Locals, visitors populate ‘Literary Charleston’

Dr. Curtis Worthington, editor of “Literary Charleston.”

The representation of a place in fiction, especially one as alluring as Charleston, can be in marked contrast to the reality of that place. Or it may reflect the essence of an environs with uncanny accuracy.

In composing the anthology “Literary Charleston & the Lowcountry” (Trinity University Press), its editor, Dr. Curtis Worthington, used this dichotomy as a touchstone in selecting what works to include.

“Though it may sound a little romantic, I’m a great believer in looking to that imaginative vision of whatever subject you’re dealing with, in this case a geographic place,” says Worthington, a local neurosurgeon, writer, singer and actor.

“This collection is not meant to be documentary. Instead, you have a kind of vision of what Charleston and the Lowcountry are all about — in their very best aspects.”

The literary luminaries populating the anthology are a who’s who of distinguished locals and captivated, occasionally skeptical, visitors.

Among the 34 authors whose work is harbored here are Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, DuBose Heyward, William Bartram, Amy Lowell, William Gilmore Simms, Shelby Foote, Josephine Pinckney, Walker Percy, James Dickey and Andy Warhol, as well as such contemporary writers as Pat Conroy, Harlan Greene, Josephine Humphreys and Padgett Powell.

“Visitors to Charleston — and today they arrive in throngs ... all year around — will enjoy matching up what others have made of the place with their own responses,” says author and native Charlestonian Louis D. Rubin Jr., founding editor of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and a contributor to the new book.

“Residents and ex-residents will experience the thrill of watching what is local and familiar take on the intensity and strangeness of the artistic image.”

For Worthington, the book is in some respects an expansion of his 1996 collection “Literary Charleston: A Lowcountry Reader.”

“You’re never quite satisfied with the work you’ve done in the past and I wanted to go back and make it better,” he says. “I believe this new book is the more interesting and readable anthology.

“In my various travels, I’ve seen literary anthologies of a number of different places and one that impressed me in particular was a compilation of essays, stories and poems that really captured Key West, from the 18th century to modern times. I thought it would be a great idea to do this for Charleston.”

Worthington wanted to offer readers an anthology with meat on its bones, not an exercise in moonlight and magnolias. Yet, he also employed feedback on his first collection to excise or modify some of the more “dense and ponderous” pieces that were difficult to read.

“The first time around, it was a kind of literary snob’s view of it all, and I felt the only things we should put in it were what professors would judge to be good literature,” says Worthington, who will sign copies of his book at 3 p.m. Monday at the Charleston Library Society, a Piccolo Spoleto special event. “This time, not necessarily.

“For example, there’s the passage from ‘The Trembling of a Leaf’ by Robert Marks, who was a very respected writer of nonfiction before he came to Charleston and decided to write all those soft-core porn novels (under the nom de plume John Colleton). Yet he is still part and parcel of Charleston.”

Worthington also points to an essay on Charleston by author and screenwriter William Goldman, published in Esquire in 1977 just as the Spoleto Festival was set to debut.

“Goldman felt that one of the most problematic things about Charleston at the time was that you have this beautifully preserved physical place, historic and aesthetic, but very little in the way of any cultural accomplishment in that time, or in the foreseeable past.

“He viewed the coming of Spoleto as something that might catalyze the community and produce a new renaissance in the arts — or fall flat. Fortunately, it went in the former direction.”

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.