Excerpt- Percy on Aristocracy and Honor Culture

The following from William Alexander Percy’s 1941 autobiography Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, pages 69-72. Here the inestimable Mr. Percy describes the proper role of an aristocrat in the postwar South, and uses an exceedingly sad anecdote to both illustrate the strictness of honor culture and lay a scathing criticism on modern society. Highlighted passages bolded by me.

It is not what they discussed so much as how they discussed it that still makes those meetings so memorable to me – indeed, so epic. They were leaders of the people, not elected or self-elected, but destined, under the compulsion of leadership because of their superior intellect, training, character, and opportunity. And the people were willing to be led by them because of their desperate need of leadership in those tragic times, because they recognized their fitness to lead, tested and proved in he series of revealing crises that only began with the war, and because they came from the class which traditionally led the South. Applause or aggrandizement played no part in their calculations. They knew leadership was a burden, they knew there was no such thing in the long run as public gratitude for public service, they also knew that unless the intelligent disinterested few fought for good government, government would be bad.

Even at that time, however, the leadership of the wise and the good never went unchallenged. Rascals and grafters, ambitious men on the make and personal enemies fought them and what they stood for tirelessly and unceasingly. Then too the first trickle of poor whites from the hills into the Delta had already begun. It was often necessary to get in touch with Charlie Scott in Rosedale, Sam Neill in Indianola, the Farishes in Mayersville, and those amazing Kentuckians, Colonel Mat Johnson, Johnson Erwin, and Mr. Merritt Williams, down on the lake. If the matter were of national concern, Father would be delegated to go over to Yazoo for counsel with John Sharp Williams, who loved him. Though they were decreasingly on the winning side, they were always live forces and rallying-points for righteousness, respected and greatly feared. When they lost, it was a public loss.

One particular local tragedy did much to undermine their prestige and influence. I was too young to understand it all, but I grew up knowing it was a terrible thing.

General Ferguson was one of their intimate friends and advisers and, further, he was the friend of General Wade Hampton, whose friendship was an accolade and a passport. He had been the beau ideal of a soldier, handsome, young, daring, adored by his men, with a record of brilliant military achievement which won him the rank of general at an age when others were lucky to be captains. His home was the center of frivolity and hospitality, famous in the countryside for high spirits and wit. I cannot recollect seeing the General himself when I was a little boy, but I climbed his kitchen roof, taunted to evil by his small daughter, who was a tartar, and I marveled at her older sister, Miss Natalie, galloping by in her long black velvet riding habit, by general consent the most dashing horsewoman in the Delta. In those poverty-stricken years the General was elected by his friends treasurer of the levee board, though he had neither aptitude for nor experience in business or accounting, besides being high-handed and utterly unmethodical. After some years Mr. Everman, secretary of the board and his close friend, checked the books and found him twenty thousand dollars short. It was unthinkable. He had always been a man of unimpeachable rectitude, of untarnished honor. And he had nothing to show for it: he did not gamble, he had no extravagant habits, his possessions were his home and a run-down plantation, both heavily mortgaged. He could give no explanation. Then, while the enemies of the old regime were in full hue and cry, and our people distracted, humiliated, and incredulous, he did the inexplicable, the unpardonable thing – he fled to South America.

It was recent history when I was scraping the bottom of mint-julep glasses, and it still rankled. He lived for years in exile with his family; then, the bitterness having diminished, his property having been seized and sold to pay his deficit, the rank and file having as usual forgotten, he drifted back to his own country and settled down in poverty and obscurity on the coast.

I went to college and law school, the world began to acquire that momentum commonly mistaken for progress, incidents like the disappearance of trust funds occurred daily and caused no special stir, and I don’t suppose a dozen people in the town could have told you the Robertshaw house was once the Ferguson house. One cold night during the holidays we were giving a dinner party for some of my Eastern schoolmates – pretty girls and young men, pleased as cockerels. It was still the custom then to entertain at home. We were dressed in our giddiest as a dance was to follow. Mother and Father, at the ends of the table, were as usual in fine form and more fun than any of us. Unexpectedly a knock sounded at the front door. The colored waiter, who was also butler, answered it. We could feel the cold air from the open door and hear the scraps of a conversation that seemed to go on and on. I went out to see what the trouble was. In the light of the doorway against the blustery dark stood a little shabby old man in a gray suit and a bright red tie, his white hair untidy, his white beard untrimmed, with something childlike in his wide, vague, very blue eyes. He said: “Is LeRoy home?” I answered impatiently: “Yes, but-” “Tell LeRoy I must see him now.” Father, joining us as he said these words, exclaimed softly: “Why, General Ferguson! Come in. Won’t you have some dinner with us?” “Of course, LeRoy,” murmured the little old man, and he came into the light still wide-eyed like a ghost, a ghost that is not afraid, but only uncertain, a ghost that can’t remember. He sat down with those youngsters in their party clothes just as Banquo’s ghost did, but mercifully they knew nothing and rattled on, though I could see Mother wanted to cry. He hardly touched his food and sat quietly, looking but not seeing, trying to remember something. Once he leaned to Father and said softly: “I have come back to go through those records. It was all a mistake. They will show everything was in order.” Father said: “Of course, General.”

For a month or more he haunted the courthouse and the levee board, pulling out the heavy record books, carrying them unsteadily to a desk, turning their pages backward and forward, and making notes. His presence in the town created little flurry. It had all been too long ago. At last he drifted away. He was mad.

People steal public funds now, but the public is cynical, no one is horrified, and the accused, guilty or innocent, seldom goes mad. Going mad for honor’s sake presupposes honor. In our brave new world a man of honor is rather like the Negro – there’s no place for him to go.

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2 thoughts on “Excerpt- Percy on Aristocracy and Honor Culture

  1. Pingback: Excerpt- Percy Pt. II, On Government and the Moral Compass | Losing The Creek

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/03/20) | The Reactivity Place

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