4 / Greenville
A "Pocket of Enlightenment" in the Sahara of the Bozarts
North of Glen Allan on Highway 1, we pass through the town of Foote, which gets its name from a plantation owned by Shelby Foote’s ancestors.
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At one point he wanted to buy the old plantation, but wasn’t able to. Anyway, if you’ve seen Ken Burns Civil War documentary, you know who Shelby Foote is. And now you know where his people come from. We pass north through Foote, tracing the shadow of what once used to be the course of the Mississippi River up towards Greenville.
Greenville is where Will Percy lived. It’s a river town. Still, sort of. The Mississippi also moved away from Greenville at some point in its history, and now Greenville, like Vicksburg, is a lakefront town. The little oxbow lake that was the Mississippi is called Lake Ferguson and Greenville sits on it.
They Said It’d be Daft to Build a Town on the Mississippi River
Topographically, Greenville resembles Vicksburg in some ways. If you’re standing on the bank of Lake Ferguson, which used to be part of the Mississippi River, and look west and slightly north, you will look over six border changes. Looking west from Greenville you look across into Arkansas and then beyond that into Mississippi. Beyond that, back into Arkansas. Beyond that, back into Mississippi. And beyond that, back into Arkansas again.
Now the site of Greenville itself has moved a few times since it was established. Greenville grew out of the Blantonia Plantation on Batchelor’s Bend. That was settled in 1828. The first town was destroyed by floods. The second town was destroyed by union gunfire. And the third town, according to the WPA guide, it just bit by bit fell into the river. It sounds a lot like the swamp castle in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!
The fourth one is a little bit north of where the original site was, and it stayed up until in 1927, a massive flood of the Mississippi River inundated Greenville for 70 days. It was devastating. All the way up from the Gulf to Missouri and north. Over 500 people lost their lives. It was the deadliest flood in American history. The flooding was so bad that at one section below Memphis, the Mississippi River was 80 miles wide.
In his memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy wrote that
“the 1927 flood was a torrent ten feet deep the size of Rhode Island. It was 36 hours coming and four months going. It was deep enough to drown a man, swift enough to upset a boat and lasting enough to cancel a crop year. The only islands in it were eight or ten tiny Indian mounds in the narrow spoil banks of a few drainage canals. Between the torrent and the river ran the levee, dry on the land side and on the top. The South Delta became 7,500 square miles of mill race, in which 120,000 human beings and 100,000 animals squirmed and bobbed.”
Walker Percy says that “for four months, the Percy family home rose from a fetid brown sea ten feet deep. Dead mules floated into the front gallery.”
In Grafton, Wisconsin in December of 1929, Delta native Charley Patton recorded “High Water Everywhere” for Paramount Records. The song recounts the experience of the Flood of 1927:
Looky here, the water dug out, Lordy, levee broke, rolled most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland, Lord, it done rose everywhere
(spoken: boy, you can't never stay here.)
I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me there's water there
For his 2001 masterpiece, Love & Theft, Bob Dylan recorded his own tribute to Patton’s flood number, “High Water (for Charley Patton)”:
High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin' to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere
As a result of the flood of 1927, the United States government created a massive levee system that runs virtually the length of the Mississippi River, to prevent something like this from ever happening again. And as a result, the river was moved, or in the more poetic language of the WPA guide, “banished to a new course,” west. As with Vicksburg, the waterfront property was now somewhat removed from the source of its life, but the bend in the river became known as Lake Katherine and then Lake Ferguson. So, Greenville is now a lakefront town, technically, even though it began as a river town.
Tumblin’ Dice on the Other Side of the Levee
My first time here was in 1999, and that was my first encounter with a phenomenon in the Mississippi Delta that is one of its more bizarre characteristics. In a special session in 1990, the Mississippi Legislature passed House Bill Two, which legalized dockside casino gambling.
Gambling was now legal in Mississippi as long as it was on a body of water, i.e., The Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. It couldn’t be a landlocked casino. It had to be technically not on Mississippi land.
