William Alexander Percy was born on 14 May 1885, in Greenville, Mississippi into an illustrious family of the planter class. His mother, Camille, was a French Catholic from New Orleans; his father LeRoy Percy, was an influential Episcopalian attorney, and cotton planter who owned more than 20,000 acres under cultivation. He served as the last U. S. Senator elected by the Mississippi legislature. William Percy campaigned actively in behalf of his father's election.
William Alexander Percy attended the Episcopalian University of the South (Sewanee), graduating in 1904, but became a committee Catholic, like his mother. He then spent a year in Paris before returning to attend Harvard Law School. He then joined his father's law firm in Greenville, MS. During World War I, Percy served in the Commission for Relief in Belgium from November 1916-April 1917. When the United States entered the war, Percy returned to the United States and joined the Army. He saw much combat and was promoted to the rank of captain. He received the Croix de Guerre, the French military medal.
Despite pursuing the legal profession, Percy also remained active in literary matters. He edited the pioneering, Yale Younger Poets series, 1925-1932. He also published four volumes of his own poetry. Among these works was
Enzio's Kingdom and Other Poems (1924). He was also active promoting the careers of other writers and poets, including William Faulkner. He was acquainted with members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. He was a spiritual advisor for the Vanderbilt Fugitives, a group of southern writers who opposed the modern industrial world and wished to restore an agrarian culture for the South. He also supported the Southern Agrarians writers who arose in the 1930s when the Fugitives disbanded, including John Crowe Ransom (#1169-010), Allen Tate (#1169-012), and Robert Penn Warren (#1169-014). During the Great Mississippi Floods of 1927, Percy was appointed to head up relief efforts in Mississippi.
In 1929, both Percy's parents died, leaving Percy with all his family's wealth and influence. From that point on, Percy ceased to write poetry. Shortly thereafter, LeRoy Pratt Percy and his wife died young, possibly suicides, William adopted their three children, his cousins, LeRoy (Roy), Phinizy (Phin), and Walker Percy (#1169-082). All three prospered as adults, including Walker, who became a physician and a best-selling author.
Percy is best-known today for his
Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (1941) a memoir in which he recounted his early life and World War I service. It became a best seller. In it, Percy criticizes the social and technological changes that had washed over the country since his birth. He recommended a return to agrarian values and lifestyles.
Despite a shortage of evidence, Benjamin E. Wise, Percy's biographer supports the belief that Percy was gay. He never married and associated with many known gay individuals. A reviewer of
William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker, says that Best describes Percy as "a queer plantation owner, poet, and memoirist . . . a conservative apologist of the southern racial order . . . a cultural relativist, sexual liberationist, and white supremacist".
During the last decade of his life, Percy's health deteriorated, and he was often ill. He, nevertheless, traveled widely, to Samoa, the Mediterranean, and other lands. He died on 21 January 1942, at the Greenville, MS hospital after a long illness. The William Alexander Percy Library in Greenville, MS, is named for him.
"William Alexander Percy Collection, 1922-1969 (MUM00361)". 2 boxes. The Department of Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi, University, MS.
"William Alexander Percy Papers, 1902-1941 (#Mss. 3275)". Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.
"William Alexander Percy" (2016). [Biographical Sketch]
"William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker", by Benjamin E. Wise (2012) reviewed by Gary Richards.
"William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker", by Benjamin E. Wise (2012) Downloadable full text.
Project Muse. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/19287 "William Alexander Percy: A Biography," by Britton Boyd (2017)
Mississippi Writers and Musicians.
"Cosmopolitan Southerner: The Life and World of William Alexander Percy," by Benjamin E. Wise
Ph.D. Dissertation, Rice University, 2008.
Author: Jonathan Dembo, 3/9/2017, 3/28/2017.
Stuart Wright collected and compiled the William Alexander Percy Papers. He was born, Stuart Thurman Wright, on 30 March 1948, in Roxboro, North Carolina. He was the son of Frances Critcher Wright (1919-2010) and Wallace Lyndon Wright (1921-1965). An avid reader as a boy, Wright developed a strong interest in the American Civil War and with his father toured many of the war's battlefields searching for artifacts and studying the history of the era. At the age of 12, he won a statewide "Johnny Reb" essay contest and by the age of 15 had visited every major battlefield of the Civil War. Wright attended Roxboro High School, from which he graduated in 1966. It was during these years that he developed an interest in collecting historical books and manuscripts and began relationships with a number of local collectors and dealers.
