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.
It was following the misfortunes of this second generation and their progeny that several Percys became writers (some of whom are discussed in Wyatt-Brown’s Literary Percys). The first of them were the two daughters of Sarah by her second husband, Nathaniel Ware: Eleanor Percy, who married a cousin of Robert E. Lee, and Catherine Ann, wife of Mississippi planter Elisha Warfield. Since their mother, Sarah, fell victim to extreme postpartum depression shortly after each was born, they could blame themselves for what they took to be her rejection of them—she spent eleven years in a hospital for the insane. The sisters collaborated on two volumes of poetry published in the 1840s by “Two Sisters of the West.” These verses were largely laments for family misfortune in the sentimental conventions of the time and did not have much success. Nor did the nine gothic novels Catherine wrote after her sister’s death. But in one of her last novels she transcended the constraints that “female delicacy forced upon women writers,” as Wyatt-Brown puts it, and expressed some feminine rebellion.
Catherine Ann formed a close maternal relationship with her brilliant niece Sarah, daughter of her brother, Thomas Ellis. Born in Natchez, Sarah, one of the most vivid of the Percys, lost her adored father and her demented grandmother before she was nine, when she was sent to a French school in Philadelphia. There she proved gifted in art, dance, and music, was precocious in her command of Greek and Latin, and fluent in four modern foreign languages. She formed a lifelong friendship with her favorite teacher, the beautiful Anne Lynch, and at her salon in New York Sarah met Emerson, Melville, and Poe, and such visiting celebrities as Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and Charles Kingsley. In 1853 she married Samuel Dorsey, who managed a number of large Mississippi plantations and practiced law there. Fretting about the lack of intellectual life among local planters, she busied herself with setting up a school for slaves and she also began to write, eventually producing works of fiction that were, as Wyatt-Brown says, “barely disguised autobiography.”
Sarah joined her Whiggish friends in regarding secessionists as “reckless, rabble-rousing zealots,” but when the war came she rallied to the Confederate cause and remained a loyal supporter. When Grant’s troops burned the Dorsey plantation mansion to the ground in 1863, she and her husband, with more than a hundred slaves, made the grueling journey to new lands in Texas. In the midst of all this she managed to write a novel, which was published serially in 1863 and 1864, and after the war as a book. On the familiar theme of the Percy misfortunes and mental illness, her novel Agnes Graham showed no great talent for fiction, but it proved popular. Her other books included the more vigorous and better-written biography of the war hero Henry Watkins Allen, which contributed to, if it did not start, the legend of the Lost Cause:
Perhaps, [Sarah] admitted, the Southern people had been wrong, but even at the end of the conflict, she continued, “The ‘Confederate Cross,’ we were persuaded, was raised in honor” and in defeat, “we felt it went down behind the purple sea of war without dishonor.”…The only recourse was to live by the stoic principles of Marcus Aurelius who exemplified the virtues of patience, endurance, coolness, and strength to rise up from pain to glory.
Her last, and most popular, novel, Panola (1877), Wyatt-Brown plausibly argues, “anticipates Kate Chopin by careful dissection of Louisiana upper-class society” and “offers some spirited portraits of Southern vulgarity.”
Somehow the Dorseys, despite wartime losses, managed to retain a large fortune that enabled them to afford expensive trips abroad in 1871. These included adventures in the Arabian desert, in which Sarah was saved by her husband’s bulldog from a thief who was about to stab her with a long knife. She went on to England, where she was taken up by the Whig grandees of the Stanley family, spent time with Carlyle, and became an admirer of Anna Leonowens, later the heroine of The King and I, who “romantically believed,” Wyatt-Brown writes, that Buddhism “better recognized the rights of women than did Western countries.”
Both in her adventures abroad and in her life back home Sarah was subject to contradictory impulses. On the one hand she moved to the left politically, in sympathy with Louisiana’s carpetbagger governor Henry Clay Warmoth and his plans for liberal reform, particularly his opposition to the corrupt faction led by President Grant’s brother-in-law. If this was not enough to offend neighbors, there was her outspoken championship of women’s rights. It was not easy to reconcile these sympathies with her growing attachment to Jefferson Davis, which some believed she allowed to get out-of-hand. After her husband died in 1875 she invited Davis, back from Europe and short of money, to occupy a cottage of hers near Beauvoir, her fine house on the Gulf Coast, and board with her while he wrote his memoirs. In The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, for which Sarah collected material and gave editorial help, Davis attempted to enshrine the Lost Cause.