So in Greenville there’s a steamboat that is for all intents and purposes part of the land. It’s anchored there permanently by a steel bridge. You can cross this steel bridge and go gamble, play blackjack, pull the lever, whatever that thing is called, and piss away your money to your heart’s content.
The first time I ever set foot in a casino was in Greenville. It’s an interesting place. It’s a Delta town defined by its relationship to the river. There’s nothing podunk about Greenville. It’s a decent sized town, and it’s beautiful. You get the sense walking around of a town that once had a heyday, whose heyday is no more.
Greenville was a significant municipality or fiefdom within the Cotton Kingdom. A significant fiefdom, but not significant enough to warrant its own chapter in the 1938 WPA Guide. That honor would fall to Greenwood, east of Greenville.
In the section on Greenville in the WPA guide, the anonymous writer takes the opportunity to exercise his or her alliterative muscles. In response, perhaps, to that impulse to say, to speak, to use words, to stretch words to their maximum that the Delta so inspires:
Tugs churn through the muddy water. And along the levee, sweating stevedores, strain at heavy cotton bales brought in from the surrounding plantations. The largest city in the Yazoo, Mississippi area, Greenville is a cotton planting, ginning, marketing, and financing center.
It’s also the ancestral home of the Percy family. So the first entry under Greenville in the WPA Guide? The Percy Home. “Open by permission,” the guide notes.
No point in trying to go visit it today. It’s not there anymore. There’s a brand new apartment complex on the site.
The Percys of Greenville
Will Percy was still living when the WPA Guide was written, and he was sort of a godfather to many Mississippi writers of the period, including many of the Nashville Agrarians we talked about last time:
“Owned and occupied by William Alexander Percy, (1885- ). Lawyer and poet. The son of Senator LeRoy Percy and the grandson of Colonel William Alexander Percy, 1834-88, known as the Grey Eagle of the Delta because of his leadership of Southern whites during the days of Reconstruction.”
And interestingly, the guide points out what’s in Percy’s collection at the home on the southeast corner of Percy and Broadway streets. “Five works of Jacob Epstein, the head of Christ, the bust of David Cohn,” the author who gave us that famous description of the Mississippi Delta, its beginning and its end. “Senegalese girl, Indian boy, and baby head. Two pieces of sculpture by Leon Corey, born in Greenville, November 4th, 1909. A negro head in bronze, and a head of William Alexander Percy the poet.”
The second entry is the Greenway Cemetery, including the grave of Senator LeRoy Percy. LeRoy Percy is an interesting figure in his own right. Like all the Percys, he belonged to the landed aristocracy. Wealthy, white, erudite, but also somewhat progressive for his time. Percy’s great bête noire, his great nemesis, was James K. Vardaman, “The Great White Chief “of Mississippi. Vardaman was the architect of Mississippi’s white supremacist revival in the late 19th century. When Mississippi rewrote its state constitution in 1890, Vardaman’s politics were at the center of that rewriting. His vision drove the new constitution. He was a defining figure in politics in Mississippi at the end of the 19th century.
He was a contemporary of Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman in South Carolina, and they shared a lot in common. They had a similar political sensibility. Unabashedly white supremacist. Vardaman, by the way, was a bit of a dandy too. He was famous for his long, lush locks, and his silk capes that he often wore. He was flamboyant.
Some of this may have something to do with the fact that Vardaman was actually from Texas. He wasn’t born in Mississippi. He ended up in Greenwood, but he was originally from Southeast Texas, which may explain his fondness for wide-brimmed hats and capes and larger-than-life personality. He was a celebrity.
His great political opponent was LeRoy Percy. They fought over a Senate seat in the 1910s, and Vardaman ultimately occupied that seat for a good while. So in the protracted political contest between Percy and Vardaman, it’s not just a contest between ideals, but a contest between two classes: the landed aristocracy represented by Percy, and the poor white populists, represented by Vardaman. These are two demographic groups that remain definitive in parts of Mississippi.
