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Legacies of Desire in the Delta

ISSUE:  Winter 2013

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.”

If Percy embedded himself within Greenville’s Old Order, he at the same time circulated within another realm, what Benjamin E. Wise in his new biography William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, calls “‘the gay male world’ of the early twentieth century.” Until a few years ago, Percy’s homosexuality had been generally acknowledged within the scholarly community but rarely written about, and then only obliquely, in terms such as “Percy’s sexual preference.” I remember hearing rumors, probably apocryphal, that a biographer of the Percy family was warned by the estate that he would be sued if he wrote that Percy was gay. Such anxious whisperings ended about fifteen years ago, when several commentators, including a Percy relative, openly and affirmatively discussed Percy’s homosexuality. Percy was out of the closet, even if most of these discussions were based largely on hearsay and community lore, rarely moving much beyond speculations about Percy’s possible Mississippi lovers and the goings-on during his many trips to Europe, often to places known for the vibrancy of their homosexual communities.

Now comes Benjamin Wise’s biography, the first full-length treatment of Percy to foreground his homosexuality from start to finish. There is still a lot of speculation here, but there’s also a lot of sound, fundamental archival research that is placed effectively within a broad social and cultural history of homosexual identity and practice in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, in both Mississippi and the world at large. This is truly a groundbreaking biography, one that enhances our knowledge about Percy and provides a thoroughly new way to understand his life and work. And yet, at the same time, largely because of Wise’s zealous commitment to affirm manifestations of Percy’s homosexuality at every turn, so that in places he ignores or downplays evidence that complicates Percy’s gendered identity, it is a biography that for all its trailblazing brilliance remains troublingly narrow and at times even cranky.

This is not to downplay Wise’s meticulous, wide-ranging, and significant research into Percy’s everyday doings and his interactions with friends and lovers during all parts of his life—in Mississippi as a young man and then later as an adult, in school at Sewanee and at Harvard, in his frequent travels to New York and to destinations throughout the world. Wise’s narrative fills in many details and areas of Percy’s life that Percy himself merely nodded to or completely ignored in his memoir. Despite lacking absolute evidence about sexual encounters (a large portion of Percy’s letters was held back by his estate when his papers were donated to the Mississippi State Archives), the evidence Wise brings forth leaves little doubt that Percy was both casually and deeply involved with a number of men, in Mississippi and elsewhere. Wise also does a particularly good job sketching out the social and cultural life of rural Mississippi in which Percy and other homosexuals made their way and their peace (or not); here he effectively draws from John Howard’s groundbreaking Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, wherein Howard charts the “networks of homosexual desire” that mapped the Mississippi countryside long before homosexuality was openly acknowledged there or elsewhere in the rural South.

Also very effective are Wise’s discussions of the broad cultural contexts for reading Percy’s poetry. Because so much of Percy’s verse is set in a far distant classical past (often ancient Greece, with Hellenic themes and diction), light-years away from the Mississippi countryside and modernity, critics have characteristically dismissed it as merely nostalgic escapism. Percy faced such criticism from the very beginning, typified by Faulkner’s oft-quoted review of Percy’s In April Once, in which he likened Percy as a poet to “a little boy closing his eyes against the dark of modernity which threatens the bright simplicity and the colorful romantic pageantry of the middle ages with which his eyes are full.” Wise answers such criticism by arguing that Percy’s classicism was squarely located in a late Victorian Hellenism—typified by the work of Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, James Mill Pierce, and Oscar Wilde—which looked to ancient Greece “as a moral and spiritual home for men with queer desire.” Wise adds that Percy’s nostalgia for an idealized past was not escapist but strategic. Drawing from the work of Svetlana Boym, he observes that “more than longing for a lost time, more than resistance to historical change, nostalgia can create a space distant in place and time onto which one can script emotional and sexual desire. In turn, this idealized portrayal serves as an ethical statement, a positive vindication of queer longings. Will Percy did just this in his poetry.” 

Despite presenting such a significant and important recontextualization for approaching Percy’s poetry, which might well prove to be the first step in recovering critical interest in his verse, Wise is not always the best reader of individual poems. In fact, it is in his analysis of specific poems that Wise’s often overly zealous affirmation of Percy’s homosexual manhood stands out most clearly. In his discussion of “Sappho in Levkas,” for instance, written while Percy was in college, Wise writes that the poem “can and should be read” as evidence of “a nighttime lovers’ meeting in the woods near Sewanee around 1900. Perhaps Percy was writing about [his friend] Sinkler Manning, perhaps another Sewanee student, perhaps a local teenager.” Well, maybe. The poem actually could just as well be an expression of Percy imagining such an encounter; or, one step further removed, an expression of Percy imagining himself as a man who fantasized about such an encounter. Perhaps because there is no surviving evidence from Percy himself—no letters, no diary entries—documenting his sexual life, Wise feels the need to read “Sappho in Levkas” as that evidence. But to read the poem so literally, and to close off other readings with the imperative that we should read it this way and no other (why should we? Is our response to his demand a test of our worthiness, our enlightenment, our acceptance of homosexuality?) unnecessarily limits the ways we can, and should be allowed to, interpret the poet and his verse.

