The Percys of Mississippi

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

There are certain families in America’s national history who have assumed a mantle of leadership that extends beyond the bloodline itself. The heritage they pass from one generation to the next carries with it great responsibilities imposed from without as well as within. They form America’s aristocracy. On a national level there are, most obviously, the Kennedys, but each region of the country has produced its own form of royalty. Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the South, where the large landowner quite naturally assumed the role of leadership which extended beyond the plantation or farm to the community at large. In his study, The Percys of Mississippi, Lewis Baker examines one of these remarkable families, a people who have shaped and been shaped by the changing Southern experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The subtitle of the book, “Politics and Literature in the New South,” defines the focus of Baker’s work, for he concentrates on the gradual shift in the Percy family from civic leadership in government and politics to intellectual leadership in literature. Through the lives of three Percy men—LeRoy, Will, and Walker—through three generations covering the years from Reconstruction to the present, Baker gives a history of the South as well as the family itself.

The Percys have always stood apart because of their wealth, their Catholic religion, and their sometimes eccentric personalities. The first Percy, Charles, came to the Delta region of Mississippi in 1776. He grew indigo, became prosperous, and was made a magistrate by the Spanish government. Eighteen years later, he committed suicide by tying a sugar kettle to his neck and drowning himself in Percy Creek. The connection between the Percy familiy and the Mississippi Delta was thus established. Charles Percy also set a pattern for many of the Percys to come, men who felt the necessity to help bring order to the world, but who were sometimes overwhelmed by its chaos.

Charles Percy’s son, Thomas George, apparently lived the comfortable life of a successful planter, but his son, William Alexander, moved the family more into the public sphere. As Baker explains, “William Alexander’s prosperity won him the respect of his neighbors, respect that in times of crisis or disaster became the responsibility to lead.” William Alexander fought against the secession movement after Abraham Lincoln’s election, but he joined the Confederate Army when war began and served honorably. After the war, he returned to a land devastated by battle and poverty. “Colonel” Percy, as he became known to the people of the region, took a leading role in the politics of Reconstruction, attempting to offset the rampant corruption he found in and out of government. He also worked toward the rebuilding of the Mississippi River levee system, which had been destroyed during the war, and the establishment of a railroad line to aid the economic growth of the Delta. Colonel Percy was a man of action. Nicknamed the “Grey Eagle of the delta,” he remained a community leader and a successful planter throughout his life.

Baker shows that William Alexander Percy was always equal to the demands made on him by the people of the region. He proved himself to be a figure larger than life, the returning hero who leads his defeated people from ruin and despair, who shows himself a man of wisdom as well as of physical bravery. Thus, he became legend, the impossible exemplar against which each generation must measure itself and must find itself lacking. The Colonel’s eldest son, LeRoy Percy, followed his father in the role of planter and community leader. Once again a Percy worked to improve the levee system and to insure the economic well-being of the region, but Baker carefully shows the more complicated problems LeRoy faced as the South underwent radical changes from the aftermath of Reconstruction, including growing racial conflicts and the advent of populist political demagoguery in the state.

Baker details LeRoy’s movement into local and then state politics, and he makes clear the pragmatic base of many of LeRoy’s decisions. LeRoy stood against the Ku Klux Klan, for he disapproved of their secret and stupid...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

National Review. XXXVI, March 23, 1984, p. 42.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, December 18, 1983, p. 11.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Spring, 1984, p. 54.