In the fall of 1966, Wright enrolled at Wake Forest University as a pre-med, history, German and music student. Wright earned a B.A. in German and music in 1970. As a graduate student at Wake Forest University, Wright focused his studies on Southern history and literature, his ambition being to build an authoritative Southern Studies collection for the university. He received a master's degree in Southern Studies in 1973 and a second master's degree in U.S. History in 1980. Additionally Wright holds a professional degree from England in a medically related field. It was while studying there that he became interested in Thomas Wolfe, the noted North Carolina native and novelist.
Following his graduation from Wake Forest, Wright began to develop his collections more systematically, acquiring many first editions of Southern writers. In 1976 he began teaching at Reynolda House, a Wake Forest University affiliate dedicated to the arts and arts education. Wright taught classes in American music as well as human anatomy for art students. In 1978 Wright became Lecturer in Education at Wake Forest University. During his 10 years teaching at Wake Forest University, Wright authored numerous works of Civil War and North Carolina history, and dozens of articles, bibliographies, essays and reviews on Southern literature and the writers whose papers he collected. In addition, he developed a strong interest in the writings of the English poet Donald Davie and the Minnesota-born poet Richard Eberhart, whose works he also collected.
At the same time, Wright also began a career as a publisher by starting Palaemon Press in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. By 1984, Palaemon Press had produced 316 titles, consisting mainly of broadsides and limited editions, of the poetry and essays of such Southern writers as A. R. Ammons, Fred Chappell, James Dickey, William Goyen, George Garrett, and Eudora Welty. He also built comprehensive collections and compiled book-length descriptive bibliographies of A.R. Ammons, Andrew Lytle, Reynolds Price, James Dickey, William Goyen, Walker Percy, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, George Garrett, Richard Eberhart, and Donald Davie. As well as serving as editor of the contemporary literature section of the
Bulletin of Bibliography throughout the 1980s, Wright also contributed pioneering checklists of the writings of Southern poets Henry Taylor, Charles Wright, and Robert Morgan. For Meckler Publishing he served as series editor for a number of book-length bibliographies and checklists. In recognition of these accomplishments, when he was just 32, Wright was elected to membership in New York's prestigious Grolier Club.
All of these works are represented in the Stuart Wright Collection. In his dealings with these various authors Wright made consistent efforts to acquire personal papers, letters and documents, photographs, manuscripts, drafts, proofs, and published materials to supplement his continuing activities as a purchaser of their works. In this way, Wright acquired perhaps a majority of his overall collection. Over the years a number of biographers used Wright's collection to aid their research. For example, James A. Grimshaw, Jr. used the collection extensively for his
Robert Penn Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1922-1979 published by the University Press of Virginia, in 1981 and Craig S. Abbott did so as well for
John Crowe Ransom: A Descriptive Bibliography, published by Whitston Publishing Company, Inc. in 1999. Joseph Blotner also used the Wright collection in researching
Robert Penn Warren: A Biography, published by Random House in 1997.
Nevertheless, from the mid- to late 1980s, Wright began to look for a permanent home for his collection, which he felt had grown too large and yet had been too little used. Unable to find a repository willing to accept the entire collection under suitable conditions, he sold a number of individual author collections to Vanderbilt University, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Emory University. It was not until 2010 that he reached agreement to house the remaining, and largest part of his collection at East Carolina University. The Stuart Wright Collection in the East Carolina Manuscript Collection of J.Y. Joyner Library includes 106 sub-collections of the papers of Southern American writers, illustrators, composers, and publishers. The related Stuart Wright Book Collection holds several thousand volumes by or about many of the same writers. Many of these volumes contain annotations, inscriptions, and insertions that reveal much about the authors in the collection and their relationships with one another. In 1998 Wright moved to England, and since 2001 he has resided in the medieval market town of Ludlow, in Shropshire.
Author: Jonathan Dembo, 11/2/2016