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Mourning and Melancholia: Will Percy and the Southern Tradition

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

CAPPING as they did a decade of intense regional introspection, the early 1940’s saw a remarkable proliferation of works by Southerners about the South. In 1942 William Faulkner published his last great work, Go Down Moses, an extended effort at moral and historical analysis. But the year preceding was perhaps even more fruitful, at least in quantity, for it had seen three unique, even idiosyncratic attempts to encompass the Southern present and past: W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee.

Of these four works Percy’s has received the least attention. I would, therefore, like to examine Lanterns on the Levee and the man, Will Percy, whose autobiographical remembrance it is, in the hope that both the book and the man can be placed in proper context.

What the Vanderbilt Agrarians advanced as a relatively untroubled defense of the Southern tradition against the on-slaughts of modernity was by 1941 to become in Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee a melancholic reflection on a time out of joint, an elegy for a lost ethos by a son who mourned the loss of a father and a tradition of the Fathers. Ultimately the Agrarian vision was an academic one, a stance rather than a rooted position. Percy was a serious man, whatever else he was, and attempted to live by a tradition that had been created by the Civil War and destroyed by the First World War; or, perhaps as accurately, destroyed by the Civil War and re-created by the First War. Therein lies the difference and the greater authenticity which Percy embodied.

As a “last gentleman,” Percy himself has become rather a monumental figure to be conjured with by those who knew him and by those who seek to understand the varieties of historical consciousness exhibited by Southern writers and intellectuals of the 1930’s, particularly that form of memory which mourned the loss of a way of life. To his friends and admirers, Percy was something of a saint, a man of “fastidiousness and delicacy of manner,” to quote his fellow Green-villian and intimate friend, David Cohn. Hodding Carter, whom Percy helped persuade to come to Greenville, Mississippi, and found the Delta Democrat, remembered Percy’s “giving of self,” his willingness to aid those in distress. All remember his capacity for suffering fools. An outsider to the South and to the Delta, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker, wrote of Percy’s kindness in facilitating her access to Indianola, where she studied race relations in the 1930’s. John Dollard consulted with Percy while researching his famous study of race and class; and while Percy took strong exception to Dollard’s conclusions and would never comment on the substance of Miss Powdermaker’s study, he was unfailingly courteous to them when called upon for aid.


Will Percy was not a happy man. Walker Percy remembers that his “uncle’s” eyes were “shadowed by sadness” and wonders in his The Message in the Bottle (1975) “why he was sad from 1918 to 1941 even though he lived in as good an environment as man can devise . . .?” Cohn struck much the same note when he wrote that Will Percy “was the loneliest man I have ever known.” If the message of Lanterns on the Levee is any clue, it is no wonder that Will Percy was possessed by melancholy: the prophet of decline can hardly be expected to exhibit rising spirits. Yet the most apocalyptic of voices may privately be joyful and the comic jests of the humorist underlain, as is well known, with private sadness.

Still, in Percy’s case, the private man did seem to reflect the essential pessimism of the cultural critic. Where the Agrarians had sought to re-evoke (even re-instate) a past cultural ethos, Percy had no confidence that the old order could be restored nor did he try to suggest a way of doing so. He was the melancholic Roman to the end—rarely the joyous and tragic Greek—and found a provisional solace only in the Stoic maxims of Marcus Aurelius and the ethical precepts of the Gospels. And though he presided over his own small realm in the Delta, he felt no more sense of freedom in the world at large than that experienced by the other great Stoic, the slave Epictetus.

Thus Lanterns on the Levee seems to present the Will Percy whom his friends knew and cherished. According to Cohn, Percy had begun his autobiographical reflections in the late 1930’s, but he had put the manuscript aside when several friends discouraged him from completing it. Cohn found the fragments scattered throughout the Percy living room and upon reading them urged his friend to continue.Lanterns on the Levee was published in 1941; and not long thereafter, in January of 1942, Percy died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Percy had never been physically robust, and his memoirs reflect his own impending mortality. It is then a work in which personal fate, cultural vision, and historical development coalesce to produce a work in which death and the intimations of mortality preside.

