STATE OF THE HEART: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love. Edited by Aida Rogers. University of South Carolina Press. 223 pages. $39.95.
The inscription on the grave of Ben Robertson (1903-43), one of South Carolina’s ablest writers, reads, “I rest in thy bosom, Carolina. Thy earth and thy air around and about me. In my own country, among my own, I sleep.”
Robertson was one among many writers who, throughout South Carolina’s literary history, were moved to take pen in hand and expound on the glories of their particular section of the state.
This collection of 37 essays by notable con-temporary Palmetto State writers offers a variety of perspectives on the cultural, built and natural environment from the mountains to the sea.
Many essays bemoan the loss of the landscapes of the writers’ youth: free flowing, unrestrained streams, farmsteads, once vibrant with the activities of planting and harvest, and old neighborhoods now transformed by development.
Woven into the passages of longing are word pictures illustrating the writer’s deep-felt kinship with the land and the rhythms of seasonal passages. The patches of land ranged from small city lots to hundreds of acres, from private holdings to public lands.
There are also memories of family events and friendship associated with the broad palate of South Carolina’s varied landscape. One moving essay by Ceille Baird Welch delightfully describes the mother-daughter time spent on their trips from Moncks Corner to the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston during the theater season.
Cecile S. Holmes writes about her family’s acquisition of a beach house on the Isle of Palms, and the rides from Columbia with her father and the central role they played in some of the more pleasant memories of her life.
Clair DeLune writes convincingly about her attachment to Columbia after years of moving about with her military family. Never before has Five Points been described so fondly.
Other essays reminisce about special places with historical significance or unusual scenic values.
Steve Hoffius writes movingly about South Carolina’s Acropolis, the Sheldon Church ruins, which he describes as a “Spiritual Sanctuary.” John Cely takes the reader on an informative exploration of the Congaree National Park. And, Billy Baldwin shares his experiences of working on the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
There are some very unusual essays: the energetic portrayal of Nick Lindsay’s employment on the Savannah River “Bum” plant and Dinah Johnson’s observations on the state of the societal divide. Lindsay uses his skills as a poet to shape a colorful story with great narrative drive. Johnson describes her coming to terms with the memories of the city she cares about and competing memories of difficult cultural issues.
Lindsay, despite the overall strength of his piece, may use a little too much poetic license in the course of his description of the 1934 massacre at the Chiquola Textile Mill in Honea Path. He writes that seven workers were killed and one woman was wounded when fired upon while at their company picnic and further stating that uncles and nephews had shot “unarmed aunties and little cousins.”
Seven people were killed and some 20 wounded by gunfire, including one woman, however they were picketing, not picnicking. The record of the event does not indicate “aunties or cousins” among the casualties. This was too important an event, not to get it right.
Some of the writers are “Comyahs” and some are “Binyahs.” Regardless of tenure, all writers in this anthology have something important to say about their little piece of Palmetto landscape and their thoughts on why this or that place occupies a place in their memory.
The editor, Aida Rogers, has done commendable work in collecting these pieces and they show a remarkable cross-section of what is worthy of commentary about South Carolina.
Reviewer Ben Moise is a retired game warden and author who lives in Charleston.