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William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker. By Benjamin E. Wise. North Carolina, 2012. 368p. HB, $35.
“My country is the Mississippi Delta, the river country,” William Alexander Percy begins Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son
(1941), his masterful memoir, which has long been read as one of the most deeply felt apologias of the Southern planter class and its notions of noblesse oblige
. Percy, who died in 1942, was a leading citizen of Greenville, Mississippi, a prominent lawyer, a large-scale planter, and a man who through private example and public service continuously fought to maintain unruffled genteel order amidst the flood of change that was sweeping over the Delta in the first half of the twentieth century. By the time Percy was writing Lanterns
, however, he knew that all was lost in the battle against modernity. “Behind us a culture lies dying,” he wrote, “before us the forces of the unknown industrial world gather for catastrophe.” Near the end of his memoir, he flatly declares that “the old Southern way of life in which I had been reared existed no more and its values were ignored and derided,” and he characterizes, exposing quite clearly his own prejudices, the Delta’s transvaluation of values this way: “Negroes used to be servants, now they were problems; manners used to be a branch of morals, now they were merely bad; poverty used to be worn with style and dignity, now it was a stigma of failure; politics used to be the study of men proud and jealous of America’s honor, now it was a game played by self-seekers which no man need bother his head about; where there had been an accepted pattern of living, there was no pattern whatsoever.”