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]

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.  

Lee and the key figures in the War are indeed brought to life again in the histories written by Catton and by Percy’s friend Shelby Foote, for example. But one notices in Percy’s comments at the conclusion of this essay a certain ambivalence, a waffling if you will, about what was behind the fight: “Perhaps the War was really and truly fought over slavery. But the other case can be made too” (SSL, 76). Moreover, he notes, yeoman farmers who had no slaves did not fight for its preservation, and at least some in the South saw the War as “a continuation of the American Revolution” (Signposts, 76). Even if he tries to have it both ways here and there, Percy still cannot divest himself of his admiration for Lee.

In a related essay on the War published four years later, “Red, White, Blue-Gray” (1961), Percy asserts that the two main figures of the War were Lee and Lincoln. And, again, since most of the then current histories emphasize the fighting, General Lee, with his “very great personal qualities,” gets the lion’s share of attention. As a serious student of semiotics—the science of signs and meanings—one of Percy’s main concerns here is with what he calls the “destruction not only of armies and nations but of ideologies” (Signposts 80). By that he means the issues of states rights, the “southern way of life,” and the Confederate flag have been ruinously distorted and abused by some and that for them these concepts refer to nothing more than keeping schools segregated and blacks in their place generally. He is quick to add, that “Racism has no sectional monopoly” (Signposts 79), an observation likely to stick in the craw of our Yankee brothers and sisters who would prefer not to be reminded of their hypocrisy. But the problem is that while “The words and slogans may remain the same . . . they no longer mean the same thing” (79). While sad but true, it is also true for him that “When Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia laid down the Confederate flag in 1865, no flag had been defended by better men” (Signposts, 80).

When Shelby Foote sent him the Brady photograph of Lee with Walter H. Taylor at his left during the time that Foote was working on volume three of his Civil War history (1971), Percy responded in part as follows: “General Lee is beautiful and mean as hell. Looking at it and being looked at revives all the ambivalence of sonship.” [8] Despite the expression of mixed feelings here—which stems in part from his relationship with his own father, who committed suicide—he concludes that part of the note by averring, “Well, I would have fought for him.” One would be hard pressed to find a more direct expression of high regard for Lee than that.

It is instructive to compare Percy’s remarks here (and elsewhere for that matter) with those of Allen Tate in a 1931 letter he wrote to Andrew Lytle during the time Tate was working on his biography of Lee. In the course of it, Tate had developed a deeply conflictive attitude toward his subject. In this letter he takes Lee to task for his provincialism regarding states rights: “he valued his own honor more than the independence of the South.” (This is a view that Lytle apparently shared, as indicated in his review of Freeman’s biography; he alludes, in a rhetorical question, to “[Lee’s] refusal to demean his personal code to save the cause.”) [9]) Tate goes on, “Lee had a kind of egoism that yielded to no influence.” [10] Tate opines, “the longer I’ve contemplated the venerable features of Lee, the more I’ve hated him.” It was as if he had married a beautiful girl, he concludes, only to realize later that her beauty masked over disease and corruption (Lytle-Tate Letters, 46). Certainly, Percy clearly never arrived at such an impasse as did Tate in this instance, one that led to his abandoning the Lee project altogether.

We can generally take Percy’s comments about Lee in his essays and letters at face value, but when it comes to his fictional and quasi-fictional works, it is helpful, and perhaps necessary, to look at what he writes about Lee in the larger context of each work. A case in point is his novel Lancelot (1977).[11] The story centers on Lancelot Lamar, a Louisiana lawyer whose second wife’s infidelity was the occasion of both her daughter Lucy’s birth and the subsequent scheme by Lance to exact revenge. The story is told by Lance himself while in a mental institution where he is confined after murdering his wife and other characters. Accordingly, he is not an altogether reliable witness. That being said, Lance’s remarks on Lee are not compromised by what he has done and where he currently resides. For instance, he notes that in his father’s library there were books on the English Romantic poets, Southern history, and in particular biographies of Lee. He adds, “Robert E. Lee was his saint; he loved him the way Catholics love St. Francis. If the South were Catholic, we’d have long since had an order of St. Robert E. Lee.” [12] Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia became for his father—if not necessarily for Lancelot himself—the stuff of legend and myth comparable to King Arthur and the Round Table. As for Percy, it is clear at the very least that in both expository and fictional terms the name of Lee is certainly one to conjure with.