The Rout of the Aristocrats
If you ever read anything about southern politics in the 20th century, you will come across a book by V. O. Key called Southern Politics. It is a 1949 text that is the standard treatment of politics in the South for the first half of the 20th century. It goes back a little farther than that. It covers the period in which Percy and Vardaman were battling for leadership of Mississippi. Basically, which faction was going to win? The planter class, or the working class?
The book is divided up geographically by state. So in his chapter on Mississippi, he has a section called “Rout of the Aristocracy: The Percys and the Bilbos.”
So, Key begins his section this way,
“The hills are dry, the delta is wet. The hills are radical; the delta is conservative. The delta and the eastern prairie often vote together against the hills. The hills and the delta—as states of mind—have their roots in the past. Their interpretation requires a backward look…The delta mind, at its best, possesses a high sense of duty, a compelling sense of honor, and a rigid code of right and wrong. Withal it is characterized by a remarkable isolation from the mind of the hills. And it must be remembered that not all delta dwellers share in the delta mind. Nor are all hill people rednecks.”
LeRoy Percy represented the Delta mind. Vardaman and his successor Theodore Bilbo, who became the dominant voice in Mississippi politics for the next 30 years, represented the Hill Country. The sort of dichotomy between the noblesse oblige of the planter class in the Delta and the sort of “country bumpkin” of the hill country (these are stereotypes of course, but this is the way they were often perceived), would play out throughout the 20th century.
Bilbo’s people attacked LeRoy Percy and they tried to slime him and smear him. But Will Percy thought of Bilbo’s class of people as “the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They were undiluted Anglo Saxons.” Which is interesting, because as frequently as you hear defenses of Anglo-Saxon culture and the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon civilization, there are voices like those of Will Percy and Stark Young who thought that the Anglo-Saxon race was really kind of base and not really that sophisticated. So when they talk about “undiluted Anglo-Saxon culture,” Percy and Young identify that with the bumpkins in the hill country. Not the sophisticated elite in the plantations and their successors in the Delta.
Theodore Bilbo was originally from the Gulf Coast. But he was the antithesis of the Percy model of the dignified white aristocrat. Bilbo was an unrepentant white supremacist. He was a member of the Klan. He was Governor of Mississippi twice—two separate terms, from 1916-20 and 1928-32—and then United States Senator from 1935 until his death in 1947.
He’s probably the most dominant figure in Mississippi politics in the middle of the 20th century. And he helped engineer the demise of the Percy faction. by claiming that he had been offered a bribe to vote for Percy, which he refused. This is all total BS, and the Senate even voted to expel him from office, which didn’t ultimately succeed. His vote for Vardaman helped swing the election in Vardaman’s favor.
And in what is by now an American tradition, somebody who was censured, nearly kicked out of office, didn’t suffer politically; on the contrary, went on to the highest political success. Sounds kind of familiar, if you read the news today. But in any case, LeRoy Percy didn’t become Governor of Mississippi, served one term as a United States Senator, and then his ideal, politically, was displaced by the more populist, Hill Country-type politician of which Theodore Bilbo is the shining exemplar.
LeRoy and Will Percy thought lynching was what rednecks in the Hills did. It wasn’t the type of thing that distinguished people like his family took part in. It’s worth noting that in 1912 when Percy was fighting a losing race for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi, his more moderate politics with respect to race were becoming increasingly unpopular. The ideals of Bilbo and Vardaman that were founded on white supremacy and segregation were becoming even more popular—more popular, perhaps, than they ever had been.
LeRoy Percy’s gravesite in Greenway Cemetery, which is mentioned in the guide, is illuminating. It gives you some idea of the kind of family legacy that Walker Percy inherited and struggled with and against throughout his fiction and his essays. There’s maybe a ten-foot-high stone sort of wall type thing with a statue of a downcast knight in full chainmail, his hands resting on top of a sword, whose tip is positioned between his feet. He’s wearing a long cape, and beneath his feet the word, “Patriot.”
