William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns: A Reply from a Mississippi Sharecropper’s Son
Hodges, John O
William Alexander Percy’s life (1885-1942) comprises an epoch in our national life that is often referred to as the “New South.” But the Delta,1 with its large white-owned cotton plantations and ready supply of impoverished farm labor, became a symbol for this whole area and an earlier way of life rooted in slavery. In fact, the historian James C. Cobb has called the Mississippi Delta “the most southern place on earth,” for it represents not only a particular stretch of land with fixed geographical boundaries, but a certain ideology and temperament. Cobb is but one of several commentators on the South who have viewed the Mississippi Delta “as an isolated, time-warped enclave whose startling juxtaposition of white affluence and black poverty suggested the Old South legacy preserved in vivid microcosm” (viii). Born in the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, William Alexander Percy, whatever else he might have been – lawyer, poet, and planter – was first and foremost a man of the Old South.
Percy’s poetry, published in such volumes as Sappho in Levkos, and Other Poems (1915), In April Once, and Other Poems (1920), and Enzio’s Kingdom, and Other Poems (1924), often evokes the character and mood of this region he called home. Certainly this is the case with such poems as “In the Delta,” “Greenville Trees,” and “Levee Nocturne.” While Percy enjoyed some success as a minor poet, his literary reputation rests largely on his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (1941), which he published just one year before his death. Here, he goes to a much greater extent to defend and extol what he sees as virtuous in his southern heritage. Finally, however, Lanterns is the apologia of a southern aristocratic gentleman who laments the demise of a worldview based, as he understands it, on manners, morals, and noblesse oblige.
The introduction to the Library of Southern Civilization edition was written by Walker Percy, the Catholic novelist and author of such works as Love in the Ruins (1971), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Walker Percy, who died of cancer in 1990, was a second cousin of William Percy. When Walker’s father died of suicide in 1929 and his mother in a car accident two years later, William Percy adopted Walker and his two younger brothers and moved them to his home in Greenville. There, they were to meet poets and preachers and anyone interested in studying the South. Taking three boys in was a great sacrifice, which Walker would not completely appreciate until later in his life. As he writes, “for him to have taken on three boys, aged fourteen, thirteen, and nine, and raised them, amounted to giving up the freedom of bachelorhood and taking on the burden of parenthood without the consolations of marriage” (ix). Walker was indebted to “Uncle Will,” as he often referred to his second cousin, for his vocation as a writer, but makes it clear that he does not share his older cousin’s views on race relations. This is quite understandable, for the notions expressed in Lanterns are the condescending and demeaning ideas of southern paternalism that few would hold today. There is no doubt that both the work and its author, in today’s world, would be regarded as racist. Yet, during his day, Percy, who spoke out against the abuse of blacks by the Klan and various law enforcement officials, was often labeled a “nigger lover.”
Determining whether or not William Percy was a racist seems not to be a fruitful line of inquiry. My interest in the work grows out of my experience as the son of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta2 and as a scholar whose academic work lies in the area of autobiographical literature. I suppose there are always some risks in responding to a work from both a personal and an academic point of view. As the son of black sharecroppers, I would like to show that Percy’s observations regarding blacks are wrongheaded, and as a student of autobiography I want to suggest how the narrative itself finally undermines the author’s view of himself and the culture he putatively defends.
William Percy was an elder contemporary of my own parents. He, as they, grew up in the Delta and died there much too soon.3 One might think that the parallels end here. After all, he was wealthy; my parents lived just below the poverty line. He was a planter; my parents were sharecroppers. He was white, my parents black. Given these facts, it would seem unthinkable to explore any further connections. Yet, despite these profound differences, there is a sense in which whites and blacks, planters and sharecroppers were bound together in a web of mutual dependence. This interdependence, I would argue, goes far beyond the formal or informal arrangements of the sharecropping system to the very heart of what it means to be a southern, aristocratic gentleman. That is, while blacks depended on the white aristocracy for some level of subsistence, whites owed their very identity as aristocrats to the presence of black servants and laborers. Before proceeding, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the nature of the old southern aristocracy.