Their relationship became “a matter of almost open scandal,” Wyatt-Brown writes. Mrs. Davis, who later joined her husband at Beauvoir, had suspicions and resentments that were eventually overcome with the assistance of Sarah’s bequest of her entire large fortune to Davis, leaving no part to her own embittered family. Sarah’s mixed allegiances reflect in a rather emphatic way the Percys’ tendency to flirt with advanced ideas and with foreign cultures, and yet to revert to “old patterns,” as Wyatt-Brown puts it.
The Percy family had its own Rebel veteran who was another “lost cause.” Colonel William Alexander Percy returned from the Civil War a hero known as the “Gray Eagle of the Valley.” He did not seek political office but ruled a “small kingdom of local power,” based on Percy family connections, from his law office in Greenville, Mississippi. The colonel thrived in politics with his shoddy “fusion policy,” by which rich planters bribed or coerced black voters and overthrew “Black Republicans” to restore white rule, their rule. The Gray Eagle prospered as the ally of the railroads and other corporate interests who needed his political influence. He had numerous dependents to support in his large house in Greenville, and many tragic family losses to bear. Among them was the death of his rather intellectual brother LeRoy Pope Percy, who took his own life in 1882 for reasons never explained, as was often the case with Percy suicides.
When the colonel died in 1888 his son, also named LeRoy, took his father’s place in politics, law, and community and family affairs. Described as “a gambler by instinct” and something of a carouser, LeRoy Percy combined energetic high spirits with spells of black depression. In politics he was eventually opposed by Governor James Vardaman, who successfully combined race-baiting with taxing the rich. On the subject of race Vardaman declared that if it proved necessary to maintain white supremacy “every Negro in the state will be lynched.” He defended his measures to tax and regulate railroads and utilities as reforms to help the poor. On both scores he earned the contempt and enmity of LeRoy Percy and Percy’s prosperous clients.
In 1910, by questionable means, Percy won a narrow majority over Vardaman in a party caucus that took him to the US Senate to fill the unexpired term left by the death of the incumbent. Conservatives rejoiced, but the imperious Percy never had a chance against Vardaman and what he unwisely called the “cattle”—i.e., poor whites—in the race for a full term the next year. With the help of Theodore Bilbo, a Vardaman supporter, whom the senator called “a low-flung scullion, who disgraces the form of man, a vile degenerate, and a moral leper,” and Bilbo’s charges that a Percy supporter had given him money to change his vote, Vardaman overwhelmed Percy by carrying all but five of the state’s seventy-nine counties. Nursing his humiliation, Percy left with his wife and son, Will, then twenty-six, for a vacation in Greece, a characteristic Percy move. He felt diminished and demeaned, feelings shared by his two brothers and other family members, but by none so deeply as his son, William Alexander Percy, the future poet and author of Lanterns on the Levee.
Small of frame and in fragile health, Will was miscast for the role his father expected of him, that of a virile leader in the Percy tradition and perpetuator of the family name. His tastes ran to music and literature rather than to law, politics, or business. It also became apparent that he would not marry, but preferred and sought male company of his own disposition. He thought his parents “looked at me strangely” and he could hear his father late at night “pacing the floor.” It was hard having “such a dazzling father,” to continue life under the parental roof. To please his father Will took a Harvard law degree after schooling in a military academy and taking a college degree at the University of the South at Sewanee. But it was only by his heroic army record in the Argonne Forest during World War I and his return home with a hero’s rewards—a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Médaille du Roi Albert, and lavish praise from his commanding officer—that he gained the self-confidence and family respect he greatly needed. He settled into the old life, but in summers he escaped to the Mediterranean and the company of his friend the novelist Norman Douglas and his circle.
His father, LeRoy Percy, returned to public life with a certain fierceness, first in his fight against the revived Ku Klux Klan. In “the speech of his life” against a KKK leader in 1922 LeRoy gained national attention and praise for his courage. His all-out attack on the Klan was not only for its racial and religious bigotry but for driving black workers off the plantations and into flight northward. That was his main point, his unspoken aim being to vindicate himself for his old stand against Vardaman and his “cattle” in 1911.
During the great flood of 1927, the Mississippi broke the levees and spread human disaster and damaged property throughout the Delta plantations, including important sources of Percy family income. Will took the lead in local relief-committee work, including feeding, along with many others, 5,000 blacks stranded on a levee seven miles long in Greenville. Will also hired two ships to transport 7,500 blacks to Vicksburg, only to find his plan undermined by his father, who had privately persuaded Will’s committee that this would encourage black tenants to desert plantation contracts and move north. That put father and son at odds over the matter of planter noblesse oblige, and both of them at odds with the tenants.
