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WALKER PERCY: A Life
By Patrick H. Samway, S.J.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
It is said that anyone who grows up in the Mississippi Delta knows the anecdotal histories of 1,200 people, and indeed many Southerners pride themselves on their ability to trace quickly some fairly complicated family trees. Although Walker Percy rarely spoke about his family history (see the Appendix), he knew that it was both long and complicated. His sense of it was deeply embedded in his consciousness, because certain prominent last names were often repeated as first or middle names in subsequent generations of Percys--a common feature of Southern nomenclature.
Such naming guaranteed that the ghostly presence of an ancestor would haunt the person carrying it. For example, his grandfather was named Walker Percy, his great-grandfather's brother was John Walker Percy, and his great-great-grandfather's wife's brother-in-law, John Williams Walker, had a son, LeRoy Pope Walker, who was Secretary of War under Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. (Walker Percy once wrote his friend Shelby Foote that he took the name of John when he converted to Catholicism because he had "two Southern surnames for a name, even if one of them was that of a distinguished Confederate Sec'y of State." Foote corrected him about Secretary Walker--"he wasn't distinguished" and he was Secretary of War.) In reverse irony, LeRoy Walker's brother was Percy Walker--a name fans often misused for Walker Percy (if they were not miscalling him Perry Walters). In addition, family names seem to be constantly recycled, sometimes in a curiously asexual manner. Walker Percy's brother, Billups Phinizy ("Phin") Percy, for example, has a daughter, Melissa Phinizy Percy, who is married to a second cousin, Bolling Phinizy Spalding, and their son is named Phinizy Percy Spalding. Indicative of Walker's own awareness of his ancestry, one of his daughters, Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell, is named after her great-grandmother Mary Pratt DeBardeleben Percy, a key figure in the Percy family history. (In one draft of the novel The Thanatos Syndrome, Percy has a character named Alice Pratt, in this case a young woman from Montgomery, Alabama.) Since he spent his formative years in Birmingham (Alabama), Athens (Georgia), and Greenville (Mississippi), he willy-nilly learned his family history from Percy, Debardeleben, and Phinizy relatives.
Walker Percy's family roots on his father's side go back to the British Isles and Mississippi and Louisiana, and more immediately to Alabama. One way to appreciate the Percy family history is to relate it to the topology and rapid growth of Birmingham as an important center for coal, iron, and steel. The Percys rose to national prominence at the precise time that Birmingham began to explore and capitalize on its valuable mineral resources. From one perspective, the suicides of both Walker Percy's grandfather and father caused much headshaking for Walker's peers still living in Birmingham and continue to pose questions difficult to answer. Yet it is fair to say that as each generation of Percys settled down, the decisions made by his ancestors--whether to enhance their earthly existences and enjoy the fruits of their labors or to abandon even life itself--profoundly affected him. It should also be noted that the death of his mother--a victim of suicide, as Walker characterized it to at least two friends--proved to be the most unresolved experience of his life. Whatever considerations of alienation he used in his fiction were ultimately rooted in the very fabric of his being.
Although suicide is often motivated by deeply felt feelings of loss and abandonment, real or metaphorical--as an author of a major work on suicide, George Howe Colt, explains--it can represent for many some form of psychic gain. What is important to remember is that Walker Percy, like his two brothers, constantly integrated new experiences into his life. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, who has studied the relationship between artistic creativity, honor, psychological depression, melancholy, and suicide in the Percy family, notes that while Walker Percy perceived the "flawed and dissonant" honor of his ancestors, which can lead to moral and physical death, there is nevertheless "a largely redemptive note" in Percy's fiction, based on his deep Christian faith "that serves as a final statement." In discussing the relationship of his work to that of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Percy once told Lewis A. Lawson, "I would like to think of starting where Faulkner left off, of starting with a Quentin Compson who didn't commit suicide. Suicide is easy. Keeping Quentin Compson alive is something else."