If noble birth, education, and wealth were considered several of the distinguishing characteristics of the southern aristocracy, so, too, was the presence of a loyal black labor force. But while blacks were needed as servants, maids, and farmers in the South, strict measures had to be taken to keep them in their place. Hortense Powdermaker, in her study (1939) of the small Delta community of Indianola, Mississippi, contended that, “Any attempt at any kind of social equality would result in some disaster so overwhelming that it is dangerous even to talk about it and so terrible that it cannot be thought of concretely but must remain vague” (23). While well-mannered blacks were indispensable to the structure of the southern aristocracy, the presence of poor whites was often viewed as a threat. According to Percy, the Delta was comprised of three dissimilar groups: slave owners, poor whites, and slaves. In his hierarchy, poor whites, for whom he has much antipathy, are ranked below blacks. Though they may have accomplishments in certain areas of the arts, “admire them, trust them, love them – never” (20). He continues:
Intellectually and spiritually they are inferior to the Negro, whom they hate. Suspecting secretly they are inferior to him, they must do something to prove to themselves their superiority. At their door must be laid the disgraceful riots and lynching gloated over and exaggerated by Negrophiles the world over….The Delta was not settled by these people; its pioneers were slave-owners and slaves. (20)
His preference for blacks over poor whites is not out of admiration and respect for blacks but out of a need to protect his own aristocratic interests. Given what he says about blacks throughout the narrative, it is difficult to believe he actually believes that blacks are intellectually superior to any whites. Here he simply wants to achieve the two-fold objective of defining the aristocratic class so narrowly as to include only those whites of noble birth, wealth, and education and of laying at the feet of poor whites the problems of mob violence against blacks. Furthermore, by pitting blacks and poor whites against each other he is able to prevent any alliance between these two groups, thus strengthening the power of the aristocracy over both.
Indeed, William Alexander Percy epitomized the Old South aristocratic gentleman who believed first and last in the moral and intellectual superiority of whites. It was not enough simply to believe this; he had to convince blacks themselves of their inferiority and utter dependence on whites. This was accomplished through a strict policy of color caste, which as Powdermaker and others have noted, called for the severest penalties to be exacted on any blacks who attempted to cross the color line. James Cobb comments on just how important it was to have blacks accept their place and role in the southern hierarchy:
The ability of the Delta’s white minority to subjugate and exploit its black majority depended in large part on a system of caste-based social control that was rigid, pervasive, and self-perpetuating. Only if members of both races played their well-defined caste roles with inerrant consistency and an almost exaggerated vigor could white dominance of such a racially and economically imbalanced society be maintained. (153)
The Supreme Court in its 1896 landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson4 seemed to endorse this way of life in its “separate but equal” doctrine. A year earlier, Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895, argued that blacks and whites in all matters strictly social and political could be as separate as the fingers and yet one as the hand in terms of economic cooperation. Booker T. Washington could not have imagined how his “compromise” would be used to further the interests of the white aristocracy, while severely proscribing the conduct and aspirations of black Americans.
This was the world in which Will Percy grew up, a world that my parents understood and accepted, and I, too, as a youth growing up in Greenwood knew all too well. Percy’s education at Sewanee and Harvard, his tour of duty in the Army, his various trips to Europe and Asia – all notwithstanding, Will Percy held firmly to the doctrine of the separation of the races. But as Percy himself knew, the doctrine, as it was applied in the South, was not absolute, as it involved a number of inconsistencies and contradictions. Black women who served as wet nurses for white babies and caretakers of the elderly often traversed the color line with impunity. So did white men. White men were free to cross the line, at their own discretion. Consider, for example, such staunch proponents of the color bar as Thomas Jefferson5 and Strom Thurmond.
This is not to assert that the majority of white men availed themselves of this opportunity, but only to call attention to the presence of a double standard. That is, the color line existed only to keep blacks in their place and not as a bar to the conduct of white men. And in a situation where blacks outnumbered whites, it was one of the chief weapons used by the southern aristocracy to protect its own interests.