Within the last six months of 1929 Will lost both his father and mother, and his cousin LeRoy Pratt Percy, who ended his life in the same way his father had twelve years before—with a shotgun. In his grief Will commissioned the bronze statue of the melancholy knight in armor that was placed at his father’s grave as a memorial. He also invited Mattie Sue, the widow of his cousin, and her three young sons to share his large mansion in Greenville, and in 1930 she and her children moved in. Her position as permanent guest of bachelor Percy was not easy, and gossip made it no easier, until a tragic car accident took her life. Will immediately became the devoted foster parent to the boys. The all-male household thus brought under one roof the two Percys destined to be of greatest literary distinction—Will, then forty-seven, and Walker, sixteen.
The big house on Percy Street was not only a home but a school for the boys, with Will their enthusiastic teacher, drawing on a well-stocked library and the constant flow of distinguished house guests—Dorothy Parker, Vachel Lindsay, Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, and, to neighborhood consternation, Langston Hughes. At Will’s Sewanee summer home Walker later met writers nearer his own age—Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor. Of more importance for Walker Percy than any of the guests was their host, for whom he had the most complete devotion and lasting gratitude—“a fixed point in a confusing world,” he later wrote.
After the death of his parents, Will Percy gave up writing poetry. Alfred Knopf, who had published his Selected Poems in 1930, came for a visit to urge him, as had other friends, to write his memoirs. In the late 1930s he began work on the recollections of Delta life which were to become Lanterns on the Levee, published in 1941, less than a year before his death, and praised by Northern reviewers for its graceful prose and its seemingly moderate view of the Southern sharecropper system. Conceding that the book is written with charm, humor, and engaging self-deprecation, and that family legend and Southern mythology are skillfully recounted, Wyatt-Brown writes,
Yet confusion is evident everywhere. Percy worships his father but only half-consciously reveals his father’s insensitivities. He mingles cosmopolitan tastes with a safe insularity, insight with an outworn idealism…
The book, he finds, combines “racial blindness” and “self-deluding romanticism.” Throughout Will adhered to white supremacy and segregation and treated the Percys’ black tenant families with what he deemed in Lanterns on the Levee to be a benevolent paternalism but in fact proved to be blindness to their needs and feelings.
While thoroughly aware that the novelist Walker Percy was the most gifted member of the whole tribe, Wyatt-Brown does not discuss him at length, citing the small library of work on him already published.4 He does sketch the various phases of his life—a medical degree, then three years in daily psychotherapy, three years a tubercular patient in a sanatorium during World War II, abandonment of medicine, a spell of philosophical publications, religious strivings and conversion to Catholicism, and a very fortunate marriage—all before he found his true vocation as a novelist.
Wyatt-Brown finds that in Walker’s case it is his fiction that is the most revealing about the Percy family history, particularly The Charterhouse, the first of two unpublished novels. It shows, he writes, “the pattern of his lifelong preoccupations.” These were his disillusionment when he discovered his father’s moral weaknesses, his “offhanded” relations with women, and his resistance to self-destruction by seeking self-understanding. In his published novels he creates under various names a well-born and usually young man who has lost a father under tragic circumstances. Walker Percy’s readers will recall such a hero in various guises and psychological crises in The Moviegoer (1961), The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1978), The Second Coming (1980), and his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987).
Although Wyatt-Brown calls Lancelot “Walker’s masterpiece,” and his “most Southern novel,” full of the paradoxes of Southern honor, he draws on The Thanatos Syndrome for his account in his last chapter, “Thanatos and Lineage,” dealing with the family’s obsessive search in genealogy, legend, and fiction for “a temperamental if not blood relationship with the noble house of Percy.” It mattered little, Wyatt-Brown observes, that no one, including himself, has turned up any evidence of kinship, because the “American Percys assumed it and behaved accordingly”; and indeed this assumption of superiority and a recognition of the failure to live up to superior standards are recurring themes in the family’s history.
In the genealogical quest of the American Percys, Wyatt-Brown finds it ironic that “their claim for noble blood rested in genetic resemblances of a darker nature than genealogists usually expect to unearth.” Looking through five centuries of legitimate and illegitimate English Percys he turned up appalling incidents of madness, early death, depression, and creativity. Their record strangely resembles what Walker Percy called “the long line of manic depressives” from which he sprang, and whose destructive psychological pattern still eludes explanation. It would seem, however, that the manic-depressive history of the Percys has been particularly useful to so imaginative a historian as Wyatt-Brown; for again and again their wildly shifting moods bring into relief the often contradictory tendencies—generosity, family pride, and acquisitiveness among them—that are embedded in the history of the Southern gentry.
June 22, 1995
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. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
Outstanding among these is Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (University of North Carolina Press, 1992). ↩