Literary critic John F. Desmond notes that "all of Percy's novels reveal how much Kierkegaard's idea of despair as spiritual suicide dominates his vision, far beyond but not unrelated to the concern with literal suicide. Despair permeates every novel, exemplified by the self `refusing to be itself'--by role-playing, by bestialism, by deference to experts, by objectification, and by suicide itself. So pervasive is despair in his work that one can speak of a condition of cultural suicide or general thanatos; yet his protagonists also struggle against it, struggle to become ex-suicides." According to Desmond, Percy did not lapse into self-defeating silence in his fiction, but through language and portrayals of sexuality he affirms the selfhood of the creative artist. In short, Percy saw himself as a wayfarer with an unusual and unique family background. During his life, particularly after he contracted tuberculosis as a young doctor, he journeyed into uncharted territory for which existing maps gave an indication of which general direction to take, but not necessarily which specific roads to follow.
Walker Percy's father, LeRoy Pratt Percy, son of Walker and Mary Pratt DeBardeleben Percy, was born on June 23, 1889, and grew up conscious of the great expectations attached to the only male in a leading Birmingham family. The manner of his life and death had an inevitable impact on the way his son, the subject of this biography, saw the world and made choices for his own future. Educated for two years (1904-6) at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, LeRoy was one of the three associate editors of Olla Podrida, the school's yearbook, where it was noted in his last year that "Perc"--as LeRoy was called--had won two first testimonials in his junior year but none in his senior. "His friends say he could head the class `if he wished to.' Anyhow, he has the dark eyes and hair of that type of genius." In his junior and senior years, Perc was a member of the Gun Club and in his junior year was on the gun team; he made the class baseball team and became a member of the Calliopean Society. Like most of his classmates, LeRoy entered Princeton after leaving Lawrenceville. The Nassau Herald of the Class of 1910 records this brief sketch of him at Princeton: "5'10" in height, Episcopalian, a Democrat, his favorite sport tennis, and English literature his favorite academic subject." He belonged to the Whig Society and the Tiger Inn, named the legal profession as his vocation in life, and kept a low profile while at college. In the "Class Prophecy"--not without the type of jejune humor his classmates would enjoy--LeRoy ("Puss") Percy is depicted as a devoted missionary in Africa.
After Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton, presented him with his bachelor of literature degree in 1910, LeRoy went to Harvard to study law, and while there he served on the editorial board of The Harvard Law Review (January 1912-June 1913). In the fall of 1913, he started advanced studies at the University of Heidelberg as a young Werther, a sojourn that later influenced his son to make a similar trip. LeRoy returned to Birmingham and began practicing law in 1914 as a member of the firm of Percy, Benners & Burr, where he remained until his death in 1929.
In Greenville, Mississippi, LeRoy's first cousin William Alexander Percy--later known as "Uncle Will"--returned home in September 1914 from a trip to Sicily and France--"a tourist in a tourist's world, with no premonitions," as he writes in Lanterns on the Levee. Will was working on his book of poetry, Sappho in Levkas. He and his father, U.S. Senator LeRoy Percy, planned to head for Alaska for some bear hunting. While away, they were wholly unaware of another family returning from a different type of vacation. Mr. and Mrs. Billups Phinizy of Athens, Georgia, and three of their five daughters, among whom was Martha Susan ("Mattie Sue," born May 3, 1890), were returning from Europe. To receive the news of the European trip, Mattie Sue's older sister, Bolling (pronounced "Bo-leen") Phinizy Spalding and her young son, Jack, traveled from Atlanta to Athens.
Clearly an attractive person with an openness and sociability typical of young women of her day, Mattie Sue, a graduate of the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens and Miss Finch's School in New York, had a full social calendar. The drives between Athens and Birmingham--or Atlanta, or Augusta, for that matter--would be endured by her and many others of her age to foster all-important social contacts. Yet Mattie Sue's days as a single woman were numbered. In mid-November she and her friends from Atlanta and Augusta were among those entertained by LeRoy Pratt Percy at his home in Birmingham; the group had come together to renew friendships made at the Greenbrier, a 6,500-acre resort surrounded by the panoramic beauty of the Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. It had been the custom for Mrs. Phinizy to spend August with her daughters at this grand hotel.
