SOJOURNS IN CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, 1865-1947. Edited by Jennie Holton Fant. University of South Carolina Press. 366 pages. $35.
The Holy City was a favored destination of visitors, and writers, long before travel magazines anointed it as such. Jennie Holton Fant's anthology “Sojourns in Charleston” amplifies the fact in an arresting collections of narratives about the city during the period 1865-1947.
The new book broadens the themes Fant introduced in her previous volume, “The Travelers' Charleston: Accounts of Charleston and Lowcountry, South Carolina, 1666-1861,” again featuring the writing of a diverse group of journalists, travelers and tourists whose observations, good and bad, still resonate.
Fant says her aim was to locate in these accounts a kind of “palimpsestic” truth, and she largely succeeds. If these accounts are sometimes uneven in interest and acumen, it has everything to do with the relative skills (in perceptiveness, writing ability, depth of understanding, etc.) and attitudes of those whose work Fant has chosen to include. Yet even the weaker entries have value.
The strengths of the book are many. Her introductory essay sets the stage quite effectively, and whets the appetite for what is to come. Attention to detail is evident throughout, especially in Fant's brief yet comprehensive biographies of each writer, including such luminaries as William Dean Howells, May Sarton and Norman Rockwell. Even natives and long-time residents will find surprises here, not least in many of the book's startling facts or connections.
There is admirable cohesion in how Fant conveys the northern (and European) descent into the Charleston area that occurred “concurrent to the creation of a mythology from the past, envisaged by the descendants of old Charleston families.” There are also vivid contrasts in how many visiting writers defended (or tolerated) that mythology — tending to extol the gentility of the Charleston aristocracy — with a far fewer number who deliciously, sometimes viciously, debunked it.
While one understands the academic necessity for footnotes and attributions, they are so numerous and involved that they occasionally disrupt the flow of the book and add greatly to its length. That said, many are invaluable in clarifying material in the text.
Fant, a former Charleston resident, has done an impeccable job, providing an education on a century of Charleston history as seen by outsiders.