Literary Charleston

Charleston Skyline

Wherever you live, it’s a good bet your heart has been in Charleston, South Carolina, over these past few days. And whether you have personal ties to the city or you only visited that one summer years ago, there’s no denying it is a unique and complex place.

Because we’re book people and because we’ve been talking a lot about Charleston in the Bas Bleu office this week, we’ve drawn up a short (and not at all comprehensive) list of some of the writers who have—for better or for worse—immortalized the coastal city and the surrounding Lowcountry in their writings. Some of these authors are life-long Charlestonians; others are transplants “from off” (as the locals say) who succumbed to the Holy City’s charms. All reflect the powerful storytelling tradition that is a hallmark of Southern literature, and many incorporate the creole language and culture of the region’s Gullah people.

Scarlet Sister MaryJulia Peterkin: A South Carolina schoolteacher who married a planter, Peterkin began writing short stories inspired by daily life on her plantation, Lang Syne. She corresponded with Carl Sandburg and H. L. Mencken, who would eventually become her literary agent, and earned praise from Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and other black intellectuals for her writings’ depiction of black culture free of popular racist stereotypes. Like many white children of her generation, Peterkin was raised by a Gullah-speaking nurse and once wrote, “I learned to speak Gullah before I learned to speak English.” Her novels Green Thursday (1924), Black April (1927), and Scarlet Sister Mary (1929) are known for their dynamic characters, and Scarlet Sister Mary, despite being banned as obscene in some corners of South Carolina, was awarded the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.

Edgar Allan Poe: During his short stint with the U.S. Army, Poe was posted to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island just up the coast from downtown Charleston. The island would later serve as the setting for The Gold Bug, Poe’s award-winning 1843 short story about buried treasure, madness, and cryptography, a tale recognized today as both an early form of detective writing and an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Invention of WingsSue Monk Kidd: Set in South Carolina at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, Kidd’s debut novel The Secret Life of Bees centers on a young white girl and her family’s black housekeeper, who join forces to escape a violent home and find refuge with a family of beekeepers. Kidd’s most recent novel, The Invention of Wings, cleaves to South Carolina history with its fictionalized account of the life of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sarah Grimké.

John Bennett: Though born in Ohio, illustrator and author John Bennett moved to Charleston in 1902 as a young man, riding high on the success of his bestselling children’s book Master Skylark. Bennett became enchanted by Charleston’s history, architecture, and in particular the language and culture of the city’s African-American residents, whose stories and folklore he carefully recorded. He drew on that Gullah culture to write his Faustian Madame Margot and a spooky collection of folktales called The Doctor to the Dead. In later life poor health isolated him from the Charleston literary scene, but he continued to be beloved by local children who clamored for his wonderful stories.

Josephine Pinckney: Descended from one of the Lowcountry’s most powerful planter families, the Charleston-born Pinckney eschewed her family’s expectations of traditional femininity (read: marriage) and instead established herself as a poet and woman of letters. She helped to cofound the Poetry Society of South Carolina in 1920 before turning to fiction during the 1930s, seeking to create Southern literature free of sentimentality and romanticism. Her second novel, the social comedy Three O’Clock Dinner (1945)—about a genteel Charleston family whose son brings home a working-class bride—helped to make her one of the most well-known female writers of her time.

Country BunnyDuBose Heyward: As a descendent of Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, DuBose Heyward’s Charleston roots run deep. In 1925, he published Porgy, a novel about a crippled beggar living on Charleston’s Catfish Row and loving the beautiful Bess. Porgy was adapted to the stage by Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, in 1927 and eventually transformed into an opera by George and Ira Gershwin, with many of the lyrics written by Heyward himself. But perhaps even more enduring is his literary endeavor for younger readers: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. In 1939, Heyward finally wrote down the Easter story he’d been telling his daughter Jenifer (and that his mother had told him) for years, about a brave female bunny who, despite being told by the boy bunnies to stay home and take care of her babies, bests them all to become an elite Easter Bunny. In more than seventy years, this wonderful children’s classic has never gone out of print.

Josephine Humphreys: This Guggenheim Fellowship-winning daughter of Charleston once wrote that the Holy City is “a town that’s rife with contradictions, a difficult past in constant need of retelling, and real characters.” And Humphreys has more than done her part by chronicling those characters, conflicts, and contradictions in her four novels: Dreams of Sleep, The Fireman’s Fair, Nowhere Else on Earth, and the coming-of-age novel Rich in Love.

SouthOfBroadPat Conroy: Perhaps the most well-known of South Carolina’s contemporary writers, Conroy is technically “from off,” born in Georgia to a Northern fighter-pilot father and a Southern mother. His experiences as a military brat in South Carolina provided ample fodder for his novels: The Great Santini is set in Beaufort, South Carolina; his alma mater The Citadel, the Miltary College of South Carolina, in Charleston is the setting for The Lords of Discipline; and the year he spent teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island is chronicled in his biographical novel, The Water is Wide. Beach Music, The Prince of Tides, and South of Broad are also set in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where Conroy and his wife, novelist Cassandra King, live today.

(Disclaimer: While several of these authors’ depictions of African-Americans were considered progressive at the time, modern readers may disagree.)

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