Students of American literature are well aware of novelist Walker Percy, who wrote The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, among other books.
Less well known is his cousin, William Alexander Percy, a lawyer who wrote a remarkable memoir about growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s.
At its best, Lanterns on the Levee is reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the acknowledged masterpiece of hyper-detailed childhood recollection. And yet the Percy book remains largely forgotten.
The setting is the South after the Civil War. The topic is the uneasy rearrangement of people, politics, and power after slaves were emancipated.
Which may make the book sound ponderous and boring. It’s not.
Here’s how Percy describes a family friend:
He was incontestably the ugliest man in the world — tall, shambling, with tiny pale eyes, extravagant sandy eyebrows gone to seed, and a masterpiece of a nose that Ghirlandajo would have given his life to paint. He always suggested things vehemently, was always overruled, always accepted the adverse decision, and always concluded with: “Well, LeRoy, what do you say? I’m an old fool.”
Here’s how a local newspaper editor is described:
He read Gibbon and Carlyle and Thucydides and Voltaire till all hours of the night, and his pen was dipped in gall. But he read also the New Testament and the ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and when his heart was moved he could break yours …. He loathed corruption and hated public iniquity. The intelligent few worshipped him, the unintelligent many scuttled for cover at the first hiss of his lash. We loved him for his weaknesses as much as for his strength, for his inability to manage his own affairs, for his poor marksmanship when he was constantly being threatened with duels and assassinations, for his failure to appreciate beauty except in women, nature, food, and drink. Father was elated when, showing him a sizable copy of Canova’s ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ his sour and single comment was “Kind of raw.”
I am sorry to quote so many passages, at such length; I want to give a sense of the voice and tone.
Here is Percy’s account of climbing trees as a boy in summer storms:
Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell …. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane.
Here he recounts a phone call one day from a nun who used to teach him music:
[She] telephoned me and announced that I was a godless, ungrateful, heartless monster (she always telephoned that way, never giving her name and knowing I would recognize her voice and style), that Sister Evangelist was on her deathbed in Vicksburg, that she loved me more than any of her thousand pupils, that in my baseness I ignored her and would not even take the trouble to visit her, dying, in fact barely this side of rigor mortis. As usual I took Sister Scholastica’s hint and dashed to Vicksburg. At the convent door a scared little rabbit of a nun asked my name and mission, suspiciously admitted me to the cool bare sitting-room, and left me there. There was a long pause during which I assumed they were propping up Sister Evangelist so that she could reach out feebly and blindly to give me her last blessing. It was pretty staggering, therefore, when Sister Evangelist came tripping in, unbent by her hundred years and vivacious as a cricket. She immediately loosed a diatribe of piety and invective, contrasting the promise of my past with the worm-eaten fruit of my present, and all with no more pause, punctuation, or capitalization than the last forty-six pages of ‘Ulysses.’ At the first drop of a comma I got a word in edgewise: “Heavens, Sister! You talk as if God didn’t have any sense of humor.” She burst into gales of laughter, exclaiming, “Everybody forgets it; even I do sometimes,” and the next two hours were chuckling gossip, singularly naive and gay.
Here is a local congressman who used to visit the Percy family:
He had a cold analytical mind of the first [order], plus an arrogant integrity. His political weakness was that he could not kiss babies and considered it indecent to rhapsodize over the purity of Southern womanhood. So he was always about not to be elected. His English was all sinew and no color, his rare adjectives were like bullets, and he had some strange expressions of his own. He would say to Father: “It is bitter as gar-broth, LeRoy,” and I would lose the rest of the discussion wondering what gar-broth might be.
Here is Percy’s summary of how turtle soup was prepared in his home:
To the grown-ups turtle soup was simply the predestined last act of a soft-shell turtle’s career and one worth waiting years for. But Willis and I knew the terrific drama preceding it. Someone would bring one of the great monsters to our back steps and leave it there as a gracious and esteemed gift. To Willis fell the hard lot of converting it from an unlikely reptile into a delicacy …. The turtle gave no co-operation. It resented the situation and withdrew from it by tucking head and flippers into its shell and refusing to emerge. Willis would then give him a jab in the armpit and out the obscene head would dart, the slit eyes pale with hatred, and the horny, beaked mouth snapping dangerously at all of us. Nain would scream and snatch me up and scuttle to safety on top of the cistern, while the cook would emit Fo’-Gods, interspersed with strictures on the cannibalism of white folks. Finally that dreadful head would come out long enough for Willis to whack it off with the ax, at which the rest of the turtle would walk off hurriedly, as if the incident were closed. Even this was not the climax of the gory horror — Willis still had to break off the top shell. When this was accomplished, before your startled eyes lay the turtle’s insides, unharmed, neatly in place, and still ticking! They did not seem to miss the head, but acted like the works of a watch when you open the back. It was the nakedest thing I ever laid eyes on, and usually while you were watching, fascinated, the whole thing walked off, just that way, and the cook would almost faint.
Here is Percy’s recollection of being sung to sleep by his African-American nanny. He can remember neither the words nor the melody, only the powerful effect of the low, wistful tune.