Mattie Sue's father, Billups, a wealthy cotton factor (born in Augusta in 1861), became president of the Southern Mutual Insurance Company in 1904 and was one of the most prominent men in Athens. He also served as president of the Bank of the University for many years, director of the Georgia Railroad & Banking Company of Augusta, trustee of the Atlanta Trust Company, president of the Commercial Club of Athens, chairman of the board of directors of the Southern Manufacturing Company, and vice president of the Athens Railway & Electric Company. Billups took great pride in his accomplishments and gave his family the leisure and resources to live very comfortably. His wife, Nellie Stovall Phinizy, three years younger than her husband, was known as a gracious hostess in Athens.
By May 1915, Mattie Sue had set her eyes on LeRoy Pratt Percy. She mentioned as much to her older sister, Anne Barrett ("Annie B.") Johnson. The courtship of Mattie Sue by LeRoy intensified during the summer months and both families made plans for a wedding. On the first of September, Martha Susan Phinizy married LeRoy Percy in Athens at a noon ceremony, presided over by the Rev. Eugene Lott Hill, in the Phinizy residence with members of the family and friends from Birmingham, Charleston, Atlanta, Greenville, and Norfolk in attendance, including Senator and Mrs. LeRoy Percy and their son, Will. It was one of the most brilliant marriages of the year in Athens. After a wedding breakfast for 175 guests, the newlyweds left on an afternoon train for a trip West. The Birmingham Age-Herald noted that this "marriage united two of the most prominent old families of the South. For three years the bride has been one of the most popular of the younger college set in Athens, the old and aristocratic university town ... Mr. Percy is one of the most popular young men in society and a brilliant and prominent attorney in this city." One Athenian said to Senator Percy, "You have stolen a rose from our garden," to which he replied, "Yes Madam, and we are very proud of the theft."
Yet, as the newlyweds made their way to the East Coast, all was not well with Mattie Sue's health. In mid-October, her mother left quickly for New York, where she was joined by her husband; her daughter was lying ill in Roosevelt Hospital during the early stages of pregnancy. Initially the doctors held out very little hope for recovery, but her condition improved. By early November, Mattie Sue was recuperating at her family home and LeRoy traveled to Birmingham to resume work. During the second weekend of December, Mattie Sue felt well enough to join her husband there. They took up residence in January in their new home at 1024 South 24th Street (also known as Caldwell Terrace). From this house set on a hill, Mattie Sue and LeRoy could look out and have a panoramic view of the city. Yet Mattie Sue always considered Athens her hometown.
The eruption of the world war that had started in Europe almost two years earlier was a shock and worry for all Americans. Even though Birmingham could profit a good deal from the sale of war materials, the community was caught up in an intense debate about the morality of engaging the United States in "foreign" warfare. LeRoy's father expressed his opinions publicly: a banner headline in The Birmingham Age-Herald (April 25, 1916) proclaimed: PERCY MAINTAINS NO JUSTIFICATION IN GOING TO WAR. After consulting with Senator John H. Bankhead, the father of Tallulah, he made public a letter he had written to him the previous week concerning the war. He was well aware that German submarines had sunk English freight vessels on which Americans were working and that English sailors had taken a number of Austrian and German passengers from an American steamship. He conceded in his letter that the rights of Americans had been violated by both Great Britain and Germany but contended that in neither case was there sufficient cause to justify the United States going to war.
