Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942Alternative names
William Alexander Percy was born on 14 May 1885, in Greenville, Mississippi into an illustrious family of the planter class. His mother, Camille, was a French Catholic from New Orleans; his father LeRoy Percy, was an influential Episcopalian attorney, and cotton planter who owned more than 20,000 acres under cultivation. He served as the last U. S. Senator elected by the Mississippi legislature. William Percy campaigned actively in behalf of his father's election.
William Alexander Percy attended the Episcopalian University of the South (Sewanee), graduating in 1904, but became a committee Catholic, like his mother. He then spent a year in Paris before returning to attend Harvard Law School. He then joined his father's law firm in Greenville, MS. During World War I, Percy served in the Commission for Relief in Belgium from November 1916-April 1917. When the United States entered the war, Percy returned to the United States and joined the Army. He saw much combat and was promoted to the rank of captain. He received the Croix de Guerre, the French military medal.
Despite pursuing the legal profession, Percy also remained active in literary matters. He edited the pioneering, Yale Younger Poets series, 1925-1932. He also published four volumes of his own poetry. Among these works was Enzio's Kingdom and Other Poems (1924). He was also active promoting the careers of other writers and poets, including William Faulkner. He was acquainted with members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. He was a spiritual advisor for the Vanderbilt Fugitives, a group of southern writers who opposed the modern industrial world and wished to restore an agrarian culture for the South. He also supported the Southern Agrarians writers who arose in the 1930s when the Fugitives disbanded, including John Crowe Ransom (#1169-010), Allen Tate (#1169-012), and Robert Penn Warren (#1169-014). During the Great Mississippi Floods of 1927, Percy was appointed to head up relief efforts in Mississippi.
In 1929, both Percy's parents died, leaving Percy with all his family's wealth and influence. From that point on, Percy ceased to write poetry. Shortly thereafter, LeRoy Pratt Percy and his wife died young, possibly suicides, William adopted their three children, his cousins, LeRoy (Roy), Phinizy (Phin), and Walker Percy (#1169-082). All three prospered as adults, including Walker, who became a physician and a best-selling author.
Percy is best-known today for his Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (1941) a memoir in which he recounted his early life and World War I service. It became a best seller. In it, Percy criticizes the social and technological changes that had washed over the country since his birth. He recommended a return to agrarian values and lifestyles.
Despite a shortage of evidence, Benjamin E. Wise, Percy's biographer supports the belief that Percy was gay. He never married and associated with many known gay individuals. A reviewer of William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, says that Best describes Percy as "a queer plantation owner, poet, and memoirist . . . a conservative apologist of the southern racial order . . . a cultural relativist, sexual liberationist, and white supremacist".
During the last decade of his life, Percy's health deteriorated, and he was often ill. He, nevertheless, traveled widely, to Samoa, the Mediterranean, and other lands. He died on 21 January 1942, at the Greenville, MS hospital after a long illness. The William Alexander Percy Library in Greenville, MS, is named for him.
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Authors, American--20th century--Archival resources|
|World War, 1914-1918--Personal narratives, American|
|Gay authors--20th century|