Scott Romine, in his book The Narrative Forms of Southern Community (1999), has commented on the various contradictions and inconsistencies in Lanterns. He says, “Perhaps more than any other single text, Percy’s work registers and attempts to resolve the contradictions of southern paternalism” (113-14). These contradictions appear to me to be neither artistic nor creative, and they are never fully resolved in the narrative. They occur largely because of Percy’s single-minded effort to defend a system that was itself inherently inconsistent. Furthermore, he is a naïve narrator whose judgment and understanding we do not always trust. Consequently, there is a good deal of deception, perhaps both conscious and subconscious, in the narrative. But, finally, it is not the general reader who is deceived but the writer himself and those who already share his particular worldview. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called this form of deception la mauvaise foi. As he explained in Being and Nothingness (1966):
Bad faith has in appearance the structure of falsehood. Only what changes everything is the fact that in bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth. Thus the duality of the deceiver and the deceived does not exist here. Bad faith on the contrary implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness. (89)
It is in the autobiographical act itself, however- that is, the act of gathering together the multifarious strands of one’s life and weaving them into a coherent and meaningful pattern – that forms of deception are revealed. The kind of revelation that occurs is more apparent to the reader than to the writer himself. Thus, the self is revealed in the Apologia (as opposed to the Confession) not directly but indirectly, not by the narrator but by the narrative. But whether the narrator consciously deceives or is himself deceived, the process of re-collecting his experiences becomes a process of discovery and revelation – if not for the writer himself then certainly for the reader. What is revealed is the pretentious and hypocritical nature of the southern aristocracy. Thus, Lanterns at once defends and dismantles the whole notion of the southern aristocracy. The more Percy attempts to defend the system, the stronger he makes the case for its dismantling.
The incongruities, inconsistencies, and misstatements become manifest in Percy’s effort to justify his attitude and conduct toward blacks, especially those under his immediate command, whether they are in his own household, or members of the 92nd Division placed under his authority as a Lieutenant in WWI, or found working as sharecroppers on his plantation. In his book, he asks, “How is it possible for the white man to communicate with people of this sort, whom imagination kills and fantasy makes impotent, who thieve like children and murder ungrudgingly as small boys fight?” (305). Seeing himself as a person of goodwill, he gives the following advice:
I would say to the Negro: before demanding to be a white man socially and politically, learn to be a white man morally and intellectually – and to the white man: the black man is our brother, a younger brother, not adult, not disciplined, but tragic, pitiful, and loveable; act as his brother and be patient. (309)
These are the ideas of southern paternalism that became the mold which gave shape to Percy’s narrative. A better example of Stanley Elkins’ Sambo thesis6 as is here rendered will not be found. Any effort to refute Percy’s claims is likely to have the unfortunate consequence of raising to the level of serious discussion ideas that have long since been disproved. But as they are central to Percy’s story, it will be necessary to give them some consideration.
Slavery had often legalized the immoral conduct of white men. Children born during this period had to follow the condition of the mother, not the father. This allowed the white owner to indulge his sexual appetite while increasing his slave population. He was granted even greater protection, since the slave mother was not allowed to reveal the name of the white father of her children. In the Mississippi Delta, in Greenville and Greenwood – Percy’s hometown and mine – there are a number of black children with white fathers. The black mothers must be silent and too often the white fathers choose to be. The testimony of individuals otherwise as diverse as Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, and Aaron Henry7 provide ample evidence that the morality of the southern white man is not something blacks should emulate.
In the Delta, as in other places in the South and throughout the nation, blacks lag behind whites in formal education. This was certainly true in 1941 when Lanterns was published; it is also true today, but to a much lesser extent. Here, again, we need to look at the legal and social strictures that have kept blacks from attaining the level of education of their white counterparts. During slavery, teaching slaves to read and write was illegal, as is evident in an 1819 Virginia statute, which was typical of what was generally the case throughout the South.8
Well into the twentieth century, reading for blacks in the South was a difficult and, at times, hazardous proposition. The author Richard Wright, in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), recalls the difficulty he had trying to get books to read. Since the public library was off-limits to blacks, he forged a note: “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?” (246). However demeaning he found the act to be, he believed that it would lead to success for two reasons. First, he used the term “nigger” which whites often used in referring to blacks; and second, because it would never be believed that he could read and write in the first place.
Literacy under the plantation system was discouraged to an even greater extent, even (or especially) after emancipation. Children who attained the age of twelve were expected to do field labor. Long before then, however, my parents’ landlord told them that I should be sent to the field rather than to school. It took a great deal of ingenuity for my stepfather to convince the landlord that I should be allowed to go to school, as my presence in the field would be more of a distraction than a service. Without me, they contended, they could be even more productive.
