Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Legacies of Desire in the Delta

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Legacies of Desire in the Delta

Article excerpt

Legacies of Desire in the Delta 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 Deltas 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 Americas 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 latenineteenth 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. …

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