Despite its melancholy tone, Lanterns on the Levee is anything but depressing: it is often charming, ironical, and informed by a winning self-deprecation. Despite his own angle of vision, W. J. Cash thoroughly enjoyed the book and forgave Percy his biases, while James Agee was fond of reading aloud to his friends those portions of Lanterns on the Levee which had to do with Sewanee. If the South’s fate boded forth a “sideshow Götterdämmerung,” as Percy suggested, it was a twilight of the Gods—and the quite mortal man, Will Percy, full experienced and contemplated it with the equanimity of a man who knew that he and his vision would surely die. But never is it morbid or whining. Not for nothing did Percy consider himself a Stoic.

Nor did Will Percy seclude himself to await his inevitable end. To Walker Percy, his uncle was the best teacher imaginable, introducing him and his brothers to the rich cadences of Shakespeare and the heavy mournful strains of Brahms and Wagner. And just as Walker Percy paid homage to his adoptive father as a teacher, so is Lanterns on the Levee, particularly in its early pages, a remembrance of those who had guided his own Bildung. What Will Percy seemed to remember from his various mentors, most of them lonely and eccentric in their way, was a way of living with loneliness, a quiet valor which provided an heroic but ultimately futile protest against an unfeeling world and death which presided over it.

Much of the moving power of Lanterns on the Levee and its elegiac ambience, which verges on but rarely succumbs to self-pity, lies in the barely suggested inner conflicts and the reticences which make themselves felt throughout the book. Though Will Percy has been scored, and rightly so, for his paternalism and racism, his own social and racial views were not without ambiguity and a sense of ambivalence beneath the surface. In Lanterns on the Levee, he returns repeatedly to the racial theme, as though he had to try to tell it again, so as to convince outsiders such as Powdermaker and Dollard and perhaps even himself. He laughs outwardly, but not inwardly, when his factotum, Ford, for whom Percy shows a quite condescending but real affection, informs him that the tenants on his “Trail Lake” plantation consider Percy’s automobile as “us car.” When Percy asks him what they mean by this odd phrase, Ford replies that they think the car belongs to them, since it is their labor which has paid for it. That Percy would include such an incident in his book shows something of his inner doubts.

On sharecropping Percy had opinions which jar against our more enlightened sensibilities. It is, he says, a form of “profit sharing. . .the most moral system under which human beings can work together. . . I am convinced that if it were accepted in principle by capital and labor, our industrial troubles would be over. . . . Sharecropping is one of the best systems ever devised to give security and a chance for profit to the simple and the unskilled.” Yet he admits as well that the “organic” relationship of planter and cropper is often, even generally, an occasion for rank exploitation and, in truth, depends upon the character of the planter. One suspects that even Percy knew that the personal factor had ceased to play a role, if it ever had, and that the system was exploitative as such.

When discussing race directly, Percy marvels at the existing peace and amicability between the races in the South, since, he claims, they are centuries apart in intellectual and moral development. Yet this rather hackneyed judgment by the Delta aristocrat is balanced by the cogent observation that to live “habitually as a superior among inferiors . . .is a temptation to dishonesty and hubris and deterioration,” an observation which shorn of its racial bias offers a truth that critics of colonialism have echoed. More than that, Percy states quite openly another home truth which those of more liberal promptings, then and now, hear reluctantly: “the sober fact is we understand one another not at all.” Again, though the important insight is compromised by the racial assumptions, such comments indicate that Percy was not quite the undivided self on race that we would have him be. This is not to say that Percy was a liberal malgre lui, only that he was sensitive to certain aspects of class and racial domination which others downplayed or ignored.

