After the death of his widowed mother, when he was fourteen, Walker Percy, along with his brothers Leroy and Phinizy, went to live in the home of William Alexander Percy, in Greenville, Mississippi. (1) Walker Percy thus lived for about a decade in the household of one of the most admired men of the modern South. Descendant of a family prominent in the Mississippi Delta for a hundred years, (2) William Alexander Percy was virtually a Renaissance man: teacher, decorated military officer, lawyer, poet, and plantation owner. (3) And, although he did not aspire to elective office, he was a politician in the older sense of the word--a citizen competent in the art of government. He was Chairman of the Greenville Flood Relief Committee and the local Red Cross during the disastrous months-long 1927 flood and thus responsible for feeding and either housing or evacuating sixty thousand people. He felt so strongly that the Delta needed a progressive newspaper that he persuaded Hodding Carter to settle in Greenville and found the Delta Star (now the highly respected Delta Democrat-Times), to which he and other prominent citizens whom he enlisted contributed financial and moral support. (4) Frank Smith, the moderate Congressman from the Delta, credited his success in getting elected and re-elected to the rational and humane climate of opinion inspired by the civic leadership provided in great part by William Alexander Percy. (5)
Although Walker Percy and his brothers were rather distant relatives of William Alexander Percy--they were sons of his first cousin--he nevertheless adopted them as his sons. Then he discovered that he had taken on a new role, as father, to which he had never given any thought. What he attempted to teach his sons, over a ten-year period, by example and instruction, is summarized in "For the Younger Generation," the climactic chapter of Lanterns on the Levee. Although he had doubts that his experience would interest others, he had long thought of writing an autobiography. Finally, in the late Thirties, in poor health, he began to write an account of himself and his ancestors. When several of his friends were asked to read chapters of it, they discouraged his efforts, and he gave up the project. It was only after David Cohn returned to Greenville and convinced him of the artistry of what he had written that he was willing to finish the work. (6) Dedicated, appropriately enough, to "Walker, Roy, & Phin," in addition to some other members of his family, the work was published March 10, 1941, less than a year before his death.
Had he intended only to relate the events of his life, William Alexander Percy probably would not have written the book. For the last page offers his confession of failure: "at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at citizenship unimportant, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered ..." (LL, 348). But the structure of the book suggests that he had a much larger intent in mind. Although the style is informal and the content is highly anecdotal, a plan gradually becomes apparent. There is, first of all, a historical sketch of the Delta. Then a light, frequently humorous genealogy of the Percy family is given; the conclusion of this section is a statement of what has been learned from the past that will be vital to the present:
Perhaps it is all contained in a remark of Father's when he was thinking
aloud one night and I sat at his feet eavesdropping eagerly:
"I guess a man's job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far
as he is able--always remembering the results will be infinitesimal--and to
attend to his own soul."
I've found in those words directions enough for any life. Maybe they
contain the steady simple wisdom of the South. (LL, 74-75)
The middle chapters of the work are devoted to William Alexander Percy's efforts to follow his father's advice. Then comes the account of the arrival in his household of his three young charges. …