Book Review: Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee reads like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I have not read), with the first twelve chapters resembling an innocent rhapsody and the latter fifteen a world-weary dirge. The turning point comes with Percy’s father’s involvement in politics in 1910-12, with World War One, conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 making any return to Innocence impossible. Adding a jarring element to the chapters on Experience is Percy’s rather defensive discourse on race relations.

(As for the supposedly unique traits of a certain subset of the Mississippi population, listed in the aforesaid discourse, I find them to be rather universal. For example:

The last time I saw Mims I asked him how he and his wife were getting along. He poked out his mouth: ‘Pretty good, pretty good, I reckon. Cose I always goes up the front steps whistlin’.’

I praised his cheerfulness.

‘That ain’t it, Mr. Will. I want to give anybody what’s in the house and don’t belong there time to git out the back way. You know I never did like no rookus.’ [pp. 301-302]

The same principle is outlined by Fielding:

It hath been a custom long established in the polite world, and that upon very solid and substantial reasons, that a husband shall never enter his wife’s apartment without first knocking at the door. The many excellent uses of this custom need scarce be hinted to a reader who hath any knowledge of the world; for by this means the lady hath time to adjust herself, or to remove any disagreeable object out of the way; for there are some situations in which nice and delicate women would not be discovered by their husbands. [Tom Jones, X/ii])

I liked the first part, concerning Innocence, much better. It’s amazing that Percy, writing at the experienced age of fifty-five, is able to recreate so pristinely the intoxicating wondrousness of his youth:

To climb an aspen sapling in a gale is one of those ultimate experiences, like experiencing God or love, that you need never try to remember because you can never forget. Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in still weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell. The trees around you will thrash and seethe, their white undersides lashed about like surf, and sea-music racing through them. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane; you will know what it is to have leaves sprout from your toes and finger-tips, with satyrs and tigers and hounds in pursuit; you will never again need to drown under the crash of a maned wave in spume and splendor and thunder, with the white stallions of the sea around you, neighing and pawing. (p. 55)

While looking back, again, with a seamless fidelity to youthful feeling, on how he expanded his consciousness in youthful Arcadia (meaning the liberal arts), Percy is conscious, with the advantage of hindsight, of Arcadia’s true meaning:

Neither from experience nor observation can I quite say what they learn in their Arcadia, though they gad about freely with books and pads. Indeed, many of them attempt to assume a studious air by wearing black Oxford gowns. In this they are not wholly successful, for, no matter how new, the gowns always manage to be torn and insist on hanging from the supple shoulders with something of a dionysiac abandon. Further, even the most bookish are given to pursuing their studies out under the trees. To lie under a tree on your back, overhead a blue and green and gold pattern meddled with by the idlest of breezes, is not – despite the admirable example of Mr. Newton – conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. Flat on your stomach and propped on both elbows, you will inevitably keel and end by doting on the tint of the far shadows, or, worse, by slipping into those delightful oscillations of consciousness known as cat-naps. I cannot therefore commend them for erudition. So it is all the more surprising that in after years the world esteems many of them learned or powerful or godly, and that not infrequently they have been the chosen servitors of the destinies. Yet what they do or know is always less than what they are. Once one of them appeared on the first page of the newspapers because he had climbed with amazing pluck and calculated foolhardiness a hitherto unconquered mountain peak, an Indian boy his only companion. But what we who loved him like best to recall about that exploit is an inch cube of a book he carried along with him and read through – for the hundredth time, likely – before the climb was completed. It was Hamlet. Another is immortal for cleansing the world of yellow fever, but the ignorant half-breeds among whom he worked remember him now only for his gentleness, his directness without bluntness, his courtesy, which robbed obedience of all humiliation. Still others I understand have amassed fortunes and – to use a word much reverenced by my temporal co-tenants – succeeded. That success I suspect was in spite of their sojourn in our greenwoods. The Arcadians learn here – and that is why I am having such difficulty telling you these things – the imponderables. Ears slightly more pointed and tawny-furred, a bit of leafiness somewhere in the eyes, a manner vaguely Apriline – such attributes though unmistakable are not to be described. When the Arcadians are fools, as they sometimes are, you do not deplore their stupidity, and when they are brilliant you do not resent their intellectuality. The reason is, their manners – the kind not learned or instilled but happening, the core being sweet – are far realer than their other qualities. Socrates and Jesus and St. Francis and Sir Philip Sidney and Lovelace and Stevenson had charm; the Arcadians are of that lineage. (pp. 100-101)

Apparently, Percy is drawn to trees, especially the familiar species of his youth, and when among them, he is drawn to the second person! However, when among scenes of foreign beauty, as on his year abroad, the familiar second person is beyond his reach, and thus he discovers a superlative form of loneliness. (This is a real 於我心有戚戚焉 for me, who discovered loneliness on the coastal highways and in the art museums of remote realms, desperately missing a sharer or co-appreciator of all the beauty I found):

At the sight or sound of something unbearably beautiful, I wanted desperately to share it. I wanted with me everyone I’d ever cared for – and someone else besides. (p. 112)

There are racist words in this book, so don’t read it.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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