On May 28, 1916, Walker Percy was born in St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham. During the difficult fourteen-hour delivery, Dr. Norman Paige Cocke used forceps. The following day, as President Wilson's speech before the League to Enforce Peace maintained that the United States was ready to join in any feasible association of nations to preserve worldwide peace, The Birmingham Ledger announced that the Percys were receiving congratulations on the birth of a son. Grandmother Nellie Phinizy and Annie B. wasted no time in traveling to Birmingham to assist Mattie Sue and see baby Walker. Friends and family were pleased not only that the mother and child were in good health but also that the distinguished Percy line would continue to exist. Yet as Mattie Sue breast-fed her infant, young Walker "was `poisoned' by his mother's milk, could not take food, lost weight, developed `rashes' and remained in a state of malnutrition." These are his own words, written as an adult, and make one wonder whether Walker Percy from his earliest days had latent feelings of being rejected by his mother. In addition, Mattie Sue was worried about her baby contracting typhoid or tuberculosis, both of which raged that summer throughout the Birmingham area. Almost daily the newspapers published horrifying statistics; by the end of July, 346 cases of typhoid had been reported locally. And if that was not bad enough, Dr. George Eaves revealed that in May and June 67 people had died from tuberculosis.
In early October, Mattie Sue was in Athens visiting her parents. Though the Phinizys were traditionally Presbyterian and the Percys Episcopalian, an ongoing religious debate was being waged in Birmingham. This debate would play a critical role in determining whether or not LeRoy's religious beliefs were significant as he contemplated suicide in 1929. By 1916 the Independent Presbyterian Church had experienced considerable growth, with candidates waiting to enter, due in large measure to the ministry of the Rev. Henry Edmonds. (In a preliminary draft of The Moviegoer, one character is called "Dr. Edmunds," the Episcopal minister who lives in Binx Bolling's hometown.) After two years of ministering to a congregation that followed the Calvinistic tradition and held fast against Darwin's and Spencer's theories, Dr. Edmonds found himself more and more in disagreement with a number of church elders. He could not accept a belief that man is totally depraved. Contrary to the traditional Presbyterianism of the time, he denied the value of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection as proofs of Jesus's divinity. Tilting in the direction of the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and its concomitant liberalism, Dr. Edmonds tended to accept the tenets of new scientific theories. Though not all members of South Highland Presbyterian Church were concerned about the intricacies of theological debates, a sufficient number began to take sides and discuss the issues in public. Finally, the congregation had to decide whether or not to resolve the case within the walls of the church or in the denominational courts, and eventually Dr. Edmonds appeared before the Presbytery of North Alabama to be examined. He would not change his view that the death of Jesus had no consequence for salvation. Though the Presbytery charitably asked him to reconsider his views and refrain from speaking or writing publicly about them, he refused to do so. Dr. Edmonds decided he would start the Independent Presbyterian Church, and many prominent families followed him, including Mr. and Mrs. LeRoy Pratt Percy. Their commitment to this new church would be made evident in succeeding years, especially when LeRoy became an active deacon.
During the final days of President Wilson's second campaign in 1916, many Americans were disturbed to learn that the German submarine Deutschland was harbored in New London, Connecticut. William Alexander Percy was the first Percy to commit himself seriously to the war effort; he would soon know firsthand what others were merely reading about. He sailed for Europe on November 18 as a representative of the Belgian Relief Association of America. While staying en route in Aldwych, a section of London, he wrote back to a former teacher that he had been waiting impatiently for a ship to arrive to take him to Holland, under the protection of an escort ship. His words catch the grim and anxious poetry of war:
This London! A huge military place under gray skies by day and jungle blackmen at night and housing the youth of the world. Everywhere the soldier lads from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Those who were not conscripted, but came. Here they are allowed to spend their days of leave before being sent to France ... or God knows where. They roam the streets with no money and no friends and seek the cheapest vices for diversion.
In Birmingham the city fathers planned for the inevitable war effort--specifically by entering into negotiations for a $15 million expansion program to erect a new steel plant, several blast furnaces, and batteries of by-product coke ovens and benzol plants.