About the “poor whites,” however, he was neither reticent nor was his opinion marked by conflicting insights which signalled doubt or inner division. In Lanterns on the Levee, Percy rendered no lip service to the egalitarian ideals of the 1930’s; and, unlike Cash, Agee, and some of the Agrarians, he saw no virtue in the common whites, past or present. Reflecting in part the peculiar demography of the Delta, Percy divided his South and that of his ancestors into three categories: the aristocracy, the poor whites, and the blacks. The poor whites were “intellectually and spiritually . . .inferior to the Negro.” They were the corrupters of “civil” society, the mob, Demos, whose emergence into the public realm heralded the decline of quality not only in the South, but in Italy, Germany, and Russia. His unmitigated animus against the common whites reflected not only the traditional attitudes of his class; it was given added bite by his experience in his father’s bitter Senatorial campaign of 1911 against the champion of the poor whites, James K. Vardaman.

Thus Percy’s protest against the world he never made assumed the following shape in his autobiography. First, he equated manners with morals; indeed he went so far as to elevate the former over the latter. The style was the man and the culture: “while good morals are all important between the Lord and his creatures, what counts between one creature and another is good manners.” Manners were not, however, the exclusive property of the upper class but could be found throughout the social system. This nod toward equality was only apparent, since manners were those habitual attitudes and actions which preserved the order of things and guaranteed that the bottom rail remained on bottom. Percy, not surprisingly, felt that economics should mirror the social and political hierarchy, and his defense of sharecropping was part of a larger distaste for the cash nexus of capitalism and the levelling impulses of socialism. What was important was that the rational pursuit of profit be incorporated into an ethos of organic solidarity among the classes. Finally, Percy held that politics was an affair among gentlemen to whom the common whites should defer for enlightened guidance. Blacks were excluded altogether from the public realm and to be governed by the time-honored precepts of family relationships as the “younger brother(s)” which he claimed they were. About women he felt much the same.

More generally Percy’s cultural vision embodied the “Delta ideal” and was linked in imagination with the early Virginia aristocracy and the feudal order of medieval Europe. The mood suffusing Lanterns was one of cultural pessimism. He felt that he was presiding over the closing time of civilized life; most had forgotten that it “is given to man to behold beauty and worship nobility.” “A tarnish,” Percy wrote, “has fallen over the bright world; dishonor and corruption triumph; my own strong people are turned into lotus-eaters; defeat is here again, the last, the most abhorrent.”


How then can we characterize Percy and his vision of the Southern tradition? In his introduction to the paperback edition of Lanterns on the Levee, Walker Percy castigates present-day critics for calling his adoptive father a “racist, white supremacist, reactionary, paternalist, Bourbon” and goes so far as to claim that in the Mississippi of the 1930’s and 1940’s “Uncle” Will was considered a “flaming liberal” and a “nigger lover.” Though one can agree in the abstract with Walker Percy’s animadversions against facile name-calling, he seems guilty here of uncharacteristic obtuseness in rejecting these labels for his uncle. If it matters, Will Percy was all that his critics have claimed. But, more important, all of the above labels can be subsumed under a wider rubric to which we will now turn.

To understand Will Percy as a cultural type, we must see him against the background of the modernization of the South. If America was the first modern nation, then the South has historically been a partial exception to the tradition of Locke in politics and Franklin in the marketplace, at least, that is, in its cultural ambitions. In the post Civil War period, the “New South” movement was the cutting edge of the ideology of modernization in the South, but it disguised its full impact by diverting attention toward the glories of the ante-bellum past. By the 1930’s, the South stood uneasily between past and future, and it was that decade which saw the emergence of a critical intelligentsia in the region whose divisions can be understood best in terms of various responses to modernization.