Clearly, education took a backseat to farm labor in those school districts with split sessions, since children here had to interrupt their education in order to accommodate the cotton season. Furthermore, counties in the Mississippi Delta diverted to whites funds that were allocated based on the total number of students. James Cobb explains this practice in some detail:
Blacks received precious little help from whites in their efforts to educate their children. Whites in the Delta counties benefited enormously from a statewide funding formula that allotted monies according to the total number of school age children regardless of color. White officials simply diverted a great percentage of the money that should have gone for black schools to the education of white pupils. In Washington County the ratio stood at seven to one in 1929-1930. (This discrepancy had actually grown worse as the twentieth century unfolded. The ratio had stood at five to one in 1908-09). (179)
These figures are indeed astounding. It should be noted that Greenville, Percy’s home, is located in Washington County. Percy was unlikely to have objected to this serious discrepancy in funding, since he himself advocated only “simple and practical education” (229) for blacks. It should come as no surprise, then, that Percy found those black officers in World War I who had received the kind of practical training he advocated were much better officers than those who had more formal training. Percy contends that those officers “who came from the regular army, where they had been sergeants, made splendid officers. Those who came from civilian life by way of training camps were lazy, undevoted and without pride” (199).
Percy, of course, was not alone in his belief that education was not only wasted on blacks but that it could have disastrous consequences for them and others. The sentiment expressed by one white planter seems to have been shared by a number of other southern whites, planters and non-planters alike: “What I want here is Negroes who can make cotton, and they don’t need an education to help them make cotton” (quoted in Cobb 180). For this reason, it was much more likely to find whites willing to support black churches rather than black schools. We may conclude, then, that the condition of blacks in the Delta was indeed wretched, but such wretchedness stemmed from the legacy of the slave codes and the patterns of segregation and discrimination since then, and not from any natural condition of inferiority.
In addition to the problems indicated above, there are several other inconsistencies and misstatements which prove problematic in Lanterns. The Percys were well known for their courageous fight against the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Greenville, a position in which Will Percy should justifiably take pride. But even here we note some equivocation in his refusal to give a clear denunciation of the Klan. He sees the activities of the revived Klan as approaching the activities of Hitler in Germany, but then goes on to say elsewhere that the Klan during Reconstruction days played “so desperate but on the whole so helpful a part in keeping the peace and preventing mob violence” (231-32). At one point, he argues that the Klan’s membership is comprised of poor whites, but at another he claims that in Greenville everyone was under suspicion because “you couldn’t tell who was a Klansman” (237).
By the 1930s, Percy recognized that race relations had improved, which he attributes to the fact that-
lynching has declined to the vanishing-point and outbursts of violence against the Negro are almost unknown. It should be noted, however, that the improvement, if improvement there is, is due solely to the white man. It should be further noted that the Negro is losing his most valuable weapon of defense – his good manners. When a Negro now speaks of a ‘man’ he means a Negro; when he speaks of a ‘fellow’ he means a white man; when he speaks of a ‘lady’ he means a Negress; when he speaks of a ‘woman’ he means a white woman. Such manners are not only bad, they are not safe, and the frame of mind that breeds them is not safe. Covert insolence is not safe for anybody, anywhere, at any time. (307)
In this passage Percy gives credit to whites for good race relations and suggests further that bad manners, as he speaks of them here, may justify any violence toward blacks. Percy comes perilously close to condoning the kind of violence against blacks that he claimed was to be found largely in the ranks of poor, uneducated whites. Furthermore, the violence which he claims had declined to the vanishing point was indeed still quite prevalent during Percy’s time and would continue unabated some fourteen years later, culminating in the murdering of Emmett Till in August of 1955 in the small Delta town of Money, Mississippi. It is certainly of Emmett Till that Percy reminds us in the following passage, where he voices his concern that the younger blacks will no longer honor the taboo of the untouchability of white women by black men:
In the South the one sacred taboo, assumed to be Southern, but actually and universally Anglo-Saxon, is the untouchability of white women by Negro men. It is academic to argue the wisdom or justice of this taboo. Wise or unwise, just or unjust, it is the cornerstone of friendly relations, of interracial peace. In the past it has been not the eleventh but the first commandment. Even to question it means the shattering of race relations into hideous and bloody ruin. But I fear it is coming to be questioned. (307-08)
He says that black men, unlike white men, are not morally indignant when a woman has an affair with someone outside her race. This is not moral flabbiness on the part of blacks as Percy suggests, but practical wisdom. The black man realizes that such an affair is either none of his business or something that he is helpless to do anything about. Percy knows all too well that any outrage over any relations between white men and black women would have been dangerous and foolhardy. Richard Wright recalls an incident in which he witnessed a white man slapping the buttocks of the young woman with whom he was walking. That moment in which Wright looked startled was a moment which could well have cost him personal harm or death. The young woman had to reassure him that it was all right and that he should simply let it pass. This is precisely the situation the black man found himself in whenever he attempted to defend the honor of a black woman.
