Captain Percy, Patriot

James L. Robertson

Article by James L. Robertson Featured Author


Reflections on Veteran's Day 2012

“One must be a soldier these days — there is no other part a man may play and be a man.”1 So said Mississippi lawyer William Alexander Percy2 to his mother in a September 25, 1918 letter from the Front, just before entering the Argonne Forest.

By November 4, 1918, Percy was sounding somber notes of the horrors of war.

We Honor all Veterans

Many members of the Mississippi Bar have served our country in time of war. Some made the ultimate sacrifice. We honor all, especially on Veterans Day.

Lawyers try to understand what happened and why. We interview witnesses. Study physical and circumstantial evidence. Parse documents and data. We engage experts who weren’t there, then insist on the reliability of their opinions. We assess the character and motives of actors. All subject to, and to be funneled within, rules of evidence and burdens of production and persuasion.

Of all human endeavors, war is most unyielding of the full facts of any particular soldier or any particular moment, much less how we should assess a soldier’s faith3 or service as a whole.

Who among us did not learn in grade school that Benedict Arnold was a loathsome traitor, only to learn later that, if Arnold had been killed by the last British bullet fired at Saratoga, his name would rest in the pantheon of heroes of the American Revolution?

On Veterans Day we honor all who served in harm’s way. I do so with a profound respect for the ambiguity of all things human, particularly man himself, an experience-based lesson I have learned along the way that my reason will not let me expel.

William Alexander Percy:
Soldier, Poet, Lawyer, Planter’s Son

November 11, 1918, marked the official end of the war to end all wars. We called it Armistice Day. As we approach this year’s version of that renamed and this year even redated day of honor — it’s Monday, November 12, 2012 — my thoughts turn to the fragments I think I know of the service of Will Percy, a member of the Mississippi Bar with whose life I have recently become reacquainted.

Last Spring a friend told me of a new Percy biography.4 I soon realized the author was largely following the story line of Percy’s classic autobiography, Lanterns On The Levee [“LOL”], published the year before he died. I (re)read LOL, and was struck by lines I had forgotten, like

“Again the mad dog is loose,”5 written in early 1941 by this veteran of the Argonne Forest and so much more in the Fall of 1918.
WAP was larger than life for those of us growing up in the Delta in the mid-20th Century. He fought The Flood, and for relief for its victims, against natural and manmade obstacles. He wrote poems and books and told Delta folk of their souls. His life personified civic virtue. Walker Percy, his adopted son, called Uncle Will “the most extraordinary man I have ever known.”6

Leroy Percy State Park just west of Hollandale bears his father’s name. “Father” ran the Klan out of Greenville a decade after he lost his Senate seat to the ignoble Vardaman.

When his father died, Will Percy had a sculptor create a bronze monument of a gallant knight of the days of chivalry, the lone large word “PATRIOT” chiseled at its granite foot. Matthew Arnold’s “Last Word” is engraved on the reverse side of the stone marker in the Greenville Cemetery.7 We say more of ourselves when we do these things, than of the one we would have the world remember. PATRIOT has its special hold, and not just because few of us had escaped Sir Walter Scott.

A wise lady, herself a member of a first family of the Delta, by no means completely “reconstructed,” later the godmother of my oldest son, told me once back in the turbulent early 1960s, “Listen, Jim,” — meaning she was going to say something important — “Not everyone agrees with the Percys. I don’t agree with everything they do. (The Percys were Greenville liberals.) But I am sure of one thing; I’ve never heard and am sure I will never hear of a Percy doing a thing not honorable.”

William Alexander Percy was The Percy to my generation growing up in Greenville. And not just because a part of our schooling was — with varying degrees of voluntariness — spending summer and Saturday mornings in the town library that still bears his name. Some of us knew and played ball with his name sake, whom we could not imagine calling anything except Billy.

At The Front

WAP served in France with American 37th Division and was promoted to the rank of captain in the U. S. Army Reserve after being mustered out. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre with a gold and silver star and L’Ordre du Corps d’Armee. Percy received Le Medaille du Roy Albert from the Belgians.

Four chapters of LOL, pages 156–224, tell of World War I through Percy’s eyes, including letters he wrote home in the Fall of 1918.8 The quotes and notes that follow cannot capture the power of the whole.

