William Alexander Percy was born on 15 May 1885 in Greenville, Mississippi, and was named after his grandfather, a planter and lawyer who served as a colonel during the Civil War, earning the nickname the Gray Eagle of the Valley. Will Percy perceived himself as distanced from and overshadowed by his father, LeRoy, a powerful planter, lawyer, and US senator. Percy never felt close to his mother, Camille, and found maternal affection from his young nurse, Nain. The weight of family tradition pressed on Percy, who was marked as different from an early age. During his early education at the Sisters of Mary Convent, Percy accepted Catholicism. His parents withdrew him from the convent when he decided he wanted to be a priest, and he finished his early education with a personal tutor.
Percy attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, following a path trod by three generations of earlier Percys. During his time in college, Percy’s ten-year-old brother, LeRoy, was accidentally killed by a rifle, which may have led to Percy’s disaffection with the Catholic Church. After graduating from Sewanee in 1904, Percy spent a year traveling Europe and Egypt. He then received a law degree from Harvard University in 1908 and returned to Greenville to practice law. Percy composed poetry that was largely ignored in Greenville but won the attention and praise of the Fugitives at Vanderbilt. Percy’s first volume of poetry, Sappho in Levkas and Other Poems (1915), invokes many themes of classical literature and romantic poetry. The influence of place can be seen in poems such as “To the Mississippi.”
Percy was climbing Mount Etna when World War I erupted and in 1916 served on the Commission for Relief in Belgium. He joined the US Army from 1917 to 1919 and trained soldiers in the 92nd Division (the US Army’s first African American division), earning the Croix de Guerre in 1918 and rising to the rank of captain. Some of the poems in his collection In April Once (1920) reflect his wartime experiences in France.
Percy returned to Greenville to fight battles on the home front against the Ku Klux Klan. Beginning in March 1922, his father began openly campaigning against Klan activists in Greenville. He humiliated Klansmen in several open speeches and letters that led to Klan threats on his life. Will Percy responded by threatening to have KKK Exalted Cyclops Ray Toombs killed. Under the protection of the Percy family, Washington County and Greenville never saw the rise of Klansmen into the seats of local power. Percy’s next book of poetry, Enzio’s Kingdom and Other Poems (1924), contains several “Delta Sketches” that reflect the land conflicted by a pastoral ideal where spring “is too sweet” and by violence “where yet men hate and kill.”
If the memory of spring was “too sweet” in the poem “Delta Autumn,” the reality of spring became all too nightmarish on 21 April 1927, when the Great Flood broke the Mounds Landing levee and threatened the thirty-two hundred acres of the Percys’ Trail Lake plantation. Much of the Delta would not be dry again for months, and people took refuge on the highest ground available—the surviving levee wall and the second story of buildings. LeRoy Percy put Will in charge of the Greenville Relief Committee, where he confronted the task of feeding ten thousand displaced townspeople. White residents were quickly evacuated to Vicksburg, but seventy-five hundred African Americans were concentrated on the seven-mile-long levee to simplify the logistics of delivering food and supplies. Adequate shelter could not be provided, so Percy began to plan for their evacuation. However, his father intervened. He and the other planters feared that their African American laborers would not return to Greenville if they were allowed to leave. Will Percy could not countermand his powerful father, and instead of fleeing with the white citizens to Vicksburg, African Americans were trapped on the levee and forced to work at gunpoint in brutal living conditions. On 31 August Percy resigned his post.
After LeRoy Percy’s death in 1929, Will Percy took charge of the family and inherited his father’s plantation and business. He became a patron of the arts and paid for various social welfare programs to help African Americans in Greenville, but the schism brought by the flood could never be repaired, nor could Percy, ever resorting to the bonds of paternalism, consider African Americans as his equals.
Shortly after the appearance of Selected Poems (1930) Percy adopted his three recently orphaned cousins, LeRoy, Phinizy, and future novelist Walker Percy. At the urging of Alfred Knopf, his publisher, Percy committed many of the events of his life to paper in his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941). Emphasizing that he was not a planter but a planter’s son, Lanterns offered a stoic perspective on the decline of upper-class traditions of paternalism, patronage of and respect for the arts, and good manners. Lanterns is Percy’s only literary effort that has met with critical praise and endured as a masterpiece. After his death on 21 January 1942, Knopf published The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy (1943).
- Lewis Baker, The Percys of Mississippi (1983)
- Edward J. Dupuy, Southern Quarterly (Winter 1991)
- Jo Gulledge, Southern Review (April 1985)
- Fred Hobson, Tell about the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (1983)
- William F. Holmes, Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture (1973)
- Walker Percy, “Introduction,” Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy (1973)
- William Armstrong Percy III, in Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South, ed. John Howard (1997)
- Scott Romine, Southern Quarterly (Fall 1996)
- Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012)
- Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (1994), The Literary Percys: Family History, Gender and the Southern Imagination (1994)