At one extreme stood modernizers such as Howard Odum and the University of North Carolina Regionalists, who saw the South’s necessary course to lie in agricultural diversity, industrial development, and the maximum exploitation of natural and human resources. Left behind would be the irrationalities of the past; racial dogmas were ever so gently questioned; and political demagoguery, whether from the classes or the masses, was decried. It would be too much to call Odum and his colleagues “technocrats” or to group them with conventional “New South” advocates; still their essential vision was one of a South, rationalized and hence increasingly rational. Once accomplished in its essentials, modernization would see the fading of peripheral problems such as racial and religious intolerance and a turn away from the past toward the future.

At the other extreme were those such as the Vanderbilt Agrarians and Will Percy to whom Barrington Moore’s label “Catonist” could well apply. The Catonist or reactionary response to modernization has appeared in every European nation, especially in Germany, and, as Moore’s rubric indicates, has a history tracing back at least to the Roman Republic. Prototypically, Catonism is the ideological response of a landed upper class which is economically and politically on the defensive. Alien values intrude, and commercial, impersonal forces are seen as disrupting an aristocratic, hierarchical, and organic order held together by ties of family, status, tradition, and, sometimes, race. The Catonist fears the “people” politically, though he may often celebrate the supposed unity of all the classes. Further, according to Moore, the “sterner virtues” such as “militarism, contempt for decadent foreigners, and anti-intellectualism” are embraced, The Catonist takes the collapse of his own world—an historical fact—as the end of virtue and excellence generally—a meta-physical fact.

Aside from such intellectuals as T. S, Eliot and Henry Adams, the South has clearly been the locus classicus of Catonist intellectuals. Pessimistic about the future, the Catonist looks with longing toward a past heroic age. In Nietzsche’s terms, he is a despairing “monumentalist,” This vision has been relatively rare in America, whose dominant form of cultural nostalgia has been either Jeffersonian, a yearning for the return of a yeoman republic, or a hallowing of the Founding Fathers, who, for all their Roman posturings, were not very good Catonists themselves. But the South has had in its cultural imaginings a period of aristocratic domination, a heroic war, and an unjust occupation. Never discredited, but only defeated, the planters were a fit subject for 20th century monumentalizing on the part of Southern intellectuals. And though it would be unfair to call Percy an unqualified champion of militarism and anti-intellectualism, in most respects he fits the Catonist image quite well. With him, recollection led to a desire for repetition of the past. At the same time, he realized that such a repetition was impossible.

To understand the inner, psychological dynamic of Percy’s Catonism, it is necessary to examine Percy’s relationship with his father and his family, since for him, as for so many Southern writers of the 1930’s, the father and the family became the mediating symbols by which they understood themselves and their past. Percy came from an old Mississippi family (though, as is always the case in such matters, not that old), dating back to the 1830’s. On the maternal side were French blood and the Catholic faith, while the paternal line reputedly traced back to the Percys of Northumberland. Thus he was a member of the segment of Delta and Black Belt planter class with Catholic or high-church Episcopal connections. Such families summered in the Virginia mountains or more often on Monteagle Mountain near Sewanee or the north Alabama resort of Mentone. Typically, their sons would be sent, as was Percy, to a school like Sewanee, where the Confederacy and Episcopalianism vied for top place, and then on to legal finishing school at the University of Virginia or Harvard. After graduation, the sons would return to take over the family holdings or help their fathers until they relinquished the reins. Occasionally, one of the returning sons would be infected with advanced ideas while “abroad” and acquire a reputation as the local liberal because he subscribed to The New Republic or The American Mercury and, like Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens, mouthed the traditional pieties in moderate tones. It might even happen that a returned son would choose the maverick’s role, joining and perhaps even constituting the American Civil Liberties Union in the area or in the entire state. The lawyer portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider is such a type, an alcoholic radical tolerated by family and friends in much the same way as the town looney or the crazy old lady who brandished her shotgun at children who trampled her flowers,

Implicit in this pattern, the staple of much Southern literature but nevertheless quite real, was the gradual decline in energy and will as generation gave way to generation. As Florence King has sardonically suggested, each Southern scion was urged by his mother to “be half the man your daddy was,” and the son unhappily took her injunction to heart. The upshot was that, after three generations or so, the heroic age of the grandfathers who had fought the Yankees and driven out the carpetbaggers had given way to grandsons who had become pale copies of their fathers and fallen prey to brooding, drink, or other destructive impulses. Colonel John Sartoris gives way to young Bayard Sartoris, hell-bent on self-destruction; General Compson and Thomas Sutpen are followed by the psychotic Quentin Compson.