Will Percy: Episcopalian Melancholic
It’s a manifestation of the ideas of Southern chivalry, patriotism, and even stoicism that would shape the Percy family’s self-understanding for generations. It’s a lot of pressure to be born into a family that understands itself as a tribe of knights. Maybe this is partly why depression was such a chronic issue among the Percy men, including Walker himself. The ideals, noble and lofty as they may have been, were maybe sometimes debilitating. This may have imbued Will Percy’s poetry with its characteristically melancholy sensibility. This may be most accessible in a hymn that is still included in the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church. It’s called, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee.” It’s about the simple fisher folk, whom Jesus called to follow him: “contented, peaceful fishermen,” Percy calls them.
“Before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts, brimful, and broke them too.” Its tone is different from the types of hymns you typically see hymnals. It’s a little bit downcast. It’s somber but also melancholic and somewhat hard-edged. The concluding verse: “The peace of God, it is no peace, But strife closed in the sod.” There notes here from classical poetry going back to Hesiod. The idea of strife being so elemental to human life that it’s literally in the soil.
You can also hear some of the Delta influences in Percy’s hymn. When he was writing about casting their nets off the hills of Brown, if you know Percy’s history, it’s easy to imagine fishermen fishing from the levees, from the banks of the Mississippi River. Almost as if Jesus himself comes to the Mississippi Delta.
Will Percy was a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the only Episcopal university in the United States. In fact, the last time I was in Sewanee at the church there, which is a beautiful building in the old gothic style, but in a particularly Southeast Tennessee type of language, architecturally speaking, we sang the hymn that Percy wrote. Which had a particular sort of poignancy to sing this hymn that one of Sewanee’s most famous graduates wrote, and which is still in the hymnal. But anyway, it’s a reminder of the phenomenon we encountered in Glen Allan: this nod to English nobility, and the identification of oneself and one’s lineage with that heritage.
Percy’s kind of nostalgic view of the past didn’t go over well with everybody, including a young William Faulkner, who as a student at Ole Miss in the 1920s wrote a review of Percy’s book, In April Once.
Faulkner said that Percy was “like a little boy closing his eyes against the dark modernity, which threatens the bright simplicity and colorful romantic pageantry of the middle ages with which his eyes are full.”
Now, in talking about the Percys’ nostalgia, they’re not pining for the recent past. It’s a more distant past which they’re reaching towards. There’s a difference in kind between the type of backward looking that the Percys are doing and the kind of backward looking that the Klan is doing, for example.
An Unlikely “Center of Cultural Dissent”
In a speech in 1922, LeRoy Percy famously publicly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, which was quite active around Greenville at the time. He called the Klan “an outlaw organization going about its work behind masks and in clown suits.” Now, that’s pretty gutsy language for anybody in 1922, in Mississippi. A lot of people in Greenville shared Percy’s sentiment, and the Klan was basically kept out of Greenville.
It should be said that Percy wasn’t completely altruistic in his motivations against the Klan, as well-principled as they were. He was married to a Catholic woman, and he had dozens of Black workers on his thousands of acres of property. And while he’s unsparing in his criticism of the second Klan, which was revived in 1915 in Atlanta, he doesn’t wholly condemn the first Klan, which was established in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee. And he insists that the two not be confused with one another because he says, in a way, the first one was kind of justified.
I don’t want to diminish the courage it took for LeRoy Percy to condemn the second Klan in 1922 publicly—in an article for The Atlantic Monthly in July—but I also don’t want to paint him as a hero of progressivism, so to speak. Yes, his position in 1922 was gutsy and, in many ways, countercultural. And one cannot gainsay his condemnation of the Second Klan as it was manifested in the 1920s: anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Black.
But he also worried that the Klan would scare Black people away from the South and only intensify the migrations that were already taking place northward and westward. And because so many of them constituted his workforce, his desire to keep them in Mississippi was not rooted in a solicitude for their best interest.