In another passage Lance speaks of the kind of men needed for the Third Revolution to be conducted against the various social corruptions and failings of the present day, a dubious enterprise as he describes it. Even so, the analogy he uses in describing them rings true. He allows that they will know each other in just the same way that Lee and Forrest—with all their social, cultural differences—would know each other if they met (even) “at a convention of used car dealers on Bourbon Street” (157). It is an order of men that to Lancelot’s mind includes also such figures as Richard the Lion Hearted, Agamemnon, Charlemagne, and Martel.

Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983) is a crazy-quilt mixture, among other things, of satire on the genre referenced in the subtitle, an exposition of the philosophy of semiotics, fiction, science fiction, multiple-choice questions, anecdotes, and so on.[13] In the midst of this hodge-podge, however, Percy’s admiration for Lee is readily apparent, if embedded in a strange context. In a send-up of the Phil Donahue show, that host (in Percy’s fictional version) has a number of historical figures appear on one program. Among them is John Pelham, Stuart’s legendary artillery officer, wearing “the full-dress uniform of a Confederate officer” (Lost 50). In a dig at Donahue, Percy presents him in a moment of confusion: “Okay already. Okay, who we got here? This is Moses? General Robert E. Lee? . . .” (Lost 51). Whatever one might make of Donahue here—it couldn’t be much—Percy clearly depicts Pelham in a positive light who, in turn, speaks of Lee with the greatest respect, linking him with Richard Coeur de Lion: “I would have fought for him, just as I fought for Lee and the South” (Lost 53).[14]

(Again, for Percy the figures of both Pelham and Lee possess a power that speaks volumes even if lost upon the likes of talk-show hosts.) Finally, as regards this work, one of the two children that the character Dr. Jane produced from her later pregnancies was named “Robert E. Lee Schuyler” (258).

In two late essays, Percy returns to the persona of Lee and his significance for Southern history and culture. In the first of these is “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic” (1984), he has only a brief reference to Lee, but it is telling. He cites James McBride Dabbs comment on the South’s alleged failure to “develop a full-fledged culture” (Signposts 182) due to its preoccupation with race and slavery. Whatever the merits of that thesis, the main point Percy makes about our subject is that since the South’s heroes were both political and military—not literary or artistic—it shouldn’t be surprising that its patron saint [was] a general, Robert E. Lee” (182). Note here that Lee is not singled out as one among many such figures. He is in a class by himself.

The last essay in this survey of Percy’s observations about Lee is entitled, “Why Are You Catholic?” (1990), in which the author in typical fashion playfully yet seriously addresses one last time the complex issue of his entry into the Catholic Church and some of the influences behind it. These he refers to variously as “Roman, Arthurian, Semitic, semiotic” and Alabamian (Signposts 313). Then after commenting upon a broad range of interrelated moral and theological issues, he turns to some of the heroic personages prominent in the South in which he grew up who were most important to him:

My first hero and the hero of the South for a hundred years was Richard I of Ivanhoe, who with his English knights in the First Crusade stormed the gates of Acre to rescue the holy places from the Infidel. But earlier than that, there was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. If one wished to depict the beau ideal of the South, it would not be the crucified Christ, but rather the stoic knight at parade rest, both hands folded on the hilt of his broadsword, his face grave and impassive as the Emperor’s. In the South, of course, he  (came to be, not the Emperor or Richard, but R.E. Lee, the two in one (Signposts 313).[15]

Here near the end of his life—he died in 1990—Percy once more pays homage to the General and does so directly, without irony, and with little qualification. Lee in brief represents for Percy both the stoic and chivalric traditions pervasive in the ante-bellum South, which Percy himself never completely abandoned, and the Christian tradition represented by Scott’s Richard. (We recall as well that early in his career Percy had referred to Thomas More, himself a knight, as the spiritual ancestor or Lee.) While Percy passes judgement here on the “bad” romanticism of Sir Walter Scott so prevalent in the South, he unapologetically acknowledges its influence on him personally: “how could it have been otherwise with me?” Moreover, by becoming Catholic—or by extension undergoing any major conversion—he acknowledges that one does not suddenly and totally cease being what one was before. In his case, one is still “Roman, Arthurian, Alabamian” (313) and, to expand just a bit, we might add Presbyterian and Mississippian as well. Most importantly for our purposes, one does not cease honoring Lee even though his reputation has undergone revision by those professional historians some of whom may be conditioned by a relativistic, post-modernist Zeitgeist more than they know or are willing to acknowledge. Nor does one do so despite one’s coming under the influence of many other literary, philosophical figures—Camus, Sartre, Marcel, Dostoevsky, Peirce, and so on—some of whom were antithetical to the values for which Lee stood.