“My mind did not judge, my being affirmed.” In 1914 WAP so centered his conviction that “France and England must not be destroyed; Germany must not dominate.”9

“When … in the early spring news reached us that our country was about to enter the war and had broken off relations with Germany, there was only shouting in my heart.”10

“[W]e’re going into a gorgeous big battle in a few hours,” Percy wrote his mother in the early Fall of 1918.11 Two weeks later he wrote his father, “I have been through hell and returned without a scar,” after the Battle of the Argonne Forest.12

To be shelled when you are in the open is one of the most terrible of human experiences. You hear this rushing, tearing sound as the thing comes toward you, and then the huge explosion as it strikes, and, infinitely worse, you see its hideous work as men stagger, fall, struggle, or lie quiet and unrecognizable.13

“There was no complaining, little talking, and no thinking. Fatigue, cold and hunger quickly made of us mere animals.”14

You couldn’t bear to see men smashed and killed around you and know each moment might annihilate you, except by walking in a sort of sleep, as you might read Dante’s Inferno. The exhilaration of battle — there’s no such thing, except perhaps in a charge.15

On November 4, 1918, Percy wrote to his mother of discussing orders for the next day in a “wide low-ceiled room [where] one candle was burning, in the shadows about the big Flemish fireplace,” when a peasant woman

set down on our table three cups and a pitcher of steaming milk. She couldn’t speak a word of French or English, but she had a cheery, brave, bustling way about her, and in sign of friendship she was giving us all she had. In the old days, when Beowulf fought dragons and fly-by-nights, it was always the wife of the king who poured the mead cup for the heroes before battle, but her gesture could never have been as simple and fine as that peasant woman’s. And the milk was delisch — the first I’d had in four months.16

On the way home, safely, WAP reflected:

It’s over, the only great thing you were ever part of. It’s over, the only heroic thing we all did together. What can you do now? Nothing, nothing. You can’t go back to the old petty things without purpose, direction, or unity — defending the railroad for killing a cow, drawing deeds of trust, suing someone for money, coping again, all over, with that bright rascal who rehearses his witnesses. You can’t go on with that kind of thing till you die.17

On January 7, 1919, WAP learned that Sinkler Manning, his close friend from Sewanee days, and of a prominent family of planters and public servants from the South Carolina low country, had been killed in action five days before the Armistice was signed.

The Old Percy Law Firm

It was my great good fortune in 1965 to come home and to work in the law office that once bore the Percy name. A plaque in the reception area set out the lineage in firm letterheads, the early ones written in script. The name “William Alexander Percy” appeared at several levels. In those days I felt connected not so much from having played sandlot and little league baseball with Billy, as from WAP’s stories in LOL of Professor Samuel Williston at the Harvard Law School.

Whatever ability I may have to reason in a straight line from premise to conclusion derives from the discipline of those three years and especially from Professor Williston and his horse Dobbin. I lost hours of sleep, pounds of flesh, buckets of cold sweat over Dobbin, the hero of every supposititious contract, the villain of every supposititious sale.18

Samuel Williston died on February 18, 1963, at the age of 101. I was a mere 1L, in awe of the author of Williston on Contracts, Reporter for the Restatement of Contracts, of one who molded the mind of a hero from my home town, in no insubstantial part on the back of a supposititious horse named Dobbin. (I had reread LOL’s chapter “At The Harvard Law School” the summer before.)

William C. Keady, later a great U. S. District Judge, had practiced law with Percy in the late 1930s. Most know the oft quoted paragraph from Nelms & Blum Co. v. Fink, 131 So. 817, 820-21 (Miss. 1930), on the latitude allowed counsel in final argument, viz.,

Counsel may draw upon literature, history, science, religion and philosophy for material for his argument…He may sail the seas of ancient learning…soar into the empyrean heights of attainable eloquence…clothe the common occurrences of life in the habiliments of poetry and give to airy nothings a habitation and a name…

Word was and remains at the old firm that the Court plagiarized the longer version of this extensive paragraph word for word from Will Percy’s brief.19 Keady insisted it was so, and that a faded copy of the brief lay somewhere in firm archives. The brief was unproduced when Keady became a federal judge in April 1968, and when I left Greenville in the Summer of 1979.

The ghosts of Percys past remained, after the firm left the Weinberg Building and again when it moved across the street from the Washington County Courthouse.

Ben Wise’s New Book

I was excited to learn last Spring that Prof. Benjamin E. Wise of the University of Florida had published a new biography. The title is simply William Alexander Percy. The subtitle is The Curious Life Of A Mississippi Planter & Sexual Freethinker.

Wise’s work is altogether sympathetic. The lone exception is the same as with most WAP admirers. If we had one wish, “A Note on Racial Relations” would be removed from LOL. But, then, many of us wish Holmes had never written Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

In today’s terminology, Wise insists WAP was gay. Wise grounds his thesis in what he sees as WAP’s understanding of the virtue of this dimension of his being in Hellenism, so central to WAP’s classical education at Sewanee.20The obligatory texts are Plato’s “erotic dialogues,” the Symposium and Phaedrus, in which Socrates is seen approving of male love.

WAP wrote “Sappho in Levkas” while at Sewanee. Wise presents this poem (well known among WAP admirers) as a coded articulation of beauty and the sublime through a depiction of men and male bodies. To Wise, “[t]he fusion of spiritual wholeness and homoerotic desire is the main theme of the poem.”

