William Alexander Percy's Lanterns: A Reply from a Mississippi Sharecropper's Son
Hodges, John O., Southern Quarterly
William Alexander Percy's life (1885-1942) comprises an epoch in our national life that is often referred to as the "New South." But the Delta,1 with its large white-owned cotton plantations and ready supply of impoverished farm labor, became a symbol for this whole area and an earlier way of life rooted in slavery. In fact, the historian James C. Cobb has called the Mississippi Delta "the most southern place on earth," for it represents not only a particular stretch of land with fixed geographical boundaries, but a certain ideology and temperament. Cobb is but one of several commentators on the South who have viewed the Mississippi Delta "as an isolated, time-warped enclave whose startling juxtaposition of white affluence and black poverty suggested the Old South legacy preserved in vivid microcosm" (viii). Born in the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, William Alexander Percy, whatever else he might have been - lawyer, poet, and planter - was first and foremost a man of the Old South.
Percy's poetry, published in such volumes as Sappho in Levkos, and Other Poems (1915), In April Once, and Other Poems (1920), and Enzio's Kingdom, and Other Poems (1924), often evokes the character and mood of this region he called home. Certainly this is the case with such poems as "In the Delta," "Greenville Trees," and "Levee Nocturne." While Percy enjoyed some success as a minor poet, his literary reputation rests largely on his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (1941), which he published just one year before his death. Here, he goes to a much greater extent to defend and extol what he sees as virtuous in his southern heritage. Finally, however, Lanterns is the apologia of a southern aristocratic gentleman who laments the demise of a worldview based, as he understands it, on manners, morals, and noblesse oblige.
The introduction to the Library of Southern Civilization edition was written by Walker Percy, the Catholic novelist and author of such works as Love in the Ruins (1971), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Walker Percy, who died of cancer in 1990, was a second cousin of William Percy. When Walker's father died of suicide in 1929 and his mother in a car accident two years later, William Percy adopted Walker and his two younger brothers and moved them to his home in Greenville. There, they were to meet poets and preachers and anyone interested in studying the South. Taking three boys in was a great sacrifice, which Walker would not completely appreciate until later in his life. As he writes, "for him to have taken on three boys, aged fourteen, thirteen, and nine, and raised them, amounted to giving up the freedom of bachelorhood and taking on the burden of parenthood without the consolations of marriage" (ix). Walker was indebted to "Uncle Will," as he often referred to his second cousin, for his vocation as a writer, but makes it clear that he does not share his older cousin's views on race relations. This is quite understandable, for the notions expressed in Lanterns are the condescending and demeaning ideas of southern paternalism that few would hold today. There is no doubt that both the work and its author, in today's world, would be regarded as racist. Yet, during his day, Percy, who spoke out against the abuse of blacks by the Klan and various law enforcement officials, was often labeled a "nigger lover."
Determining whether or not William Percy was a racist seems not to be a fruitful line of inquiry. My interest in the work grows out of my experience as the son of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta2 and as a scholar whose academic work lies in the area of autobiographical literature. I suppose there are always some risks in responding to a work from both a personal and an academic point of view. As the son of black sharecroppers, I would like to show that Percy's observations regarding blacks are wrongheaded, and as a student of autobiography I want to suggest how the narrative itself finally undermines the author's view of himself and the culture he putatively defends. …