  1. 1

    Two books on the Percys had been published prior to Wyatt-Brown’s. Lewis Baker’s The Percys of Mississippi: Politics and Literature in the New South (Louisiana State University Press, 1983) is largely confined to twentieth-century Percys. John Hereford Percy’sThe Percy Family of Louisiana and Mississippi: 1776–1943 was privately printed in 1943. Neither of these is comparable to the history under review.

  2. 2

    Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 1982). Wyatt-Brown’s first book was Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Case Western Reserve, 1969).

  3. 3

    Readers will find in Wyatt-Brown’s history four genealogical charts of help in sorting out the generations of Walker Percys, Percy Walkers, and numerous LeRoy Percys.

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