Again, it is in Percy’s discussion and defense of the sharecropping system that we note several misstatements and half-truths. William Percy’s grandfather, for whom he was named and whom he referred to as Fafar, was responsible for reestablishing white supremacy after Reconstruction. It was he who was able to disfranchise blacks who had been elected to such offices as sheriff and justice of the peace. This required not only intelligence, tact and courage, but also “vote-buying, the stuffing of ballot boxes, chicanery, and intimidation” (274). Percy feels that the actions of his grandfather were justified, since, as he claims, blacks were unfit to hold public office. Here, again we see Percy using every occasion to minimize the contributions of blacks and to justify the conduct of the white aristocracy as just and moral.
After emancipation, Fafar made a contract with the newly freed blacks to provide them food and shelter for their manual labor. According to Percy, it was an arrangement which was initiated by the blacks themselves when they discovered that while “slaves couldn’t go hungry, freedmen could and did” (275). The contract was explained thus:
I have land which you need, and you have muscle which I need; let’s put what we’ve got in the same pot and call it ours. I’ll give you all the land you can work, a house to live in, a garden plot and room to raise chickens, hogs, and cows if you can come by them, and all the wood you want to cut for fuel. I’ll direct and oversee you. I’ll get you a doctor when you are sick. Until the crop comes in I’ll try to keep you from going hungry or naked in so far as I am able. I’ll pay the taxes and I’ll furnish the mules and plows and whatever else is necessary to make a crop, this is what I promise to do. When the crop is picked, half of it will be mine and half of it yours… (276).
This seems to be a fair explanation of how the sharecropping system ideally should have worked. Percy’s effort to defend the system notwithstanding, it often proved to be grossly unfair to the black sharecroppers. As one who spent his early years working on a plantation under such an arrangement, I remember sitting up all night just a few days before Christmas hoping that the news this year would be different from years past and that we would not again come out in the red. My stepfather, like many other blacks on this plantation, was well mannered in his dealings with whites. But one day something got into him to ask to see the books to try to determine for himself what his fair share should be. This was taken as an act of great insolence, for no one had the temerity to question the bookkeeper’s fairness in dealing with black tenants. Powdermaker reached a similar conclusion in her research in the 1930s in Indianola:
Unless the landlord or manager presents a statement of purchases from the plantation store and receipts from the cotton, the tenant rarely asks for it. If he is illiterate, it would not do him much good. He may know how to read and figure, and still not be shrewd enough to want a statement. He may want it and know it would be impossible to get, or simply be afraid to ask for it. (86)
Indeed, as she contends further:
One reason for preferring Negro to white labor in plantations is the inability of the Negro to make or enforce demands for a just statement, or for any statement at all. He may hope for protection, justice, honesty, from his landlord, but he cannot demand them. There is no force to back up a demand, neither the law, the vote, nor public opinion. Even a request, if voiced too insistently, may lead to trouble. The landlord may become offended or angry, in which case there are ways open to him for retaliation and for forcing submission. (86)
Even Percy himself admits that the system allowed for dishonesty to reign:
The Negro is no more on an equality with the white man in plantation matters than in any other dealings between the two. The white planter may charge an exorbitant rate of interest, he may allow the share-cropper less than the market price received for his cotton, he may cheat him in a thousand different ways, and the Negro’s redress is merely theoretical. (284)
But this is precisely the problem that my stepfather and any number of others, similarly situated, faced.