President Wilson announced in February 1917 that the United States could not remain on friendly terms with any imperial government whose submarines attacked neutral ships, and this signaled America's intention to join the Allies. Wilson said he was anxious to avoid war; at the same time, he refused to be intimidated by the Germans. When Grandmother Phinizy visited Mattie Sue and LeRoy, they wondered whether this stressful situation was affecting Grandfather Walker, who had been suffering from depression and sought treatment in Baltimore; he had returned home before his treatment was completed. They had every reason to be anxious.
On February 8, Grandfather Walker shot himself. The next day, The Birmingham Age-Herald printed a long report that featured his photo, showing him fashionably dressed and wearing a bowler. It stated that shortly after 3 p.m., as he was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip in Mississippi, it accidentally discharged a shot that pierced his heart. He died immediately. His son had talked to him that afternoon and the two had made arrangements to go hunting in Greenville. An hour or so afterward, the father went up to his bedroom, adjacent to which was a narrow room that served as a storage place for hunting equipment and golf bags. The position of his body and the 12-gauge shotgun, with its one exploded shell, seemed to indicate that he had stooped over to pick up the weapon and its trigger had become entangled in the straps of the hunting case. After the shot he fell facedown on the floor. At the time of death both his wife and his son were in the house. His son was the first to reach him and Pratt was prostrated with grief.
Gradually a steady stream of friends and relatives ("hundreds," according to the paper) made their way to the Percy residence on Arlington Avenue. LeRoy gave his account to the paper's reporter:
Father had been at home all day, and we had talked after lunch about going to Greenville for a short hunt on the estate of my uncle. The suggestion seemed to please him, and so he agreed to leave Thursday night. He left me and went upstairs to his room. Shortly after 3 o'clock I heard a muffled noise, but did not pay any attention to it. A few minutes later I went upstairs to talk with father concerning our plans, and it was then that I discovered his body, face down upon the floor in the room where he kept his guns, his golf sticks and hunting togs. From the position of his body and the gun, it seems that he picked up a gun with its muzzle pointing toward him, and that it was accidentally discharge. I immediately called for the physician and the coroner and they came.
Senator Percy came for the funeral from Greenville. Was this an accidental death or a suicide? Later generations of Percys indicated that suicide was not improbable; they seemed to accept it as a fact. A clue that the rector of St. Mary's-on-the-Highlands, the Rev. W. N. Claybrook, considered it a suicide is that, uncharacteristically, he did not list a cause of death in the church's burial registry. Young Walker would think of it as an "accident," a word that doubtless suppressed his true feelings.
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson, desirous of vindicating the principles of peace and justice against a "selfish and autocratic power," urged Congress to declare a state of war with Germany. The Senate voted 82-6 in favor of war. Will was enjoying the sunshine of Paris when he heard that le President Veelson had finally acted. He and some friends were invited to be the guests of the French Senate to hear Premier Alexandre Ribot welcome the United States as an ally. Immediately young men started pouring into recruiting offices in Birmingham and around the country. By the end of April, Congress had passed a bill to raise an army by selective draft. A Liberty Day parade with 15,000 participants was held in Birmingham. A recruiting station was opened to accept volunteers, many of whom had never handled a gun. On registration day, between 25,000 and 30,000 men and women marched in Birmingham's streets; nearly 20,000 locals registered, including many blacks. The city was resplendent in flags and bunting, and the official parade culminated with a banquet at the Tutwiler Hotel. In the wake of this excitement, US. Steel announced that it would expand its operations in the Birmingham area and spend $11 million to improve its facilities. The Tennessee Coal & Iron Company (TCI) was expected to join in the effort to build 600 houses for workers, as well as a new blooming mill and a new plate mill.
For LeRoy such an investment of capital would also mean a great increase in his work schedule. His personal worries were not inconsiderable: he had recently lost his father, his wife was pregnant with their second child (LeRoy Pratt was born on August 23), and he had to console and care for his widowed mother. Above all, he had to decide soon whether to wait and be conscripted or to volunteer.
