He was born to Camille, a French Catholic, and LeRoy Percy, of the planter class in Mississippi, and grew up in Greenville on the big river. His father was elected as US senator in 1910. As an attorney and planter with 20,000 acres under cultivation for cotton, he was very influential at the Episcopal university, Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a postbellum tradition in his family. He spent a year in Paris before going to Harvard for a law degree. After returning to Greenville, Percy joined his father's firm in the practice of law.
During World War I, Percy joined the Commission for Relief in Belgium in November 1916. He served in Belgium as a delegate until the withdrawal of American personnel upon the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917. He served in the US Army in World War I, earning the rank of Captain and the Croix de Guerre.
From 1925 to 1932, Percy edited the Yale Younger Poets series, the first of its kind in the country. He also published four volumes of poetry with the Yale University Press. A Southern man of letters, Percy befriended many fellow writers, Southern, Northern and European, including William Faulkner. He socialized with Langston Hughes and other people in and about the Harlem Renaissance. Percy was a sort of godfather to the Fugitives at Vanderbilt, or Southern Agrarians, as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren were often called.
Percy's family was plagued with suicides, including his first cousin LeRoy Pratt Percy and possibly his wife Phinizy, who died in an auto accident. William adopted his cousin's children, Walker, LeRoy (Roy) and Phinizy (Phin) Percy, after they were orphaned. As an adult, Roy married Sarah Hunt Farish, the daughter of Will Percy's law partner, Hazlewood Power Farish. He took charge of the Percy family plantation, Trail Lake. Phin married and moved to New Orleans to practice law.
Percy's most well-known work is his memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1941). His other works include the text of "They Cast Their Nets in Galilee," which is included in the Episcopal Hymnal (1982) (Hymn 661), and the Collected Poems (Knopf 1943). One of his pieces was published under the name A.W. Percy in Men and Boys, an anonymous anthology of Uranian poetry (New York, 1934).
Percy was the playwright behind a one act scene in a volume of poetry "In April Once" (1920).
A friend of Herbert Hoover from the Belgium Relief Effort during the early years of World War I, Percy was put in charge of relief during the great flood of 1927, when an area larger than all New England (minus Maine) was inundated in the spring. During the flood, thousands of blacks fleeing farms and plantations under water sought refuge on the levee in Greenville. Percy believed that the refugees needed to be evacuated to Vicksburg to receive better care and food, and arranged for ships to prepare to remove them. But, local planters, including Percy's father, a forceful former US senator, opposed this decision. They worried that if the black workers were removed from the area, they would never return. To Percy's dismay, the relief committee voted unanimously not to relocate the black residents, and the ships left Greenville empty. After conditions on the levee deteriorated, Percy was strongly criticized in the national press. Percy continued to head the relief effort for months until the floodwaters had receded sufficiently that residents could return to their homes. He later resigned and left for a trip to Japan the following day.
The William Alexander Percy Library at 341 Main Street, Greenville, Mississippi is named for him.
William Armstrong Percy III (born December 10, 1933) is an American professor, historian, encyclopedist, and gay activist. He taught from 1968 at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and started publishing in gay studies in 1985.
William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker by Benjamin E. Wise
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (March 12, 2012)
Amazon: William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker
Amazon Kindle: William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker
In this evocative biography, Benjamin E. Wise presents the singular life of William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), a queer plantation owner, poet, and memoirist from Mississippi. Though Percy is best known as a conservative apologist of the southern racial order, in this telling Wise creates a complex and surprising portrait of a cultural relativist, sexual liberationist, and white supremacist.
We follow Percy as he travels from Mississippi around the globe and, always, back again to the Delta. Wise's exploration brings depth and new meaning to Percy's already compelling life story--his prominent family's troubled history, his elite education and subsequent soldiering in World War I, his civic leadership during the Mississippi River flood of 1927, his mentoring of writers Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, and the writing and publication of his classic autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee. This biography sets Percy's life and search for meaning in the context of his history in the Deep South and his experiences in the gay male world of the early twentieth century. In Wise's hands, these seemingly disparate worlds become one.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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