Though lacking the dramatic flourishes, this pattern was at work in the Percy family; at least Will Percy felt it to be. All his life he felt small and physically unprepossessing beside his virile father and grandfather. Where they were resolute and heroic public men, he was a private versifier and belletristic trifler. It was too much to live up to. Will Percy had to live in the shadow of a father he considered “the only great person I ever knew.” “It was hard having such a dazzling father,” he wrote of the man whose personal courage in facing down mobs and leading the fight against the Klan in the early 1920’s was legendary in the Delta, “no wonder I longed to be a hermit.”

Such admissions come relatively rarely in Lanterns. Clearly, however, the burden of being his father’s son weighed heavily on Will Percy. Near the end of his memoirs Percy prefaces a discussion of the heroic efforts of his paternal grandfather—”Fafar” to Will Percy and “The Grey Eagle” or “Old Colonel Percy” to his acquaintances, a John Sartoris figure if there ever was one—in restoring white supremacy to Mississippi with the relieved comment that his great-grandfather, whose portrait also hung in the Percy house, had not been such a “demanding ancestor.” This detail, almost a throw-away observation, is crucial and reveals some of the inner strain from which Will Percy must have suffered. Earlier, Percy admits that he and his father had not been close during his childhood and writes of the fun he had fishing with one of his uncles in Virginia: “You walked along carrying the empty fish-basket and felt easy and liked his grumpiness.” But then he follows with: “Of course he wasn’t comparable to Father. . . .”


Never quite a hermit but always an outsider, Will Percy felt homeless where he should have felt most secure; and his constant travel throughout his life betrayed his essential lostness and failure to gain purchase on a congenial reality. After college at Sewanee, he had no clear sense of what he wanted to do and backed into Harvard Law after a lonely year in Europe. Then after law school, he was again at loose ends; and Percy wonders in retrospect if his father hadn’t yearned then for the younger son who had died early; he had been “all boy, all sturdy, obstreperous charm,” everything which Will Percy felt he wasn’t. And though he enjoyed teaching a term at Sewanee, he eventually returned to Greenville to join his father’s law firm and take up his bachelor’s existence as sometime poet and full-time assistant to his father.

Only with the onset of the Great War and his service in combat did Will Percy for a time feel necessary. Out from under his father and family, some of his essential despair and isolation were alleviated, and he came alive. Thinking back on his war experience, he writes: “Although you felt like a son of a bitch, you knew you were a son of God. A battle is something you dread intolerably and for which you have always been homesick . . .it somehow had meaning and daily life hasn’t. . . .” Thus the First War had great personal meaning to Percy and many Southern young men, for it represented a chance to prove themselves the equals of their heroic grandfathers and fathers—real and symbolic—who had risked their lives in the only war that had really counted. It became the great repetition, the chance to mirror the monumental deeds of the founders of the Southern tradition. Daily life, the keeping of accounts and making of a living, were tedium itself. Even the cultivated and sensitive Percy was later to recall the contempt and irrelevance which he had felt for art and conventional notions of beauty on the eve of facing death in battle. What he desired was not a moral equivalent of war but something close to a military equivalent of culture.