The lawyer in me was at each page wondering of the admissibility of Wise’s proofs. At one level, Wise’s approach is as worthy as that of many so-called Christians who take texts from the Bible and distort them beyond objective recognition.

I do remember back in my junior high school days in the early 1950s hearing that WAP was effeminate, a sissy. I’m not sure it went much further than that, or that I knew at the time just what “queer” meant. What I remember clearly is that none of that mattered. And not just because I was becoming aware of that vicious strategy of “the closed society” – labeling men opposing the Citizens Councils’ post – Brown v. Board of Education racial segregation dogma as “homosexuals” or “queers,” and bringing trumped up criminal charges.

I started rereading LOL along with the parallel chapters in Wise’s new book. If everything Wise says is so, if every opinion he offers is reliable, what rational and fair minded person cares?

As I (re)read LOL’s account of 1914 – 1918, I pulled my other Percy books off the shelf and reviewed their largely parallel interpretations. Wise never denies WAP’s obsession that “to be a man was to be strong, to be practical, and to sacrifice one’s body and mind and abilities for the larger good of society. Teddy Roosevelt and LeRoy Percy, among others, would have given table pounding approval to Percy’s portrayal of poetry as child’s play next to the work of war.”21 And so on this Veterans Day, 2012, I am thankful that this country has finally done away with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” an abomination of a political compromise Bill Clinton foisted upon us twenty years ago.

On November 12, 2012, this Nation honors all who served in harm’s way, who are doing so now and will do so in the future. And if there are those who would not so honor soldiers of another sexual orientation, I can only say that one of us doesn’t understand what it means to be an American.

Will Percy’s Final Summation

On November 4, 1918, Will Percy wrote home that “Certainly, no one can ever hate war as a soldier does: it is the wickedest, most hateful thing man was ever guilty of.”22

Twenty plus years later, in his final summation, Percy argued: 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…What have defeats and failures to do with the good life?23

Then Percy smacks you across the face with a two by four.

As one comes beneath the tower, the High God descends and faces the wayfarer. He speaks three slow words: “Who are you?” The pilgrim I know should be able to straighten his shoulders, to stand his tallest, and to answer defiantly: “I am your son.”24

The last words of Arnold’s “Last Word” that William Alexander Percy had chiseled into the granite behind PATRIOT before “Father’s” gravesite read:

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall.

  1. William Alexander Percy, Lanterns On The Levee 201 (1941; LSU Press Paperback Edition published in 1973).
  2. For convenience, sometimes herein “WAP” or “Percy”
  3. Perhaps on November 12, one should find Holmes’ easily googled “The Soldier’s Faith,” an address on Memorial Day, 1895, to the graduating class of Harvard University. I have often wondered whether and to what extent WAP, at Harvard Law School, 1905-08, encountered Holmes and Holmes’ writings. WAP would surely have concurred with efforts such as “The Soldier’s Faith” and Holmes’ even more famous 1884 Memorial Day Address in Keene, N. H. But what about Holmes’ dissent in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 75-76 (1905), which was no doubt a hot topic of discussion while WAP was in Cambridge? Or Holmes’ poetic dissents in Abrams, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919), and Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644, 654-55 (1929)? It is safe to say, in addition to their view of war, WAP and Holmes had something else in common; each could write like an angel.
  4. Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2012). I disregard in what follows the injunctions of many Rules of Evidence, particularly Rules 701 and 802, only that I may stay within Rules 401-403.
  5. LOL, at 156.
  6. LOL, at xviii. Walker Percy’s Introduction to the LSU Press Edition of LOL published in 1973 is recommended reading.
  7.;; or go to Findagrave, Greenville Cemetery, LeRoy Percy (the father) and click on “more images” on the second page of photos. There is the monument. The story of the meaning of PATRIOT opens the Prologue in Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s The House Of Percy 3-4 (1994), and a photograph graces the dust jacket. See also, Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy 224-25 (2012).
  8. Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes and interprets WAP’s experiences in World War I in The House Of Percy, 208-217 (1994). The years 1914-18 in WAP’s life are covered more fully in Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy 144-160 (2012).
  9. LOL, at 156.
  10. LOL, at 163.
  11. LOL, at 201.
  12. LOL, at 202.
  13. LOL, at 205.
  14. LOL, at 207.
  15. LOL, at 206.
  16. LOL, at 211.
  17. LOL, at 223.
  18. LOL, at 121.
  19. In candor, Justice George H. Ethridge, formally the author of Nelms & Blum v. Fink, was the one member of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 1930 who could turn a phrase with the best.
  20. While Wise raises this in chapter three, titled “Sewanee,” pages 42-58, his larger thesis of WAP’s awakening extends through at least the first five chapters, through page 91, and only rarely does Wise go many pages without making mention of it.
  21. Wise, at 156.
  22. LOL, at 209.
  23. LOL, at 348.
  24. LOL, at 348.