How did the famous New York sculptor Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966), wind up with close ties to the far away Mississippi Delta? In the early 20th century, many great southern writers liked to hang out at the home and garden of Greenville, Mississippi native William Alexander Percy. His was the arts and letters salon of the region. In the August/ September issue of Delta Magazine writer Hank Burdine calls Percy “… a poet, planter, lawyer and world traveler. He was a mentor host and friend to artists and intellectuals and even a few vagabonds and bohemians. William Faulkner, Ben Wasson, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, Shelby Foote Stephen Vicente Benet, Langston Hughes and the Hodding Carters were a part of Percy’s close circle of friends.”
We know what happened when these great southern minds came together, great writing prevailed. But how did sculptor Malvina Hoffman fit into their story? Her world was Auguste Rodin, Anna Pavlova, Paris, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, not the Mississippi Delta.
The well-traveled William Percy came to New York to meet Hoffman in February 1930. He wanted to create a bronze for his father, Senator Leroy Percy’s grave site and he only wanted the best. His artist sensibilities knew his father was worthy of this honor. Hoffman and Percy connected, as artists of the same mindset often do. He visited her studio, and to the tune of $13,000, Percy commissioned Hoffman to create The Patriot. In today’s dollars, almost half a million, a fortune.
As the months passed, the two began to write letters to one another. When Percy wrote to Hoffman, he wrote as a poet about his beloved southern town, “I wish you could see our country now. It is lovely with the Judas trees in bloom and the weeping willows that look like fountains.”
Hoffman came to Greenville in the summer of 1930 to complete the commission. The heat was wilting for the Yankee, but she prevailed. Together, she and Percy picked out the landscaping, which still stands today. She also became acquainted with the great southern writers of the day at Percy’s home. They felt a kindred spirit in the sculptor and she was drawn to their great intellectual banter and talent. Throughout the years Percy kept in touch and later, he insisted his Greenville friend, sculptor Leon Koury move to New York and immerse himself in Malvina Hoffman. Koury did just that and Hoffman shared with him the wisdom passed down to her from her teacher, Auguste Rodin.
When you visit The Patriot in the Greenville, Mississippi cemetery, look beyond the incredible bronze statue, one that Percy called the greatest gift in his life. There is so much more to the story than a great tribute to a local hero. It’s the story of a man, William Percy who shared his love of arts and letters in a small town, in the very deep south. This sanctuary for the intellectuals of the time gave rise to many of our great literary heroes today, heroes who accepted Malvina Hoffman as a member of their club.