William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker

William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker

William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker

William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker


In this evocative biography, Benjamin E. Wise presents the singular life of William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), a queer plantation owner, poet, and memoirist from Mississippi. Though Percy is best known as a conservative apologist of the southern racial order, in this telling Wise creates a complex and surprising portrait of a cultural relativist, sexual liberationist, and white supremacist.

We follow Percy as he travels from Mississippi around the globe and, always, back again to the Delta. Wise's exploration brings depth and new meaning to Percy's already compelling life story--his prominent family's troubled history, his elite education and subsequent soldiering in World War I, his civic leadership during the Mississippi River flood of 1927, his mentoring of writers Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, and the writing and publication of his classic autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. This biography sets Percy's life and search for meaning in the context of his history in the Deep South and his experiences in the gay male world of the early twentieth century. In Wise's hands, these seemingly disparate worlds become one.


On December 5, 1910, William Alexander Percy spent the better part of the day in his law office in Greenville, Mississippi. He was to argue a railroad case in court the next morning, but his mind was on other things.

The fifth of December that year was a rain-soaked Monday. in the mail Percy received a letter from Harold Bruff, his best friend and likely his lover from Harvard Law School. Bruff, recently diagnosed with tuberculosis, informed Percy that he was leaving the country; his doctor had advised him to take six months of vacation to rest his body. Bruff’s job as a Manhattan attorney, his doctor said, was not conducive to recovery. Percy wrote in his diary that night that Bruff’s letter “filled me with longing” and left him stuck “midway between exasperation and restlessness.”

Will Percy and Harold Bruff had met at Harvard in 1905. the two lived in a rooming house called Winthrop Hall, a recently built Gothic structure with a fireplace in each room, hardwood casing around the windows, and a long trough in the basement for bathing. the Charles River was just visible from their bedroom windows. Percy—of slight build, with brown hair and blue eyes, his face bearing both his father’s strong jawline and his mother’s dimpled chin—was the more mild mannered of the two. Before law school, he had attended college at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and after graduation he had lived in Paris for a year. He was a piano player and a poet. Those who knew him described him as soft-spoken and magnetic, a person in whom others confided. His poetic temperament and quiet humor offset Bruff’s brusque, lawyerly style. Percy admired Bruff’s frank New York sensibility, which enlivened their conversation and counterbalanced his own Mississippi reticence. When Percy wrote his autobiography near the end of his life, he described being with Harold Bruff as “ecstasy.”

Bruff was one of those whom Percy referred to as a “Mayflower princeling,” so common among Harvard students at the time: Bruff could trace his . . .

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