The Magazine

Will Percy’s Secret

The inner life, and outer bounds, of a Southern aristocrat.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By MARK TOOLEY
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When his parents died in 1929, Will Percy was left alone in his family’s large house—but not for long. His cousin committed suicide that same year, leaving a widow and three young sons, including Walker Percy, who would later remember Will as a “personage, a presence .  .  . [who] radiated that mysterious quality we call charm.” The widow and children were invited to live with their older cousin in Greenville, where they discovered a home full of artistic treasures, books, servants, and constant visitors, white and black—including the poet Langston Hughes, who recalled Percy treating him equally as a “fellow poet.”  William Faulkner came to play tennis.   

Walker Percy described his cousin as “shadowed by sadness,” often secluded in the library or overheard late at night vomiting into the toilet. The children’s mother died in a 1932 automobile accident, possibly a suicide, with one son barely escaping the car. Will consoled the orphaned Percys, one of whom remembered being read Greek myths when unable to sleep. He adopted all three boys and would eventually leave his considerable estate to them.  

Will Percy’s health throughout the 1930s was not good; but as a patron to writers and artists, he introduced his adopted sons to a young Shelby Foote and invited Hodding Carter to start a progressive newspaper in Greenville. 

When not bedridden, he continued his global travels, which took months by transoceanic steamers. In 1936, he visited Samoa, and, having thoroughly absorbed Margaret Mead’s claims that Samoans were sexually uninhibited, echoed her assertion that the island people saw sex as only “corporeal.” Their laissez-faire stance on sex, he believed, in contrast to repressed Westerners, left Samoans “superbly healthy, handsome and happy.”

The publisher of Lanterns on the Levee removed most of these wanderings from the manuscript, preferring to focus on Percy as archaic Southern aristocrat, including his paternalistic racial views. Lanterns sold tens of thousands of copies, got admiring reviews, and generated hundreds of fan letters, although black publications saw it as racially condescending. 

Prematurely aged and bedridden, Percy relished its success and was also gladdened by America’s entry into World War II. He died a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, aged 56. No Greenville clergyman would conduct his funeral except, eventually, a Catholic priest, who delivered a 45-second homily without removing his overcoat. Wise blames this on Percy’s lack of Christian belief, including, perhaps, his sexual “freethinking.” Will Percy thought that the church, and especially St. Paul, about whom he wrote a chastising sonnet, had corrupted the real message of Jesus. Christians didn’t love their bodies as the ancient Greeks did, he complained. One adopted son recalled that he was “more like Christ than anybody I’ve ever known,” and Walker Percy called him the “most extraordinary man I have ever known.”

As a very young man, Percy had dabbled in the occult, writing off Christianity as “outworn rubbish.” But he also wrote a hymn that was later included in the Episcopal hymnal. A book of his irreverent poetry provoked a Kentucky reader to complain to the editor that the “men’s Bible class of the Methodist church here wish to enter a protest against this.” William Alexander Percy responded with amusement: “To the Orthodox I can only say, if this be treason, make the most of it.” 

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.