Having returned home, Will Percy entered the Officers' Training Camp at Camp Stanley in Texas that August. For LeRoy, the moment of decision had come; he entered the war effort as a private in the aviation section of the Signal Corps on March 9, 1918, and was detailed to the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of Texas in Austin. He qualified as a reserve military aviator and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Service in late September. He was then sent to Brooks Field in Texas as an instructor (after some time at Kelly Field, according to his son LeRoy) and then to Eberts Field near Lonoke, Arkansas. Family folklore maintains that he cracked up one or two of the smaller planes.
After LeRoy's departure, Mattie Sue wasted no time in taking the boys back to Athens. After the death of Grandfather Walker, they apparently decided to sell their house. Years later, Walker said he retained only a dim image of this house. LeRoy and his family now moved into Grandmother Pratt's house at 2217 Arlington Avenue, an impressive structure on the corner of Arlington and Highland.
Will was attached to General William Hay's 92nd Division in August 1918 as a brigadier instructor to train black troops, many of whom outranked him. He wrote to his father from the headquarters of the 74th Brigade, asking to be informed when and if LeRoy was assigned overseas. Less than a month later, Will expressed great enthusiasm over the news of the American offensive. He had recently received a letter from his father, which contained a rhapsody on flying from LeRoy--a "really exhilarating and fine piece of literature. He's a splendid fellow and I certainly wish him luck." When the armistice was signed, Will felt that the United States had capitulated to the Germans: "LeRoy must be disgusted at never having his chance at a Boche," he wrote home, "though I'm sure he'll never regret the time lost in training. I've seen very little of our flyers--particularly over our line. Our mastery of the air may have been complete but it was certainly never apparent to the infantry. We were bombed day and night by every kind of varmint that could fly and our serene squadrons could only heave into the empyrean after the party was over." In December, LeRoy was discharged from the Air Service; his formal service had lasted exactly nine months. He could now return home, reunite with his family, and resume his legal career.
Returning home was especially exciting for those who had been overseas. Will expressed great pride in seeing General Pershing review the troops on a snow-covered field in February 1919: "It was superb, a veritable `army with banners.'" The clothes and equipment may not have been the best, he wrote, "but when our boys get their shoes shined, clean their wrapped leggings, cock their overseas cap over one ear and press their overcoats, which strikes them just above the knees and manages to convey a go-to-hell, O-damn-you effect, they are the most capable looking and endearing bunch in the world. Anyone who hasn't lived with them during this war has missed all the fun of it--that's the main reason why I always wanted in the line." Will, discharged in April, was promoted to captain of the Infantry Officers Reserve Corps. In a snappy uniform and sporting a Sam Browne belt and Croix de Guerre, he was greeted by his parents in New York. Stopping in Tennessee on the way back to Greenville, he discussed the possibility of teaching at the University of the South in Sewanee.
By early spring, LeRoy had definitely settled into the house on Arlington and had become an active member of the Independent Presbyterian Church. Records in the Jefferson County Courthouse show that Grandmother Pratt conveyed for one dollar her house and property to LeRoy on June 10, 1920. One of the few souvenirs of the Arlington days is a picture of LeRoy in his military uniform, holding a chubby young LeRoy dressed in a smock, while Walker, in a sailor suit, stands on a stool next to his father. Father LeRoy's arms envelop both his sons. LeRoy told them how the German flying ace Max Immelmann invented a combat tactic of going into a loop and then descending into a barrel roll to escape. (In Love in the Ruins, the German pilot is transformed into Art Immelmann.) As legal work increased after the war, LeRoy and his partners decided to expand their law firm, welcoming James Rice to Percy, Benners & Burr. LeRoy proved to be a versatile lawyer, and when he thought a jury wanted to hear colloquial language, he knew how to use it.