There’s a class element here too that distinguishes Percy from his great opponent James Vardaman. This idea, the white aristocracy, the noblesse oblige that held it as a duty to uplift the lower classes, this was the sensibility that informed LeRoy Percy and Will Percy’s lives.
Walker Percy’s biographer Jay Tolson writes that because of men like LeRoy Percy, Greenville, Mississippi became “a pocket of enlightenment.” Its first mayor after Reconstruction was Jewish, Jacob Alexander, and Will Percy’s home was an unusually cosmopolitan crossroads of intellectual and cultural life. The great novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Spencer, who was from the hill country town of Carrollton on the other side of Greenwood, east on US 82, described Greenville as “a center of cultural dissent to the downhill state of things in a world of growing Snopesism,” referring to the notoriously depraved and treacherous Snopes family from William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
Walker Percy’s description of his Uncle Will’s home in Greenville is so magical and curious that you half-expect to come upon a spare room with a wardrobe in it, with a portal to a different world. In fact, Percy’s home itself was a kind of portal to a different world: it had dozens of oddly-shaped, weirdly-angled rooms. Walker, who came to live there with Uncle Will, even though he was really a cousin, built model airplanes with his friend Shelby Foote.
And it’s a pretty remarkable thing: this guy, Will Percy, a bachelor, a poet, learned erudite pillar of Greenville society decides in 1930 to take on three orphan children and to raise them in his house. Pretty impressive.
Uncle Will’s house was a kind of oasis of learning. He had a stacked library, he had a phonograph collection of LPs of classical music. His house was kind of like a salon that attracted figures like Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, who came there and gave a speech. David Cohn came to Greenville for writing advice from Uncle Will and ended up staying a year and writing God Shakes Creation. Will was a kind of impresario of the Mississippi Delta. He was probably the single greatest influence on Walker Percy’s young life, and is a large part of the reason why Percy became a writer himself.
From his Uncle Will, Walker got multitudes, including a smidge, perhaps, of that sense of melancholy of what had been lost, things that were no longer retrievable. One of those things was Uncle Will’s home. This is how Percy ends his tribute to Uncle Will’s house in an essay that he wrote in 1984:
“It’s all gone now. House, Garden, Capehart, Beethoven Quartets, and Victor 78s, pantry, Lorenzo de Medici in Bronze, Venus in marble. In its place, I think, are neat little condo villas of stained board and batten siding. Only the garden wall remains. I am not complaining. I have what he left me, and I don’t mean things.”
Now there’s much about [Will] Percy’s paternalism that we would find troubling today. For example, the idea of an obligation or responsibility of higher classes towards lower ones, so called, is premised on the assumption that lower classes are incapable of lifting themselves, incapable of educating themselves. Therefore, the higher classes must dispense what wisdom and knowledge and resources they have to lower ones who lack those.
Nevertheless, figures like Will did pursue a kind of vision that was an outlier in Mississippi culture at the time, or at least the culture of the Delta. And maybe even across the South as a whole. The Percy story is a kind of a figure for a version of the South that became displaced by the rise of Jim Crow.
Now we’re talking about the 1910s. When LeRoy Percy goes to the U. S. Senate, it’s been twenty years since the Mississippi State Constitution has been revised in an unambiguously white supremacist fashion. The fever for Confederate monuments is at very high temperature. Within a few years, Black southerners are going to start migrating northward and westward in droves.
It’s not to say that what Jim Crow replaced was an entirely enlightened view of society. It wasn’t, but it was certainly more enlightened and more progressive, more humane than what followed it. It’s worth remembering the role of the Percy family. They had a sense of duty to society. It was inherited, yes. It came with a kind of understanding of themselves as a kind of nobility. Just look at the Percy family grave.
Left High and Dry on the Levee
But there was also within the Percy family intergenerational conflict. LeRoy Percy’s vision of reality didn’t always line up with his son Will’s. And this all came to a head during the great flood of 1927.
