Lantems on the Levee. Recollections of a Planter’s Son. By William Alexander Percy. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.
Quite early in his charming and entertaining autobiography, “Lanterns on the Levee,” Mr. William Alexander Percy remarks, “I rejoice to be of a caste which, though shaken and scattered, refuses to call itself Demos.” Somewhat further on, in recounting the relief efforts which he headed in the 1927 flood in the Mississippi Delta, he explains why the Negroes were kept in an encampment on the levee and not allowed to go on board the steamers which the Red Cross had provided to take them to a camp in Vicksburg. It was realized in the nick of time that the dispersal of labor would be a bad thing for the Delta planters. “Of course,” says Mr. Percy, “none of us was influenced by what the Negroes themselves wanted: they had no capacity to plan for their own welfare; planning for them was another of our burdens.” There was discontent among the Negroes, to be sure; but that was entirely owing to a campaign directed against Mr. Percy by “the Negr& Press of the North.”
Such frankness is disarming and admirable. Such sentiments are understandable and picturesque when uttered by aged generals or spirited spinsters of Confederate vintage. But Mr. Percy was a young lieutenant in the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy (which he evidently thinks should not begin at home); he was born into a well-to-do and cultivated family; he is a graduate of the University of the South and the Harvard Law School and has been a student in Paris; he has traveled all over the world; and every page of his book breathes kindness, sensibility, and accomplishment. He loves the good things of life; he loves good stories and tells them to perfection; he loves beautiful language— perhaps a little too much; he loves his fellow man; he even loves the Negroes. He is partly French, and, when he wishes, he writes with delicacy, irony, and sentiment in a way that is wholly French. When he wants to be funny he is sidesplitting. It would be easy to write a review that was all appreciation, were it not that on every issue of real importance Mr. Percy is so baldly reactionary, arrogant, and irrational that it is staggering. Interwoven with this attitude is a strain of plaintive nostalgia, which is the natural concomitant of views like those he entertains.
These stem from two basic assumptions—that the world should be kept safe for Mr. Percy and his kind, and that the end justifies the means. Mr. Percy prizes good manners, and rightly. It would be good manners to dwell on the interest and charm of his recollections, and avoid criticism of what really matters, were it not that it matters so much, in the great civil war of ideas raging throughout the world underneath the visible armed struggle, what ideas a man backs. It matters especially when it is a man with the opportunities and talents of William Alexander Percy. And Mr. Percy backs the wrong ideas.