Wise thankfully does not always read Percy’s poetry quite so literally, but his readings are always pushing toward and into the biographical—except when he turns to Percy’s longest and most ambitious poem, “Enzio’s Kingdom,” and goes to the other extreme by attacking all who dare to read the poem biographically. A long dramatic monologue by the son of Frederick II describing his father’s ultimately futile efforts to unite medieval Europe, “Enzio’s Kingdom” was inspired most obviously by Woodrow Wilson and his work on behalf of the doomed League of Nations. Yet also standing behind the figures of the gigantically heroic Frederick II and his much less heroic son, it seems clear, are the figures of Percy’s father and Percy himself, an interpretation that a number of critics have used, along with much other evidence, to interpret the fraught relationship between father and son. Wise will have none of it. “The poem is not an autobiographical account of Will Percy and his father,” he flatly declares, adding that autobiographical readings “shed more light on a late twentieth-century expectation among historians—that a gay man would naturally have been ‘inferior to’ and ‘unmanned by’ his father—than the poem itself.”

Actually, Wise’s response reveals more about his expectations than about those he criticizes. So much is at stake here for Wise because he wants to keep unsullied his fundamental thesis that Percy’s homosexuality was entirely an affirmation of selfhood and that it was in no way a reaction against anything or anybody in his life. Granting that Percy’s homosexual identity was overwhelmingly affirmative, one at the same time recognizes that navigating through life is rarely so purely straightforward as Wise presents it. And, ironically, in Wise’s reading of Percy’s relationship with his father, there really is no reason for him to assert such interpretative purity. That Percy was in many ways cowed by his father—and there is abundant evidence from Percy himself suggesting that he was (the idea percolates throughout Lanterns on the Levee, for instance)—does not necessarily speak to his sexual orientation, nor do the critics Wise attacks say flatly that it does. Could it have been a factor? Maybe, but I doubt it. What young boy, straight or gay, would not have been cowed, given the dashing image and heroic stature of Percy’s father and, more distantly, of his grandfather? This is how Percy described his father at one point in Lanterns: “No one ever made the mistake of thinking he wasn’t dangerous, and to the day of his death he was beautiful, a cross between Phoebus Apollo and the Archangel Michael. It was hard having such a dazzling father; no wonder I longed to be a hermit.” And, in contrast to his presentation of himself as gentle in spirit, more intellectual than physical, Percy said that his father “could do everything well except drive a nail or a car: he was the best pistol-shot and the best bird-shot, he made the best speeches, he was the fairest thinker and the wisest, he could laugh like the Elizabethans, he could brood and pity till sweat covered his brow and you could feel him bleed inside.”

If his father had a major influence upon Percy’s development it is probably to be found not in the son’s “unmanning” but in his “manning up” to his duty as a Percy to return home after law school, to be near family, and to work for and eventually oversee its businesses, including the 3,000-acre Trail Lake Plantation and its 150 tenant-farmer families. This was clearly not an easy decision for Percy, however much he loved the Mississippi Delta, for it meant coming back to a place that was far, far away from the metropolitan communities in which he had thrived as a gay man; and, even more significantly, it meant coming back to a place in which he would never be able openly to express his homosexuality. Percy made his peace with his decision through various means: by frequent travel, particularly to European locales known for their thriving homosexual communities; by buying a vacation house near Sewanee with his close friend Huger Jervey; by embracing the gritty stoicism of his father, probably best expressed in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which Percy read throughout his life (Wise, it should be noted, summarily dismisses stoicism’s influence upon Percy and only passingly mentions Aurelius once); and, as Wise does so well elaborating, by being part of a gay subculture in Greenville and its environs.

Making peace with his everyday life in Greenville was one thing, but how did Percy reconcile—or did he?—the wide divide, firmly established in the Mississippi community in which he lived, separating his cultural identities as Southern planter and as homosexual? The standard interpretation of this conflict presents Percy embracing the former while repressing the latter (hence, the brooding melancholia from which he suffered most of his life), but Wise instead argues, as suggested by his biography’s subtitle, “The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker,” that whatever frictions, contradictions, and doubts might have been circulating in Percy’s mind, he was finally successful in making “these seemingly separate worlds become one.” Wise maintains that in bringing these identities into harmony, Percy forged a fulfilling, meaningful, and generally contented life. The melancholy that plagued Percy for most of his adult years, Wise argues, derived not from sexual longing or repression, nor from family inheritance (the Percy family has a long and striking history of depressives and suicides), but merely from the suffering of painful events in Percy’s life, such as the death of a lover or the humiliating defeat of his father by James K. Vardaman in the 1912 senatorial election.