Young Walker recorded some of the events in his early life. His first memories were of living in the house on Arlington, an easy streetcar ride to Five Points; the first movie he saw was a Krazy Kat cartoon at the Five Points Theatre, though he recalled Happy Hooligan with equal affection. He also remembered a spectacular fire at the Packard Automobile Company and catching the streetcar at Highland with his black nurse and riding the "Loop" for a nickel--her way of babysitting. On occasion, he was also driven in the family's 1920 Ford to see his father play golf, walking the course with him and meeting his father's friends.
In June 1920, Yale University Press published Will's second book, In April Once, and Other Poems, which included a poignant section entitled "From a Soldier's Notebook." The volume took its title from Will's forty-page play in blank verse depicting the life of Guido, a thirteenth-century Florentine who sacrifices himself for a leper and a jailer. William Faulkner reviewed the book in the Ole Miss student newspaper, The Mississippian, chiding Will for having an old-fashioned muse. Faulkner wrote that the poet suffered the misfortune of having been born out of his time: "He should have lived in Victorian England and gone to Italy with Swinburne." Faulkner said that Will was "like a little boy closing his eyes against the dark of modernity, which threatens the bright simplicity and the colorful romantic pageantry of the middle ages with which his eyes are full." Yet he ended with a compliment--taken as a whole, "the gold outweighs the dross." (The title of one poem, "Sanctuary," perhaps anticipated the title of Faulkner's novel.) Will's plea in "An Epistle from Corinth," which Faulkner liked, reveals a not so hidden cri de coeur on the part of the author, who was known by a few in the Greenville community to be homosexual: "I know the loveliness/Of flesh and its sweet snare, and I am hurt/At finding nothing where I sought for much." If Will was offended by Faulkner's review, he never acknowledged it publicly.
In Greenville, as elsewhere in the South, the Ku Klux Klan grew more active after the war. Senator Percy delivered an extemporaneous address in March 1922 to the citizens of Washington County, entitled "Ku Klux Klan Unnecessary," in response to the address of a member of the Klan, "Colonel" Joseph G. Camp. Will said he never heard a speech that was so exciting or so much fun. Born in Washington County, the Senator said he felt proud to be among his own people and speak as one of them. He looked back on the aftermath of the Civil War, when the KKK emerged as "a desperate remedy for a helpless, scourged and torn people," but the KKK was no longer needed since the "white man is in control of every department of government, of the courts, judges and juries." Blacks are told they will not be harmed, "but little does he know the Negro if he feels that reassurance will do aught to lessen their alarm. This is a real thing and a real menace." Walker later remembered his father talking about Hugo Black and the Klan, saying that had his father lived, he would never have believed that Justice Black would become one of the most liberal members of the Supreme Court. The Senator's speech also provoked an editorial in The Memphis Commercial Appeal, which prompted a letter from LeRoy in Birmingham to his uncle in Greenville: "I believe that your speech is going to stand as one of the great speeches of the time. I hope that some one will have it printed in pamphlet form and distribute it through the country." The Senator had become a father substitute for LeRoy, and they even planned to go on a hunting trip together, though Will preferred not to engage in blood sports.
Senator Percy wrote ten months later to Caroline Yarborough Percy in Los Angeles, inquiring about her eldest son's education and adding news about their relatives in Birmingham: "Tell the boys I had a great duck hunt in Louisiana last week. LeRoy Pratt and myself hunted ducks and snipes together and had a fine time of it. I am rather counting on going to Alabama to take a bird hunt with LeRoy Pratt next week while Cam [Camille, the Senator's wife] stays with Mattie Sue. We have not seen any of them [LeRoy's sons] for a couple of years." LeRoy kept his uncle informed about his hunting plans on office stationery that now listed seven partners in the law firm. He had begun to suffer periods of depression as a result of the tensions that sometimes arose in his law office. As Walker remembered, his father would not leave his problems in the office but would bring them home.