Bottom Rail on Top
Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy’s eloquent autobiography, has been a minor classic since its initial publication in 1941. It was written by the 53-year-old attorney and poet of Greenville, Mississippi at a time when he could look back on a full life, the heritage of a proud, good family, and a time of immense transition in the Deep South, and ruminate on the people he had known, the journey he had taken, the life he had led, and the effects of post-Reconstruction Southern culture as it was gnawed by the tooth of Time. In his foreword, writing when Europe was already aflame in the Second World War, Percy stated that “while the world I know is crashing to bits, and what with the noise and the cryings-out no man could hear a trumpet blast, much less an idle evening reverie, I will indulge a heart beginning to be fretful by repeating to it the stories it knows and loves of my own country and my own people.”
And thus he begins, describing his parents, grandparents, and friends, his upbringing in the bucolic Mississippi Delta, his schooling, his years of college at the University of the South (where he lost his Christian faith, never to be recovered) and Harvard, his sojourns to Europe as part of Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Belgian Relief, his experiences as a soldier in the Great War, his disillusioning involvement in Mississippi politics, his work in providing relief to an entire region dispossessed by the Great Flood of 1927, his thoughts on contemporary race relations, and much else besides.
Lanterns on the Levee is the product of a Stoic, not a Christian, sensibility, being a lengthy remembrance of and meditation upon man’s place in the world: in Percy’s case, a world that was struck a fearful blow less than a century earlier but had survived, retaining much beauty and a slow-moving, pre-industrial culture unlike any other in the world, but one slowly, surely drifting toward mechanization, hustle, and the spirit of expediency.
It is written with the sensitivity of a poet, for Percy was a poet at heart, publishing several respected volumes of poetry on classical themes between 1915 and 1930. Although a young William Faulkner, writing in 1920, could describe Percy as being “like a little boy closing his eyes against the dark of modernity which threatens the bright simplicity and the colorful romantic pageantry of the middle ages with which his eyes are full,” the Fugitive poet John Crowe Ransom saw further, hailing Percy as “the foremost of the Southern poets of this time.” Ransom added that Percy was part of a dying breed, one of those poets “who are becoming increasingly rare in these days—are more sensible of the subtle resources of the delicate instrument poetry, and their work is more difficult to define. They understand that a poem is a very intricate play by which the right tones and the right words evoke a harmonious procession of ideas and emotions from the deeply guarded secret places of the heart.” This sensitivity to precise tone and word choice is strongly evident in his final work, Lanterns on the Levee.
This work has often been mischaracterized as a paean to the Old South of moonlight and magnolias and a world in which the sons and grandsons of Confederate veterans lived in genteel leisure, basking in Lost Cause nostalgia amid bobbing and smiling black sharecroppers who “knew their place.” (This is the cartoonish view of readers who have never read Lanterns on the Levee at all or who know the work at second remove.)
But in truth Percy’s book is far more, far different, and far better than that. The author expresses little if any sympathy with the aims of the Southern Confederacy. While he honored the unquestionable bravery of his Rebel forebears, he makes it plain in Lanterns on the Levee that he viewed the Confederacy as standing for disunion and the perpetuation of slavery. Of equal concern, he lamented that the butternut-and-gray battalions went forth to battle with no real hope of victory; and in their loss and humiliation, with their land shattered and so many good men killed, Percy saw the beginning of something that haunted the South from the time of Reconstruction to the mid twentieth century and beyond: the rise of the ambitious, race-baiting demagogue who rises to power by forever stirring the pot of moiling resentment.
Percy described one such specimen, Theodore Bilbo, as “a pert little monster, glib and shameless, with that sort of cunning common to criminals which passes for intelligence. The people loved him. The loved him not because they were deceived in him, but because they understood him thoroughly; they said of him proudly, ‘He’s a slick little bastard.’ He was one of them and he had risen from obscurity to the fame of glittering infamy—it was as if they themselves had crashed the headlines.” Wherever a once-proud people praise a public figure for his “slickness,” there is a culture in the throes of decadence; and this very fact sickened Percy. As did the rise of the demagogue’s counterpart: the eager-to-be-placated, would-be ward of the state—quarter educated, inarticulate, with a head-full of bumper-sticker slogans, chock-full of envy and a sneering desire to see those who have risen in the world brought low. Percy assisted in the campaign of his father, LeRoy Percy, for public office. When the elder Percy was defeated, his son recalled, “An old man wet with tobacco juice and furtive-eyed summed up the result: ‘Wal, the bottom rail’s on top and it’s gwiner stay thar.’” Percy added drily, “He wasn’t much as a human being, but as a diagnostician and prophet he was first-rate. It was my first sight of the rise of the masses, but not the last.”
