Cosmopolitan Southerner: The life and world of William Alexander Percy
Wise, Benjamin E.
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
The Mississippi planter and poet William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) is best remembered for his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (1941), which was a bestseller and remains a seminal book in the study of the American South. Although scholars have traditionally portrayed Percy as an iconic provincial, he maintained an ambivalence towards his region---particularly towards local values regarding masculinity and sexuality. Percy left the South regularly and traveled across the world, and his encounters abroad informed his views about gender, sexuality, and race at home. Cosmopolitan Southerner maps connections between the American South and the broader world by tracing Will Percy's travels across the globe: from Mississippi to the Mediterranean, to such places as Paris and Japan and Samoa, back to Mississippi. Will Percy's life story invites consideration of how one man became a sexual liberationist, cultural relativist, white supremacist in late Victorian Mississippi. I engage the paradox of Percy's life and personality to make three main arguments. First, I examine the ways the experience, performance, and construction of gender and sexuality were connected to the concept of place. Will Percy's heterodox views of sexuality and what it meant to be a man---namely, his belief that love between men was not only legitimate but a superior form of love---can only be understood by studying the ways he experienced reality in different cultural contexts. Second, I examine the ways Percy participated in an international intellectual tradition centered on the idea of ancient Greece as a kind of spiritual "home" for men with gay desire. The nostalgia that many have interpreted as Percy's longing for the Old South was, in fact, an important imaginative vehicle many men used to express homoerotic desire in a culturally sanctioned idiom. Finally, I examine Percy's essentially racist critique of modernity---a critique also grounded in values of cultural relativism and sexual liberation. In situating Percy's view of racial difference in the context of his cross-cultural encounters. I find that his interpretations of race and "primitivism" worked to simultaneously critique bourgeois sexual ethics and reinforce the structures of racial inequality in the American South.
Biographies; American history