Rattling the Cage: Homoeroticism, Sublimation, and Southern Mores in the Works of William Alexander Percy

By Nies, Betsy | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Rattling the Cage: Homoeroticism, Sublimation, and Southern Mores in the Works of William Alexander Percy


Nies, Betsy, The Mississippi Quarterly


"[The] Greeks practiced bisexuality honestly and simply without thought or condemnation."

(Percy, Lanterns on the Levee 111)

   Lock your sin in a willow cage,
     Cover the key with clay:

   Hanging beneath your rafters' shade
     He'll sing for you some day.

   Outside your good deeds cluck and strut,
     But small's the joy they bring.

   It's only a wistful prisoner bird
     With a wicked heart can sing.

   (Percy, "Sublimation" 1-8)

IN SOUTHERN LITERARY STUDIES, THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HOMOEROTICISM and Southern white identity has been largely overlooked. While texts written by white women and African Americans have become part and parcel of the task of redefining the Southern literary canon, gay writers and their depictions of same-sex desire remain relegated to the sidelines of Southern literary and cultural histories. Gary Richards notes "the comparable absence" in canonical studies of the Southern Renaissance "of gay or lesbian persons and/or writers centrally concerned with same-sex desire" (12). He speculates that the influence of Agrarian thought with its attendant emphasis on home, family, and religion has contributed to the marginalization of gay writers. He cites The History of Southern Literature as case in point: the presence of homoeroticism in the works of writers such as Truman Capote, Lillian Smith, and William Alexander Percy goes unmentioned, as does the orientation of the writers themselves in this Agrarian-based anthology (Richards 20). More recent literary and mainstream cultural histories continue this pattern. J. A. Bryant, Jr., in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature, references the orientation of some specific writers and characters, yet includes no analysis beyond that. Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda MacKethan's The Companion to Southern Literature offers only six pages on gay and lesbian literature in this more than one thousand page-volume. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Cultures, a revision of the 1989 text, offers no entries on homosexuality in the South. As Mark Poteet notes, such omissions overlook the richness that queer theory can bring to the study of Southern texts and history (3). (1) Given the history of homophobia in the region, as evidenced by the presence of anti-sodomy laws into the twenty-first century, it makes sense to consider homosexuality as central to Southern constructions of masculinity. Revisiting literary texts that highlight constructions of masculinity, particularly narratives of white masculinity central to dominant narratives of Southern history, reveals the danger that same-sex desire poses to prevailing historical and cultural norms of the region.

The works of William Alexander Percy provide a perfect place for investigating such an intersection. A writer celebrated for his dedication to white Southern aristocratic traditions, especially in his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Memoirs of a Planter's Son (1941), and a poet who expressed himself primarily through the homoerotic imagery of the French Decadent and British gay Victorian poets and of the Greek poets and philosophers who preceded them, Percy generates in his prose and poetry conflicting ideological threads that highlight how subversive homoeroticism is to traditional Southern mores. In addition to his autobiography, Percy published several poetry collections, including Sappho in Levkas, and Other Poems (1915), Ln April Once, and Other Poems (1920), and Enzio's Kingdom, and Other Poems (1924), all collected in one volume in 1944. He served as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets (1925 to 1932) and courted a wide range of literary friends and acquaintances, including Agrarians John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Never publically out of the closet, Percy expressed his homoerotic desires most clearly in his poetry and less so in his conservative autobiography. As the lines from the poem

"Sublimation" suggest, Percy struggled to lock away that which he defined as "wicked" (8)--while externally his "good deeds [did] cluck and strut" (5). …

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