The one possible recourse, as both Powdermaker and Percy acknowledge, was for the tenant to find a landlord who would deal honestly with him. This was not as easy as it might appear. Landlords were noted for finding ways to hold their tenants on the land, and the primary way was to make sure that the tenant was constantly in debt and thus continuously obligated to the landlord. As I mentioned earlier, these settlements typically came in mid- to late-December, after the cotton was picked and ginned, and at a time when the tenant could find no other work. Wishing to clothe and feed his family and have something for Christmas, the sharecropper was in a most vulnerable position for taking out a loan should he clear nothing or actually come out “in the hole.” The hundred dollars that he was advanced on next year’s crop effectively bound him to the land for another year of working under the same set of circumstances, with the likely outcome known far in advance. Caught in a cruel web of debt peonage, he realized that in order to escape he had to run off as his forebears did during slavery. The old folk rhyme cited by Richard Wright seemed to hold true for many sharecroppers with an unsettling finality:
As I have maintained throughout this essay, blacks were important to the structure of the southern aristocracy. While few aristocrats would disagree with this statement, they may not be willing to acknowledge the extent of their indebtedness to the blacks about them. Percy himself has some sense of the worth of blacks to his own identity as a southern aristocrat. He speaks of Nain, his black nurse, in the same chapter that he speaks so lovingly of Mur, his grandmother. In fact, at the age of four, as he recalls, it was not his mother or father but only Mur and Nain “whose activities were important enough to dent the fairly undeniable tablets of my memory” (26). Nain is depicted as a surrogate mother in a rather long and revealing passage, only part of which is rendered here:
Southerners like to make clear, especially to Northerners, that every respectable white baby had a black mammy, who, one is to infer, was fat and elderly and bandanned. I was a respectable and a white baby, but Nain was sixteen, divinely cafe-au-lait, and she would have gone into cascades of giggles at the suggestion of a bandanna on her head. I loved her devotedly and never had any other nurse. Everything about her was sweet-smelling, of the right temperature, and dozy. Psychiatrists would agree, I imagine, that I loved her because in her I found the comfort of the womb, from which I had so recently been ejected and for which I was still homesick. (26)
He goes on:
Chiefly I remember her bosom: it was soft and warm, an ideal place to cuddle one’s head against. My earliest clear recollection is of a song she would sing to me so cuddled rather not of the song itself, but of its effect on me. The words and tune have gone, but not what they did to me. (26)
His relationship with her is described in the most intimate terms, as he would sob until he “shook against her breast.” He adds, “If she innocently endowed me with a sense of the tears of things, she gave me something hard to live with, but impossible to live without” (27). Throughout this whole section of the chapter, Percy speaks of Nain in glowing and even sexual tones. While one must be careful not to make too much of this, it is clear that the relationship was close and intimate.
It is in similarly glowing terms that he remembers Skillet, his “first boon-companion,” who “was the best crawfisher in the world and I was next” (46). At the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘Playmates’, Percy avers, “Any little boy who was not raised with little Negro children might just as well not have been raised at all” (46). Speaking of his relationship with Skillet, Percy says, “Calling to mind with gratitude those whom we are indebted on our journey is not only a sort of piety, but one of the few pleasures that endure without loss of luster to the end” (49). Percy would like to think that all has gone well for his dear playmate, that “Skillet is not in jail or dead, but that he lords it in a Pullman car or pulpit, or perhaps has a farm of his own and many little crawfishers…” (49). For Percy and those who share his worldview, this represents the height of black aspiration and achievement. He simply could not imagine Skillet in a career such as his own.
But it is his discussion of his relationship with Ford (as Percy indicates he pronounces his own name “Fode”) that we get to understand the character of William Alexander Percy. From reading Lanterns one gets the sense that the black man is not only a “younger brother,” as Percy claims, but a sort of second self. That is, Ford (or Fode) is Will Percy’s doppelganger. He begins his discussion as he has of Nain and Skillet, by calling attention to the importance of Ford for his own identity as an aristocrat: “In the South every white man worth calling white or a man is owned by some Negro, whom he thinks he owns, his weakness and solace and incubus. Ford is mine” (287).
Ford had served at one time or another as his caddy, chauffeur, houseboy, and general factotum. He is now his retainer, which means “I am retained for life by him against all disasters, great or small, for which he pays by being Ford” (287). Indeed, Ford is the one who provides Percy with the common sense or “mother wit” that he desperately needs. When he drives up in his car on settlement day and hears one of his tenants ask, “Whose car is dat?” and another responds, “Dat’s us car,” Percy thinks of how sweet it was for his tenants to have such an affectionate relationship with him that they would see his car as their own. Still glowing over the incident, Percy remarks that he thought it to be funny. Ford counters, “Funnier than you think,” and goes on to elucidate to the deceived landlord: “He meant that’s the car you has bought with us money. They all knew what he meant, but you didn’t and they knew you didn’t. They wuz laughing to theyselves” (291).
But it is while watching Percy take a shower that Ford seems to uncover the true nature of the aristocracy for what it is – bloated and pretentious. Poised against the bathroom door, Ford observes, “You ain’t nothing but a little old fat man.” Despite the rebuke from Percy, “You damn fool,” Ford continues, “Jest look at your stummick” (287). This is perhaps doubly significant since Percy was generally of rather slim build. Percy here, and by extension the entire southern aristocracy he represents, is stripped of his pretensions. Percy sees this as an act of insolence, which, of course, cannot be tolerated under the mores of the southern caste system. So Ford is sent off for a while to “battle for himself in this hostile world” (287).
