Thursday, April 1, 2010

Walking in Southern Literature

I recently spent 5 days vacationing in Charleston South Carolina, a city straight from the history books. I walked the same streets as Civil War soldiers, sat on the same porches as Southern belles and climbed the same stairs as plantation slaves. I've visited many a Southern city but exploring Charleston was a completely unique experience.

Where New Orleans haunts me and Savannah appeals to my European sensibilities, Charleston was full of charm and beauty like a city trapped in a snow globe. I toured half a dozen historic homes, spent a day at one of the South's last operating plantations and listened to hours of stories from tour guides. Charlestonians hold on to their history more than almost anywhere else I've been in the world. They actively talk about "The War of Northern Aggression", can recite 200 years of family marriages and burials and live in homes where they still fly the flag of South Carolina secession. On my final morning in Charleston I visited the Aiken-Rhett House a mansion built in 1820 that a historic foundation decided to preserve instead of restore. The drawing room wall paper, crystal chandeliers and paintings on the walls have been hanging in the same rooms for 150 years. I wandered through the slave quarters, viewed the family's carriages and sat under the same magnolia trees that have bloomed for centuries. Visiting Charleston was like stepping back in time or at least into Southern literature.

Charleston has inspired authors for generations including Margaret Mitchell, Pat Conroy, Nathalie Dupree, Jack Bass, Alexandra Ripley and John Jakes. Margaret Mitchell's knowledge of the city's more famous residents featured considerably in her creation of one of her most beloved characters. A real Charleston blockade runner named George Trenholm is considered the inspiration for Rhett Butler and guides at the Aiken-Rhett house will tell you that Mitchell was familiar with the real Rhett family descendants. For today's authors Pat Conroy is probably the most famous writer of Charlestonians. His latest book South of Broad is a New York Times bestseller about a group of friends in Charleston between 1969 and 1989. The title refers to an area in Charleston south of Broad Street, (see picture above) a wealthy historic district that stretches from Broad to the Battery, a waterfront park. The neighborhood is full of grand old homes with secret gardens, Spanish moss draped oak trees, stunning architecture and breezy piazzas where residents watched the start of the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter. As you visit these locations, you can't help but be inspired by the living history as so many writers have been.

Now that I am home in the Midwest I am already missing the smell of magnolias, the slower pace of life and the glimpse of history in every home, on every street, in every garden and graveyard. I'm also interested in reading more about Low Country history and not the romanticized view of the privileged plantation generations built on slave labor, but the Gullah history and heritage. I purchased my first Jonathan Green artwork and tasted delicious South Carolina recipes, beers and wines and am looking forward to reading more about the things I experienced.

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