The War did not last forever, and Percy returned to Greenville to resume his place in his father’s shadow. He went through the Klan battles of the early 1920’s with him, but the central event of the decade for our purposes was the flood of 1927. Will Percy had been named chairman of local relief efforts and found agreement from his committee that the black population should be moved from the levee to better and safer quarters in Vicksburg. The problem was that local planters feared that should their cheap black labor be evacuated, it would be lured north and never return to the plantation. As Percy relates it, his father agreed that he should not be intimidated but did suggest that Will poll his committee again to make certain that there was still general agreement to remove the blacks. When the group re-convened, Percy was astounded to find, that each member had changed his mind and recommended to a man that the black labor force be maintained on the Greenville levee.

Later Percy discovered that his father had gone behind his back and personally persuaded the committee members to change their votes. Will Percy’s authentic paternalism, uncomfortable as it may make us feel, had proved powerless before the commercial considerations of his father’s kind of people. Even more startling—and telling—is that Will Percy cannot bring himself to register the hurt and sense of betrayal he must have felt at the contempt his father had shown him.

The extraordinary reticence here only reminds us of Will Percy’s absorption in the “family romance.” Why the subtitle “Recollections of a Planter’s Son” unless to remind us of his status as a latecomer, a minor planet in his father’s orbit? In fact, Will Percy was every bit as much the planter as his father, who was primarily a corporation lawyer. Nothing points so much to the distorted view of his family’s place in the Southern tradition as the continued reference to his father as a planter. In other circumstances, a mother might have supplied the psychic and emotional resources for opposing the father and the collective weight of the tradition. But in the Percy family she did not or could not. Percy’s mother remains a shadowy figure in Lanterns on the Levee, never really there for us, the readers, nor, one suspects, for Will Percy. We get a bare hint of his deep hurt only when Percy continues his description of the smile of his “undemanding” great-grandfather: it was “very shadowy and knowing, a little hurt but not at all bitter.”

With his parents’ death in the late 1920’s, Will Percy’s “life seemed superfluous.” He took over the running of the family property and, as mentioned, became the man to see in Mississippi, an explainer of the region to outsiders. He lived the rest of his days travelling, reading, gardening, listening to his favorites, Brahms and Wagner, and providing an education for the three adopted sons who had been rendered homeless by their parents’ suicide. Sharing himself generously with his sons, he became perhaps the father which he would have liked to have had.

Will Percy was also a poet, something one would scarcely learn from his autobiography. During his lifetime, three volumes appeared—Sappho in Levkas and Other Poems (1915), In April Once (1920), and Enzio’s Kingdom (1924)—but after the mid-twenties the muse apparently departed him. His was a minor poetic gift, though his poetry is not without interest, since it allows us a glimpse of his more private concerns, however refracted they may be by their expression in verse. The setting is generally in the past—medieval or ancient Europe and the Mediterranean; the mode is pastoral and bucolic; the tone, not surprisingly, elegiac. Blues, violets, and lilacs are the dominant colors of settings often populated by fawns, nightingales, and shepherds. There is little sweat or toil, and of his own time or region Percy speaks little.

Three themes run throughout the poetry: the pathos of unrequited love, the deep conflict between physical desire and spiritual love, and the loyalty of son to father. The title poem of his first volume revolves around the love of Sappho for a “Slim, brown shepherd boy with windy eyes/and spring upon his mouth!” and how this carnal love for a mortal cuts her off from Zeus: “And meeting him lost Thee!” Sappho’s love is not without social and intellectual condescension as when she observes of the object of her chaste desire that “His thoughts [were] the thoughts of shepherds.” And though she dreams of kissing and being comforted by him, sexual passion is considered a form of “grossness.” Still she desires him. The conflict of the spiritual and sexual is thematized again in “To Lucrezia,” where Percy writes more strikingly and with less reticence of “some young god, /With blown, bright hair and fillet golden, came/And stretching forth the blossoming rod of beauty/Upon me wrought a pagan spell.” The poem “Sublimation” in his second volume talks of locking “your sin in a willow cage/ . . . Outside your good deeds cluck and strut/But small’s the joy they bring.”