Percy recalls the stories that Ford would tell him in his moments of depression (this disease seemed to run through the family). These are the “nigger jokes” which members of the aristocracy often enjoyed telling and hearing. These jokes that featured blacks as the butts are best told in the language of blacks themselves. By so doing it is not Percy but the blacks themselves who tell the jokes. In a similar manner, Percy’s narrative strategy also has blacks themselves admit to their own failings. An excellent example of this occurs at the end of the “Fode” chapter. Here, Ford after having abandoned his truck in a traffic jam and gotten drunk, goes in to see Percy late at night. Sobbing, he quiets down just long enough to gasp: “You cain’t do no good, Mr. Will. It don’t make no difference how hard I tries or how good I bees, I ain’t never gonner be nuthin’ but jest Fode” (297). Using Ford’s admission to serve his own purpose, Percy comments:
I wish I had never heard him say that. There are some truths that facing does not help. Something had brought home to Ford the tragedy of himself and of his race in an alien world… What can we do, any of us, how can we help? Let the man who has the answer cry it from the house-tops in a hundred languages. But there will be no crier in the night, and it is night for all the Fords of the world and for us who love them. (297)
What are we to make of this? Is it genuine concern for blacks? Or, is Percy, here again, purportedly using Ford’s language to lend further support to his views about blacks? If these are indeed Ford’s words, it would seem just as reasonable to infer that he meant that he is just being himself, without pretensions.
In light of the foregoing discussion it may seem gratuitous and insincere to maintain that we recognize something which is potentially redemptive in Percy’s character. His family’s stance against the Klan in Greenville and his efforts in the great flood of 1927 are only two examples that speak favorably of the character of William Alexander Percy. His autobiography, furthermore, with its rich imagery and attention to detail, depicts not only a man of great learning and broad intellect, but also the mind and temperament of the poet, perhaps much better than any of his poems. His story is certainly an important work in the genre of American autobiography that deserves the critical attention it has received.
But, as I have indicated earlier, in adopting the story of southern paternalism as his own story and in attempting to defend that story, Percy becomes a victim of self-deception or la mauvaise foi. As David Burrell and Stanley Hauerwas noted in their essay, “Self-Deception and Autobiography” (1974), it is not the cynic but the man of integrity who falls prey to self-deception (99-117). Percy’s narrative is flawed, therefore, by his insistence on using the narrow and restricting discourse of southern paternalism as the mold for his own life. That is, by following this pattern so rigidly, Percy does not allow himself to develop into the man he might have become. In holding to the mores of the aristocracy, Percy winds up deceiving himself.
We admire the young boy who goes crawfishing with Skillet, his boon-companion, or who sees the tenderness in Nain, his first and only nurse. We hardly recognize this boy, however, in the mature man who refuses an invitation by black officers of the 92nd Division to dine with them, giving as his explanation: “I wanted to give them their every due, to pay them their every military respect, but at the same time I was not going to permit them to be familiar” (198). The racial caste system, which permits a certain degree of familiarity in the child, strictly forbids the same in the mature adult. What is tragic in Percy’s case, therefore, is that his strict allegiance to the principles of caste does not allow him to grow from his education, reading, and travels. Even his trip to Africa is turned against him as Ford tells him that Oscar Johnson’s boy claims that Percy went to Africa “to range to have the niggers sent back into slavery” (289). Earlier, in this same conversation Ford uses words purportedly from Mr. Oscar’s boy to express his own sentiment: “He says you ain’t got near as much sense as your pa” (289). Indeed, the only kind of bildung or development that we see in the narrative is that of a young man who learns how to appropriate the peculiar mores of Old South paternalism to the particular needs of the New South aristocratic gentleman.
In asserting that Percy does not realize his potential of becoming fully human, I do not mean to suggest that he is not revealed in the narrative. As I have attempted to show, Percy’s character is revealed indirectly rather than directly, by the narrative rather than by the narrator, by Ford rather than by Percy himself. What we see are the numerous incongruities and inconsistencies, the hesitancies and half-truths, the pretension and the deception which apply to Percy himself but even more so to the story of southern paternalism which Percy unfortunately uses to find coherence and meaning in his own life.