Such an entirely harmonious resolution of conflicting cultural identities seems doubtful, more true to Wise’s overall interpretative strategy than to Percy’s interior life. Indeed, I think it’s better to read the “and” of Wise’s subtitle as separating rather than uniting Percy’s two cultural domains. Percy may have been a sexual freethinker, but that thinking seems to have had little impact on his social and political views as a Southern planter and as a member of Greenville’s ruling elite. Percy, in fact, was anything but a reformer; almost everything he wrote and worked for looked back to a pastoral past, a time when life was simpler and quieter. And likewise, being a planter did not seem to have any significant impact on his attitudes toward gender and identity. What being a planter did provide him was the wealth to escape the Delta, pretty much whenever and to wherever he wanted, in order to enjoy his homosexuality more freely.

Given the place and the time, it should come as no surprise that race seems to be the roadblock that prevented any vital interplay between Percy’s cultural identities. As Wise repeatedly notes, though without offering an explanation of why this might be, Percy never equated his own struggles at self-fulfillment, his own feelings of difference within the rigid Southern system, with the plight of black people. To the very end, his attitudes toward race remained hard and fast, unquestioned and unchallengeable. Even as he acknowledged that blacks remained fundamentally unknowable to whites, Percy had no trouble assigning them to their place. As he put it in Lanterns, “the brother in black is still the tiller of our soil, the hewer of our wood, our servants, troubadours, and criminals.” Percy the sexual freethinker, furthermore, exhibited absolutely no freethinking when it came to a black man crossing the line with a white woman; that line, Percy wrote, was a “sacred taboo” and merely “to question it means the shattering of race relations into hideous and bloody ruin.”

To help us understand Percy’s failure to bridge the divide between his racial and sexual thinking, we might best turn to the insights of another Southern sexual freethinker, Lillian Smith, a lesbian (it seems appropriate to note in this context) whose masterwork Killers of the Dream (1949) appeared not too long after Percy’s death—though Smith had been voicing her views since the mid-1930s and had written a stinging review of Lanterns on the Levee. Smith argued that the Southern system of segregation was totalitarian in its ruthlessly effective methods of social control of both whites and blacks. Schooling in the ways and beliefs of segregation began in the home and was continuously reinforced everywhere outside it; and so, Smith commented, Southern children “learned the dance that cripples the human spirit, step by step by step, we who were white and we who were colored, day by day, hour by hour, year by year until the movements were reflexes and made for the rest of our life without thinking.” Segregation, which she characterized as a “dictating idea,” came to mean for Smith not merely the Southern social system but the psychological illness it imposed upon Southerners, a disorder in which areas of the mind—feelings, reason, conscience—were torn asunder and kept isolated. A white Southerner suffering under segregation might thus see no contradiction between visiting church on Sunday and participating in a lynching on Monday. Or a white Southern homosexual might feel the sting of oppression in his own life while remaining utterly blind to similar (and worse) stings upon blacks; or might, as Percy apparently did, have sex with young black men who worked for him and not see that as in any way abusive and not feel in any way besmirched.

In many of the autobiographies of white Southerners growing up in the twentieth century, there is a startling moment in which the veil of childhood innocence is torn away and the child sees that in the world in which he or she lives the color of skin matters—put simply, that white skin means all that is good and black skin means all that is bad. After this moment, the world never looks the same, and nor do the blacks the child has come to know, even and especially childhood friends and the adults who worked in the home and nurtured the child. In what way the white child responds to this traumatic moment, which demands a deep-seated reordering of vision and values, often defines the direction the child’s life will take for the rest of his or her days. In Lanterns on the Levee, Percy spends a large amount of time lovingly describing his nanny and his early boyhood black friends. He clearly loved them, and loved them deeply. But what’s missing in these discussions is any mention of the moment when Percy came to know blacks otherwise, when the loved ones of his life became the detritus of his world. Maybe Percy never acknowledged this moment of recognition. Maybe he buried it so deep within his consciousness that it never bothered him. But whatever happened, it’s clear that, sadly, Percy never attempted to cross either the wide gulf separating his childhood feelings from his mature racism or the equally wide gulf dividing his planter identity and his homosexuality. Those failures, as much as his homosexuality itself, were what ended up best defining the type of Southerner he was. 


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