Indeed, Percy writes of his foray into the political world as an experience in which the scales dropped from his innocent eyes. He lamented, “When Father was defeated good men all over the South were heart-broken, but today Mississippi is like the rest of the South, and the South is like the rest of the nation: the election of demagogues horrifies nobody. The intelligent are cynically amused, the hoi-polloi are so accustomed to victory they no longer swagger. The voters choose their representatives in public life not for their wisdom or courage, but for the promises they make.” He reflected, “Perhaps it is a strengthening experience to see evil triumphant and goodness in the dust. But whatever the value of the experience, it is one that comes sooner or later to anyone who dares face facts. Mine came sooner because of Father’s defeat. Since then I haven’t expected that what should be would be and I haven’t believed that virtue guaranteed any reward except itself. The good die when they should live, the evil live when they should die, heroes perish and cowards escape; noble efforts do not succeed because they are noble, and wickedness is not consumed in its own nature. Looking at truth is not at first a heartening experience—it becomes so, if at all, only with time, with infinite patience, and with the luck of a little personal happiness. When I first saw defeat as the result of man’s best efforts, I didn’t like the sight, and it struck me that someone had bungled and perhaps it wasn’t man.”
The Stoic man drinks the bitter cup to the last drop and grinds the dregs in his teeth. And then he moves on with his life. An anonymous reviewer of Lanterns on the Levee, writing for Time magazine, observed that “the memory that disturbed William Alexander Percy most concerned the three orphaned sons of his cousin, whom he adopted and brought up. He had to try to tell them what to do in a world that was going physically and morally to pieces. ‘Not the South alone . . . had been killed, but its ideals and its kind of people the world over. The bottom rail was on top not only in Mississippi, but from Los Angeles to New York, from London to Moscow. . . . In Russia, Germany and Italy Demos, having slain its aristocrats and intellectuals and realizing its own incompetence to guide or protect itself, had submitted to tyrants. . . .’ Percy asked himself the question that every worried parent asks: ‘Should I therefore teach deceit, dishonor, ruthlessness, bestial force to the children in order that they survive?’ He answered it as most worried parents do: ‘Better that they perish.’ For ‘virtue is an end in itself . . . it is better for men to die than to call evil good. . . .’ He knew that he and all men like him could never be really defeated, because they could never be changed.”
Living in a culture that had somehow survived the Civil War and Reconstruction, Percy recognized and quietly celebrated the conserving work of the family and the community. It is the redeeming nature of love and faith—or even the remnants of faith—not Lost Cause nostalgia, that sustains him and others like him. On this point, it is enlightening to learn what the more hard-boiled reviews of the work said upon its publication. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, the acerbic Albert Jay Nock found Lanterns on the Levee an honest portrait for its time, writing that it “reflects a rich experience, and above all it is wholly free from the neurasthenic drivel which afflicts so many of the current sentimental outpourings about the Old South.” Likewise, W. J. Cash—no sentimentalist himself and author of the iconoclastic study The Mind of the South—found Percy’s book “a fine one, the merits of which ought not to be obscured by any ideological disputes.”
One of the above-mentioned “three orphaned sons of his cousin,” novelist Walker Percy was to write, “It should be noted that despite conventional assessments of Lanterns on the Levee as an expression of the ‘aristocratic’ point of view of the Old South, Will Percy had no use for genealogical games, the old Southern itch for coats of arms and tracing back connections to the English squirearchy. . . . His own aristocracy was a meritocracy of character, talent, performance, courage, and quality of life.”
James E. Person Jr. is a biographer and longtime book reviewer and essayist. His reviews have appeared in The University Bookman since 1990. He is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (2005).
Posted: August 21, 2011 in The Classics Revisited.
Intellectual Courage and the Bitter Truth
James V. Schall, S.J.