Even with his playfulness, irony, political progressivism, and existential bent, Percy maintained especially at the end a view of Lee that is not so far removed from that of the totally unreconstructed Southerner Donald Davidson. In the conclusion to that author’s “Lee in the Mountains,” undoubtedly familiar to followers of this website, he alludes to the faith and love possessed by “all generations of the faithful heart.” Despite the marked differences of sensibility, style, and sentiment between Davidson and Percy, the latter is arguably closer to this poet in regard to Leethan he is to Tate in his role as the General’s abortive biographer. In his life and writing, both early and late, Walker Percy was himself a member of those faithful generations, one who, in his own unique way, discharged “a son’s devoir/To a lost father,” both his own and the paternal persona embodied in Robert Edward Lee.[16] Given the complex legacy that was his, could one fairly ask for more?

[1] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5-6. Wyatt-Brown argues here that the Percy’s of Birmingham—Walker’s father in particular, a corporate lawyer—saw themselves as representatives of the New South (4). Walker himself may best be seen, perhaps, as an amalgam of both the Old and the New South.

[2] See, for example, Thomas L. Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) and Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Reconsidered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[3] Patrick H. Samway, S.J., Walker Percy: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 270; Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 347-348.

[4] Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 78. 

[5] Walker Percy to Caroline Gordon, TS, 4 April 1952, Andrew Lytle Papers, MSS 267, Box 2, Folder 18, Special Collections and University Archives, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University. This is a letter sent to Gordon which she then retyped and sent to Andrew Lytle. See also Benjamin B. Alexander, ed. Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 46-48, where the letter is printed in full with some annotation.

[6] Walker Percy, “The American War,” Signposts in a Strange Land, ed. Patrick H. Samway, S.J., (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 72. Subsequent references to articles in this volume are cited parenthetically in the text.

[7] Richard M. Weaver, “Lee as Philosopher,” The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, edited by George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 172-173.

[8] Percy to Foote, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, ed. Jay Tolson (Durham, NC and New York: Doubletake/Norton, 1977), 156. Percy in his fiction dealt with the “ambivalence of sonship” regarding his own father in both The Last Gentleman (1966) and The Second Coming (1980). Given his father’s death by suicide, it is not hard to see why he was so preoccupied with his role as son and with the prospect of death itself.

[9] Andrew Lytle, “R.E. Lee,” in The Hero with the Private Parts: Essays by Andrew Lytle (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1966), 239.

[10] The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, ed. by Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), 46. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. Only a few years later, however, Tate praises his friend Donald Davidson’s poem, “Lee in the Mountains,” in a 1934 letter to the author, “as the finest you have ever written.” The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, ed. John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974), 290.

[11] Lancelot (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[12] In a related reference, Lancelot says to Percival (a priest friend and interlocutor): “You have your Sacred Heart. We have Lee” (157).

[13] Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983).

[14] We recall that Percy used almost identical language in his remark about Lee to Shelby Foote cited earlier.

[15] In the line about “the stoic knight at parade rest, both hands folded on the hilt of his broadsword,” Percy is making an oblique reference to a statue designed by Malvina Hoffman in honor of Sen. Leroy Percy, commissioned by his son, W. A. Percy (Walker’s elder cousin) located in the Greenville, MS cemetery where the family has a plot. See Wyatt-Brown, House of Percy, 3-4 and other scattered references. The accompanying photograph is by the author.

[16] The reader of this poem will recall the lines in which Lee meditates upon his own father’s unfortunate career and the painful, burdensome legacy that it left for the son who himself experienced what might be termed a tragic failure of another order. In Percy’s case, his legacy, for good and ill, derives from both Will Percy, his surrogate father, and his biological father.

About Thomas Hubert

Thomas H. Hubert, a native of Tennessee who grew up in Alabama, is a retired scholar, poet, and business person living in the Indianapolis area. He received a Ph. D. in English from the University of Georgia in 1975 with a concentration in American literature; his dissertation was on Allen Tate’s poetry. During the academic phase of his career, he taught at universities in the south and midwest. More from Thomas Hubert

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