Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Book Reviews -- the House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Book Reviews -- the House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Article excerpt

The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family. By BERTRAM WYATT-BROWN. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. xv, 454 pp. $30.00.

ANYONE interested in the Percy family--and anyone interested in southern history or American letters ought to be--should read Bertram Wyatt-Brown's compelling chronicle of this accomplished but tragic family, which in the twentieth century included William Alexander Percy, author of the fine and important memoir Lanterns on the Levee, and Walker Percy, a major novelist. Wyatt-Brown begins the story of this family with a carefully researched account of its American founder, the mysterious bigamist Charles Percy, who in the 1770s left England to settle in Spanish Louisiana, and of his sons by each wife, Thomas and Robert, who were important in the early history of the Gulf coast states. Of the nineteenth-century Percys, Wyatt-Brown writes primarily about the female line, especially two long-ignored writers, Catherine Warfield and Sarah Dorsey. The latter not only wrote, but she also let Jefferson Davis live in her home while he produced his memoirs and left Beauvoir, as it was called, to him in her will. Wyatt-Brown provides the fullest discussion historians have of Dorsey's own life and her role in Davis's. He then turns to the Percys of Greenville, Mississippi, who were leading planters and lawyers of the Delta. The first William Alexander Percy receives almost no treatment, nor is his son LeRoy's life recounted beyond his 1912 Senate race and his influence on one of his sons, the author William Alexander ("Will").

The remainder of the book, almost half of the text, analyzes the lives and writings of Will and his cousin and adopted son, Walker. The account of Will is probably the more valuable, if only because less has been written about him. Wyatt-Brown is at his best in discussing this fascinating man, whom he judges the most impressive member of the family. Wyatt-Brown ably shows why he thinks that, but not without acknowledging the flaws and limitations of Will's stoic, aristocratic view of his world. …

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