Will was appointed chairman of the Flood Relief Committee by Greenville’s mayor. And he tried to acquire supplies for the relief efforts. But those supplies dried up after a while. The flood left thousands of people stranded on high ground, which meant the levees, including about 7,500 Black people. Will Percy, unable to acquire supplies for all of these refugees, basically, thought that it would be better for them to be evacuated downriver to Vicksburg than to just stay in this camptown, this temporary tent city on the levee in Greenville.
Will Percy’s attitudes towards African Americans were more progressive, we could say, than his father’s were. Will thought, we’ll evacuate all of the Black people who are encamped on the levee down to Vicksburg. He arranged for a couple of ships to come upriver from Vicksburg to get them and take them back downriver. But he was met with resistance in the form of his father, LeRoy Percy, who argued that the planters wouldn’t be happy with this plan, because he thought if they were evacuated to Vicksburg, they would never come back. And therefore the labor force around Greenville would be decimated.
Now, Will viewed his father as kind of a hero. He was in awe, in many ways, of LeRoy Percy. And it was hard not to be, from accounts of the man’s stature at the time. He wrote that “it was hard having such a dazzling father; no wonder I longed to be a hermit.” And no one, he wrote, “ever made the mistake of thinking he wasn’t dangerous.” But in this case, he took a strong position against his dad. Will wrote that “I insisted that I would not be bullied by a few blockhead planters into doing something I knew to be wrong. They were thinking of their pocketbooks. I of the Negroes welfare.”
And according to Will, the relief committee was on his side. When he, at his father’s request, convened a meeting of the relief committee, he met with surprising resistance.
The boats are tied up on the bank of the levee. They’re ready to go. The captains standing ashore next to them, anxiously waiting to load up and head down river. Every single committee member voted against his proposal. They were not going to send Black citizens downriver. After the meeting a downcast Will Percy informed the boat captains, who were furious, that they had to go back to Vicksburg without the evacuees.
After his father died, Will Percy learned that LeRoy Percy had gone behind his son’s back and convinced each member of the relief committee to vote against his son’s proposal. And one of the hardest things to stomach in Will Percy’s account of this story is how angry he isn’t at his father. What’s holding him back from being really pissed off at his dad for manipulating him and conspiring behind his back to undermine him?
Will Percy was sometimes blind to the faults of others. And in the world of a planter’s son in 1930 Mississippi, it was ungentlemanly to complain too much about this sort of thing. But, you feel yourself wanting Will to get fired up about this, get angry at his dad for really screwing him over. But he doesn’t, which causes us to wonder, is that really a good thing? Is that sort of gentlemanly, genteel withholding of emotion a positive quality?
How many Black men and women have had to pay the price for a white person’s sense of dignity? How many Black or brown or native people have had to pay the price of a well-meaning white southerner’s sense of self-preservation, for the preservation of that precious principle of Southern conduct, “you make a better showing with your mouth shut?”
Richard King, who is an historian of the Southern renaissance in literature, wrote that “Will’s authentic paternalism, uncomfortable as it may make us feel, had proved powerless before the commercial considerations of his father’s kind of people. Even more startling and telling is that Will Percy could not bring himself to register the hurt and sense of betrayal he must have felt at the contempt his father had shown.”
What a stunning story. This is one of those things that you can’t make up. The internecine strife of a powerful white family undermining one another, and then burying the hatchet almost immediately. It’s unbelievable. The suppression of emotion, maintaining one’s dignity in the face of hurt, and so forth, belong to the kind of Southern stoicism that Bertram Wyatt Brown wrote about so magnificently years ago. The kind of thing that Walker Percy inherited, and he wrote about so magnificently himself.