In his introduction, Walker Percy indicates that were his cousin alive during his day, he would certainly adapt to the times. Even during his own day, William Percy seemed to realize that the system around which he had based his life was being dismantled. He did not have the vision to understand that the system carried the seeds of its own destruction. Were he alive today, it is hoped that Percy would not only have the vision to recognize this but also the courage to accept it -just as his heirs and others have. Thus the value of Lanterns may lie in the story that does not get told, the story that would have remained hidden had it not been for Ford and the other Fords about him. It is the story that we can all celebrate: the passing of the Old South.
1 The Mississippi Delta is a stretch of land about 200 miles long and 70 miles wide that extends from just below Memphis southward to just above Vicksburg and from Greenwood on the East to Greenville on the West. There are 10 counties entirely within the Mississippi Delta: Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Humphreys, Issaquena, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington. Several of the major cities and towns include Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville, Greenwood, Indianola, and Ruleville. For a more detailed description of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, see James Cobb’s Introduction in his work cited below. See also David Cohn, Where I Was Born and Raised (1967).
2 My mother and father were sharecroppers on the Whittington plantation, located then just outside of Greenwood, Mississippi.
3 Percy, who was in ill health by the time he completed Lanterns, died at the age of 56 from complications of high blood pressure. My mother died of a similar illness in 1971, at the age of 59. My stepfather lived to the age of 78.
4 Adolph Plessy, who was one-eighth black, was arrested during the 60-mile intrastate trip from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana for refusing to sit in the coach reserved for Negroes. In so refusing, Plessy was found guilty of violating the state’s separate but equal policy established under the Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act of 1890. The Supreme Court held that separate accommodations could be provided as long as those accommodations were equal.
5 Though perhaps not as vicious a racist as Strom Thurmond, Jefferson also believed strongly in segregation. One has only to look at sections of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) to ascertain his beliefs about blacks. But the point here is that both believed in the separation of the races along the lines of color. Yet both took advantage of their privilege as white men to father children by black women.
6 Stanley Elkins held that the conditions of plantations made blacks into childlike “Sambos” who were totally dependent on their masters; Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 3d ed. (1976).
7 Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931) was a schoolteacher, journalist, and civil rights leader; as one of the founders of the NAACP, she spoke against the persistent problem of lynching during her time. Aaron Henry (1922-1997) was a pharmacist and civil rights leader from the Delta town of Clarksdale. He was president of the Mississippi state NAACP (1959) and a state Representative from 1982 to 1996. Richard Wright (1908-1960) was a novelist and essayist and author of Native Son (1938) and Black Boy (1945).
8 The 1819 Virginia Statute on Slaves, Free Negroes, and Mulattoes reads, in part, thus:
Be it therefore enacted, That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free Negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves, at any meeting-house or houses, or any other place or places, in the night, or at any school day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be considered as an unlawful assembly; and any justice of the county or corporation wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his knowledge, or the information of others, of such assemblage or meeting, may issue his warrant directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses, where such unlawful assemblage or meeting may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.
Cited in Albert P. Blaustein and Robert L. Zangrando, eds., Civil Rights and the American Negro: A Documentary History (1968): 64-65.
9 In Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, eds., 12 Million Black Voices: Richard Wright Reader (1978): 71.
Blaustein, Albert P. and Zangrando, Robert L., eds. 1968. Civil Rights and the American Negro: A Documentary History. New York: Washington Square Press.
Burrell, David and Hauerwas, Stanley. 1974. “Self-Deception and Autobiography: Theological and Ethical Reflections on Speer’s Inside the Third Reich. ” Journal of Religious Ethics 2 (Spring): 99-117.
Cobb, James C. 1992. The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mis sissippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cohn, David. 1967. Where I Was Born and Raised. Notre Dame: Uni versity of Notre Dame Press.
Elkins, Stanley. M. 1976. Slavery: A Problem in American Institu tional and Intellectual Life. 3rd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1787. Notes on the State of Virginia. New ed. Richmond, Va.: J. W. Randolph, 1853.
Percy, Walker. Introduction. 1941. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollec tions of a Planter s Son. By William A. Percy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Percy, William Alexander. 1941. Lanterns On the Levee: Recollec tions of a Planter s Son. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Powdermaker, Hortense. 1939. After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
Romine, Scott. 1999. The Narrative Forms of Southern Community. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1966. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.
Wright, Richard. 1945. Black Boy. New York: Perennial Classics, 1991.
___. 12 Million Black Voices: Richard Wright Reader. 1978. Eds. Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre. New York: Harper & Row: 144-241.
John O. Hodges, Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.
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