Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942

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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.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Gore Vidal papers, 1875-2004 (inclusive), 1936-2000 (bulk). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
referencedIn Percy, Walker, 1916-1990. Walker Percy papers, 1910-1992. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
referencedIn Papers, 1897-1930. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
creatorOf Gruen, Rudolph, 1900-1966. Overtones : opus 21 / poem by William Alexander Percy ; music by Rudolph Gruen. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records, 1914-1961, bulk (1930s-1950s). New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Stuart Wright Collection: Walker Percy Papers, 1954-1997 (bulk 1975-1987) East Carolina University, Joyner Library
creatorOf Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942. Letter to George Marion O'Donnell [manuscript], 1941 May 23. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942. William Alexander Percy papers, 1902-1941. Louisiana State University, LSU Libraries
creatorOf Bojanowski, Jerzy. The man in white / poem by William Alex. Percy ; [music by] Jerzy Bojanowski. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn Gore Vidal papers, 1875-2004 (inclusive), 1936-2000 (bulk). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
creatorOf Reese, Lizette Woodworth, 1856-1935. Papers of Lizette Woodworth Reese [manuscript], 1893-1936. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Meade, Julian R. (Julian Rutherfoord), 1909-1940. Papers of Julian Meade Rutherfoord, 1928-1940. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Percy, Walker, 1916-1990. Letters : to Jean Stafford, 1962-1971. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Universalist Mission to Japan. Photographs, 1891-1966. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School
referencedIn Walker Percy Papers, circa 1910-1992 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection
creatorOf Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942. Correspondence to Lewis George Sterner, 1927. University of Pennsylvania Library
creatorOf Stuart Wright Collection: William Alexander Percy Papers, 2016 East Carolina University, Joyner Library
creatorOf Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942. Janet Percy Dana Longcope papers, 1911-1917. Louisiana State University, LSU Libraries
referencedIn Crump, Brodie,. Brodie S. Crump oral history interview, 1976. Louisiana State University, LSU Libraries
creatorOf Percy, William Alexander, 1885-1942. Letter to William Orton Tewson [manuscript], 1900-1904. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Houghton Mifflin Company reader reports on manuscripts submitted for publication, 1882-1931. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard
referencedIn Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records, 1914-1961, 1930s-1950s New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
Role Title Holding Repository
Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Bojanowski, Jerzy. person
associatedWith Bragdon, Claude Fayette, 1866-1946 person
correspondedWith Braithwaite, William Stanley, 1878-1962 person
memberOf Commission for relief in Belgium corporateBody
associatedWith Crump, Brodie, person
associatedWith Faulkner, William, 1897-1962 person
associatedWith Gruen, Rudolph, 1900-1966. person
associatedWith Harvard Law School corporateBody
associatedWith Houghton Mifflin Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967 person
associatedWith Longcope, Janet Percy Dana. person
associatedWith Meade, Julian R. (Julian Rutherfoord), 1909-1940. person
associatedWith O'Donnell, George Marion, person
associatedWith Percy, Leroy, 1860-1929. person
associatedWith Percy, Walker, 1916-1990 person
associatedWith Ransom, John Crowe, 1888-1974 person
associatedWith Reese, Lizette Woodworth, 1856-1935. person
associatedWith Tate, Allen, 1899-1979 person
associatedWith Tewson, William Orton, 1877-1947, person
memberOf United States. Army corporateBody
associatedWith Universalist Mission to Japan. corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf University of the South corporateBody
associatedWith Vidal, Gore, 1925- person
associatedWith Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Paris A8 FR
Greenville MS US
Greenville MS US
Subject
Military nursing
Catholics--United States
Poets, American
Authors, American--20th century--Archival resources
World War, 1914-1918--Personal narratives, American
Southern literature
Gay authors--20th century
Lawyers--Mississippi
Occupation
Lawyers--Mississippi--Greenville
Poets, American--Mississippi
Editors, American
Authors, American--Mississippi--Greenville
Soldiers--American
Function

Person

Birth 1885-05-14

Death 1942-01-21

Male

Americans

English

Information

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