I would try not to cry, but it made me feel so lost and lonely that tears would seep between my lids and at last I would sob until I shook against her breast. “Whut’s de madder, Peeps?” she would say. “Whut you cryin’ fur?” …. I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be, and I could not explain.
Percy had a religious bent as a child. His eager embrace of theology at Catholic school alarmed his mother, so she transferred his education from nuns to a retired judge living across the street. With embarrassment, Percy recalls objecting to a scene in Othello as immoral. He asked the surprised judge if they could switch to a different play.
I must have been an unbearable little prig. I do hope I’ve outgrown it. If not, it wasn’t Mother’s fault.
His mother kept moving him from teacher to teacher, trying to find the right fit for the gifted, but odd child.
I was a sickly youngster who never had illnesses, who hated sports partly because they didn’t seem important and mostly because I was poor at them, who knew better what I didn’t want than what I did, who was sensitive but hard-headed, docile but given to the balks, day-dreamy but uncommunicative, friendly but not intimate — a frail problem-child, a pain in the neck.
The writing is excellent throughout the book, whether about the Mississippi River, the horrendous flood of 1927, or the various rungs of Delta society during the earliest periods of Jim Crow repression. However, to call the work politically incorrect would be a significant understatement. And that helps explain the book’s continuing low profile in American letters. Not only does Percy regularly use the terms “Negro” and “darkies” to refer to African-Americans, he seems unable to resist any opportunity to generalize about a class or group, whether Jews, blacks, poor whites, or faded aristocrats.
Below is his sketch of “river rats,” a sub-set of poor whites who lived near the Mississippi River and who, according to Percy, resisted the niceties of polite society, or even its most basic legal obligations.
[The river-rat] is white, Anglo-Saxon, with twists of speech and grammatical forms current in Queen Anne’s day or earlier, and a harsh “r” strange to all Southerners except mountaineers. Where he comes from no one knows or cares. Some find in him the descendant of those pirates who used to infest the river as far up as Memphis. It seems more likely his forefathers were out-of-door, ne’er-do-well nomads of the pioneer days. His shanty boats, like Huck Finn’s father’s, may be seen moored in the willows or against the sandbars as far up and down the river as I have ever traveled. He squats on bars and bits of mainland subject to overflow, raises a garden and a patch of corn, steals timber, rafts it, and sells it to the mills, and relies the year round on fishing for a living. He seems to regard [the river] as the Navajos regard Canyon de Chelly — as a sort of sanctuary and homeland, and it supplies the clam shells from which he makes buttons. Illiterate, suspicious, intensely clannish, blond, and usually ugly, river-rats make ideal bootleggers. The brand of corn or white mule they make has received nation-wide acclaim. They lead a life apart, uncouth, unclean, lawless, vaguely alluring. Their contact with the land world around them consists largely in being haled into court, generally for murder.
Percy’s affection for African-Americans is obvious, if dated and patronizing. He describes black people as “the only Southerners worth talking about.” Here he recalls crawfishing with a boy named Skillet:
He was the best crawfisher in the world and I was next. Instead of closed sewers our town had open ditches, which after an overflow swarmed with crawfish, small clear ones, quite shrimp-like, whose unexpected backward agility saved them from any except the most skillful hands, and large red ones, surly and whiskered, with a startling resemblance to the red-nosed old reprobates you saw around the saloons when you were looking for tobacco tags in the sawdust. When these rared back and held their claws wide apart, Skillet said they were saying, “Swear to God, white folks, I ain’t got no tail.” Theoretically it was for their tails that we hunted them, because when boiled and seasoned and prayed over they made that thick miraculous pink soup you never experience unless you have French blood in the family or unless you dine at Prunier’s. Of course anyone could catch crawfish with a string and a lump of bacon, and anyone knows their family life is passed in holes, like snake-holes, from which they must be lured; but who except Skillet had ever observed that a hollow bone lying on the bottom of a ditch is bound to be occupied by one?
Another vivid passage recounts Mrs. Percy’s method of preparing the famous Southern cocktail known as a mint julep:
Certainly her juleps had nothing in common with those hybrid concoctions one buys in bars the world over under that name. It would have been sacrilege to add lemon, or a slice of orange or of pineapple, or one of those wretched maraschino cherries. First you needed excellent bourbon whisky; rye or Scotch would not do at all. Then you put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampened it with water. Next, very quickly — and here was the trick in the procedure — you crushed your ice, actually powdered it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remained dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, you crammed the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Last you filled the glass, which apparently had no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grated a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass immediately frosted and you settled back in your chair for half an hour of sedate cumulative bliss. Although you stirred the sugar at the bottom, it never all melted, therefore at the end of the half hour there was left a delicious mess of ice and mint and whisky which a small boy was allowed to consume with calm rapture. Probably the anticipation of this phase of a julep was what held me on the outskirts of these [family gatherings] rather than the excitement of the discussion, which often I did not understand.
Throughout the memoir runs a current of sadness over disappearing customs and culture, as well as rueful pessimism about race relations.
