Walker Percy’s Homage to Robert E. Lee

The novelist Walker Percy was inescapably Southern by virtually any measure. Born May 28, 1916 in Birmingham, he lived briefly in Athens, Georgia following the death of this father, grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, and lived most of his adult life in Louisiana, in New Orleans and Covington. Both the culture into which he was born, and the fatherly—as well as literary—influence of his older cousin William Alexander Percy, who raised him and his two brothers in Greenville following his mother’s death, helped to mold some of his fundamental views for the rest of his life. Will Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee, was partly responsible, by both precept and example, for instilling the stoic philosophy and, relatedly, something of the southern chivalric code, neither of which Walker as an adult could ever disown.[1]

It should not be surprising, then, that he was throughout much his life an admirer of Robert E. Lee. What is also clear when his various comments about Lee throughout his career are viewed as a whole is that he was rarely able as a writer to give a full-throated affirmation, such as we find for instance in Donald Davidson’s “Lee in the Mountains” (to which we will return in the conclusion). His scattered remarks are often qualified by irony, wit, and a distancing of himself that stems in part from his being politically liberal and also from a well-developed ironical cast of mind. Yet, as we will see, he could not escape the powerful hold that Lee has had over many a Southerner, both male and female, over many decades now. This, despite the shifting of attitudes and reevaluations by professional historians and even, perhaps, by ordinary folks.[2]

The South Was Right! James Ronald Kennedy, ... Best Price: $21.38 Buy New $36.15 (as of 10:45 UTC - Details) If Percy was generally a progressive socially and politically speaking, he was at the same time a theologically conservative Catholic as regards core beliefs and values. It was primarily his faith that motivated his involvement in programs designed to aid the poor, especially blacks. His active support during the late 1960’s of such programs as Head Start and his work with Fr. Twoomey at Loyola University in New Orleans to advance the civil rights agenda in his hometown of Covington is well documented by his main two biographers.[3]

Nevertheless, his admiration for Robert E. Lee, which began early in his life, remained with him throughout his life and career. He could not escape an awareness, though, that Lee, the Confederacy, and the Confederate flag in particular as symbol had all been co-opted to a troublesome extent by the lower orders—racists, and rabble-rousers—intent on using them in support of segregation and white supremacy. Even so, I contend, his life-long admiration of Lee remained with him to the end.

Following the trail of evidence in his writings shows just how strong this attraction to Lee was for Percy and how it made itself felt in his work. Its presence isn’t dramatic, but it is unmistakable. Key passages are found not only in his fiction but also in letters, articles, and essays that he wrote over a period of more than thirty years.

Percy’s interest in Lee apparently began in the 1930’s as a college student at the University of North Carolina, where he read voraciously both fictional and historical works. One of the latter was the four-volume biography of Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman (published in 1934-35), a Pulitzer-Prize winning study that probably more than any other of the period set the tone for Lee biography for decades to come, that is, until re-evaluators and revisionists like Eric Foner, Richard B. Connelly, and Alan T. Nolan came along.[4]

Perhaps the earliest comment by Percy on Lee is found in a 1952 letter that Percy wrote to Caroline Gordon during the period just following his entry into the Catholic Church. The main subject of the letter is St. Thomas More as “the Road Back” to the Church, but in a fascinating observation Percy notes that for Southerners, as well as some other Americans, “More is the spiritual ancestor of Lee.”[5] To unbundle the full meaning of what he is saying here would take us a bit far afield, but we may certainly assume that in Percy’s mind both men have an inherent magnetism that attracts kindred souls to a worthy cause. Moreover, both men in time became honored and revered by many for their self-sacrificing stands against powerful forces and persons. They were arguably both martyrs—the one red, the other white—for their respective causes, and if More eventually was canonized officially (in 1935), Lee achieved a sort of unofficial sainthood in the decades following the War on both sides of the Mason Dixon line—as we see in the work of both Connelly and Nolan and others. As Connelly writes, “He became a God figure for Virginians, a saint for the white Protestant South, and a hero for the nation” (Marble Man, 3). Similarly, Nolan notes that Lee’s stature grew in the decades following the War to an “heroic, almost superhuman” level approaching divinity (Lee Reconsidered, 4-5).

Percy in his comments on Lee is predictably rather more sober. In an essay entitled “The American War” (1957) he focuses for the most part on what he calls “the fight” itself, rather than the politics of the Civil War, an emphasis reflecting the histories coming out during that period. In line with that emphasis, he touches on the theme of alternating loss and (current) recovery of the past, the past of this War in particular and its key figures: Lincoln and Grant, McClellan and “the legendary Lee.” [6]  Regarding Lee and the nature of battle, Percy cites the General’s famous observation at the Battle of Fredericksburg: “It is well that war is so terrible . . . else we should grow too fond of it” (Signposts 73). It is not too far-fetched to suppose that Percy like Richard Weaver in an essay on Lee perceived in this saying an encapsulation of hard-won wisdom, although he does not elaborate here.[7]He recalls, too, with apparent admiration Lee’s risky but brilliant troop movement at Chancellorsville against Hooker’s vastly larger army when he sent Jackson to the left and almost destroyed Hooker’s force.

Read the Whole Article