In “Enzio’s Kingdom” the central theme is the loyalty of son to father, a concern which obviously reflects the sense of beleagueredness which Will Percy and his father experienced during the fight against the Klan and earlier against Vardaman. Enzio’s father, Frederick II, has led a revolt against the Catholic Church and other European monarchs in the hopes of establishing a reign of universal peace in which the masses will be kept content, while the chosen few pursue the search for truth. Once his followers learn of his hard vision, Frederick is deserted and condemned. His father now dead, Enzio recalls their mighty plans and then how both grew as brutal and calloused as the enemy they had been fighting. The climax comes when he exclaims: “There is no certain thing I can lay hold on/And say, “This, this is good! This will I worship!”/Except my father.”

A consideration of Percy’s poetic concerns leads one back to Lanterns on the Levee. In writing of his year in Paris, Percy remembers how he was repulsed by a leering hermaphroditic statue in the Louvre and how he later learned that at one time the Greeks had “practised bi-sexuality honestly and openly. . . It’s a grievous and a long way you travel to reach serenity and the acceptance of facts without hurt or shock . . . By that time you are too old to practice your wisdom. . . .” And near the end of the book Percy casts back over his past to recall several fleeting and apparently unfulfilled homoerotic encounters. Thus, sexually, Percy depicts himself, albeit fleetingly, as a man divided within himself and unable to express openly his essential desires,

Not only in love, if his poetry hints rightly, but in his family Percy came to accept without self-pity that he “was never first place in any life.” Lanterns on the Levee ends as Percy imagines his final confrontation with death, the “High God.” “Who are you?” asks Death. Writes Percy: “The pilgrim I know should be able to straighten his shoulders, stand his tallest, and to answer defiantly: “I am your son.”“


In a decaying patriarchal tradition such as the South’s in the 1930’s, cultural criticism had to begin with the father and culminate in a critique of the Fathers, the tradition. The real and symbolic aspects were too intimately connected to be avoided. Will Percy was in some fundamental way unmanned by his father and by the tradition; and this foreclosed, I suspect, the full expression of his intellectual and creative capacities. The tensions and ambivalences which he so obviously experienced were never quite fully explored. Percy knew that something was wrong, but he could never quite put his finger on exactly what it was and who was responsible,

The block in his way was his father who loomed over everything he did. Percy gave fulsome and authentic praise to his father and the tradition of the Fathers, yet if we know anything, it is that such over-valuations conceal resentments and bitterness. How else explain the rueful hints of awareness? And, more deeply, why the explicit association of his father with death itself? Why else the forging of a life which was diametrically opposed to his father’s style, if not partly by way of revenge as well as veneration? With his father’s presiding presence always at hand, he could only blame himself—as weak and disappointing; or blacks—as irresponsible and inferior; or poor whites—as envious and barbarians— for the decline which had set in.

Finally we can see in Percy what might be called a form of “cultural melancholia,” a notion which subsumes the Catonist label and the psychological relationship with his father. As with the melancholic, Percy could only blame himself for what in truth he should have directed at his father with whom he had so closely identified yet under whose hold he surreptitiously chafed. This is not to claim that all reactionary protests against the modern world are the issue of sons who have been overwhelmed by strong fathers and publicly bemoan what they unconsciously welcome. But in Percy’s case, there was something like that at work. Overcome by the anxiety of his father’s influence and the influence of a tradition which was so strong precisely at the moment of its demise, Percy could only obliquely register his protest. Set beside the moral as well as artistic achievement of Cash, Agee, and particularly Faulkner, Percy’s life and artistic efforts represent an important and fascinating failure. Indeed Faulkner, in his review of In April Once, noted that Percy was “like a little boy closing his eyes against the dark of modernity.” This is perhaps too strong. Still Will Percy could only yearn for a world which was irretrievable, if it ever had existed, and which stood now under the sign of the father and of death.


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