[The] Delta problem is how all these folks — aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle — can dwell together in peace if not brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. Most of our American towns, all of our cities, have their unsolved problems of assimilation. But the South’s is infinitely more difficult of solution. The attempt to work out any sort of one, much less a just one, as a daily living problem, diverts the energies and abilities of our best citizenship ….
Percy describes a visit in 1922 from a Ku Klux Klan organizer hoping to start a group in Percy’s hometown of Greenville, Miss.
Percy is amazed and appalled by the effect of the KKK speaker on listeners.
[He] made an artful speech to a tense crowd that packed every cranny of the room; and every man was armed. Who killed Garfield? A Catholic. Who assassinated President McKinley? A Catholic. Who had recently bought a huge tract of land opposite West Point and another overlooking Washington? The pope. Convents were brothels, the confessional a place of seduction, the basement of every Catholic church an arsenal. The Pope was about to seize the government. To the rescue, Klansmen! These were statements which any trained mind recognized as lies, but which no man without weeks of ridiculous research could disprove. It was an example of Nazi propaganda before there were Nazis. The very enormity and insolence of the lie carried conviction to the simple and the credulous.
But Lanterns on the Levee is more than social and political history. It is a meditation on aging, on falling short in life. In his later years Percy strolls through the town cemetery and reflects on the occupants.
While people are alive we judge them good or bad, condemn them as failures or praise them as successes, love them or despise them. Only when they are dead do we see them, not with charity, but with understanding. Alive they are remote, even hostile; dead, they join our circle and you see the family likeness. As I loiter among our graves reading the names on the headstones, names that when they identified living men I sometimes hated or scorned as enemies of me and mine and all that we held good, I find myself smiling. How unreal and accidental seem their defects! I know their stories; this one was a whore and this a thief, here lies the town hypocrite and there one who should have died before he was born. I know their stories, but not their hearts. With a little shifting of qualities, with a setting more to their needs, with merely more luck, this woman could have borne children who would have been proud of her, and this thief might have become the father of the poor. Now death has made them only home-folks and I like sound of their familiar names. They lie there under the grass in the evening light so helplessly, my townsmen, a tiny outpost of the lost tribe of our star. Understanding breaks over my heart and I know that the wickedness and the failures of men are nothing and their valor and pathos and effort everything.
In turn, he examines his own life, which would end soon enough. He died in 1942 at age 57, the year after the memoir was published.
Among these handfuls of misguided dust I am proud to be a man and assuaged for my own defects. I muse on this one small life that it is all I have to show for, the sum of it, the wrong turnings, the weakness of will, the feebleness of spirit, one tiny life with darkness before and after, and it at best a riddle and a wonder. One by one I count the failures — at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at citizenship unimportant, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered — and I acknowledge the deficit. I am not proud, but I am not ashamed. What have defeats and failures to do with the good life? But … more troubling doubts assail me. Of all the people I have loved, wisely and unwisely, deeply and passingly, I have loved no one so much as myself. Of all the hours of happiness granted me, none has been so keen and holy as a few unpredictable moments alone. I have never walked with God …. I have seen the goodness of men and the beauty of things. I have no regrets. I am not contrite. I am grateful.
As beautiful and vivid as the memoir is, the defects are obvious. It is, in today’s parlance, riddled with unexamined privilege. The chapter about his college, Sewanee, is nostalgic and sentimental to the point of maudlin (though he gives an impressive tour of the native wildflowers of Tennessee). His reflections on “our race problem” are not merely paternalistic, but based on patently racist assumptions about the inferiority of African-Americans as a group. The tone of these passages is aggrieved and defensive. These parts of the book have aged poorly.
Nor does the book address the writer’s sexuality or love relationships, a significant gap in a memoir. Percy, like Marcel Proust, was likely gay, according to scholars. But readers are left in the dark whether significant romantic relationships occurred, let alone shaped his life.
The memoir tends toward impressionism and sometimes fails to convey the actual breadth of the author’s life and family. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a World War I veteran, the son of a U.S. senator, and the adoptive father of three young cousins whose parents appear to have died by suicide. (One of the three children was Walker Percy.) Suicide ran in the Percy family, and it is easy to pick up the scent of depression all through the memoir, from the infant crying over a nanny’s lullaby to the unexpected appearance at a dinner party of an ancient, senile Civil War hero still obsessing about financial errors which brought ruin and disgrace after the war.
Percy conveys the youth and energy of the party, the incongruous arrival of the trembling relic from long ago, the quiet kindness shown by Percy’s parents.
[He] came into the light still wide-eyed like a ghost, a ghost that is not afraid, but only uncertain, a ghost that can’t remember. He sat down with those youngsters in their party clothes just as Banquo’s ghost did, but mercifully they knew nothing and rattled on, though I could see Mother wanted to cry. He hardly touched his food and sat quietly, looking but not seeing, trying to remember something. Once he leaned to Father and said softly: “I have come back to go through those records. It was all a mistake. They will show everything was in order.” Father said: “Of course, General.”
The anecdote shows the memoirist at his best — a sharp observer of others, capable of deep feeling, convinced of the illuminating value of even small, domestic moments.