But this episode reminded me of a conversation I had with Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, a couple years ago. While Mitch was mayor, the city decided to remove four highly prominent Confederate monuments. And when the motion had passed, the city council, or whoever it was, had agreed to the proposal, not unlike Percy’s relief committee members. Everything was moving forward until Landrieu tried to find a crane company to remove these big obelisks and statues from the cityscape. He could find none. No one was willing to risk their business to do what everybody knew was right. It was too dangerous economically and financially for some of these small crane companies to be forever saddled with the reputation of having been responsible for the actual removal of these monuments. There were people in New Orleans who would never let that go. We know how Southern memory works. There’s stuff we haven’t let go for 150 years.
Mitch Landrieu uses this as an illustration of systemic racism—of how you can get well intentioned people to agree on principle to what is clearly right, but when it comes to taking action, that desire for self-protection, that fear of reprisal proves far more determinative and powerful than noble principle. And ultimately what is more powerful than principle is money. And that is what Will Percy learned during the flood relief efforts in 1927, from his own father. That it’s not enough to be high-minded, and to be enlightened, and humanitarian if a system of defensive self-protection is arrayed against you, you don’t stand a chance.
Will Percy’s paternalism clearly wasn’t enough. And I guess one of the things that colors this whole story with that shade of melancholy is the fact that Will Percy’s vision, as complicated and problematic (as we would now say) as it was, it was better than its alternative.
Black people were forced to remain stranded on levees in Greenville in 1927 because powerful white people were afraid of losing their labor force. Will Percy’s vision was unquestionably better than that. But it failed. And as much as we want to tell American history as a linear story of progress, of increasing and expanding upward mobility, it is simply not true. The push and pull of politics in Mississippi in 1927, 1930 is highly complicated. But principle rarely becomes law unless it is financially advantageous to somebody.
If you drive through Greenville now, you won’t see this history on the landscape. You won’t see this resource on the surface. You have to look for it. But it is there. It is across the Delta, where people like Will Percy, who are writing, singing, marching for a better South, for a better America, have always been there, and they’re probably more numerous now than they ever have been.
I don’t want to make Will Percy out to be a saint. There’s a lot about his attitudes towards race which are frankly just kind of disturbing. They’re a little bit too much of their time and their milieu. And there were moments where Percy simply couldn’t see the plain truth in front of his face. His attitude towards James Vardaman, for example, was far too charitable. He was paternalistic, yes. But he was also pretty courageous in cutting against the grain of culture in 1927 Mississippi, and not only that, and in cutting against the grain of his own family legacy.
He was no revolutionary, that’s for sure. The culture of gentlemanly stoicism ultimately won out over Will Percy. But for all of that, for all of those impurities in the soil, let’s call them, something was planted there in Will Percy’s house that grew in Walker Percy into something more capacious: a vision of reality still melancholic but more humorous, more comic, more hopeful, more realistic about the reality of race in the South, the reality of violence and oppression in the Delta, and in the country as a whole.
The Delta is America’s most fertile region, period. The buckshot soil that’s so famously generative of life: it’s a powerful and beautiful metaphor for all the other forms of life that the Delta has generated, mainly imaginative life. Will Percy is just one of those forces. But they’re everywhere. And no region in the country has such a contradictory existence, and yet been so incredibly creative. Of course New York City is a melting pot where the radical intensity of creative life is always at a boil. What else would you expect? But the thing about the Delta is that you would never expect this. If you were just passing through this region, visually, it gives you very little reason to expect much of anything in the way of culture. But the opposite is the case. Mississippi is always regarded as the counterexample of American progress. But the Delta kind of turns that upside down. The Mississippi Delta is not the counter-story to American self-understanding. It is the American story.
Footage of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 from the U.S. National Archives:
LeRoy Percy, “The Modern Ku Klux Klan,” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1922
William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son
Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land
Bertram Wyatt Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South
Bertram Wyatt Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family
Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy
V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics
Rebecca Hersher, “Levees Make Mississippi River Floods Worse, But We Keep Building Them” National Public Radio, May 21, 2018
PBS, American Experience, Season 13, Episode 2 on the Flood of 1927 and LeRoy Percy
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