The United States were once precisely that, a union of unique and independent states—each making its own literary and intellectual contribution to the national experience. Of these states, none was so peculiar as South Carolina, and for much of its intellectual history, South Carolina was Charleston. In the generation before The War, Charleston was in the process of becoming something like a regional literary capital presided over by novelist William Gilmore Simms and the statesman and essayist Hugh Legare’, although the most enduring productions may be a few poems of Henry Timrod.
Despite the historical significance of the subject, Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston represents the first serious attempt to put the Charleston literary scene in focus. This well-conceived and carefully edited volume includes essays on Simms and Legare (although not Timrod), such 18th-century notables as David Ramsay and Charles Pinckney, as well as lesser figures like Christopher Memminger and the famous (in Charleston) wit. Judge Petigru. There are also general discussions of classicism in Charleston and the town-versus-country theme in women’s novels. The volume is worth having if only for a few very solid essays: Michael O’Brien’s forceful and lively treatment of Legare, Richard Lounsbury’s analysis of “Charlestonian intellectuals and their classics,” and David Moltke-Hansen’s lucid survey that serves as an introduction.
A few of the contributions, unfortunately, exhibit the signs of narrow specialization. Steven Stowe manages to convey the impression that the ancient conflict between town and country mice was invented in Charleston. (On this point he might have consulted either Lounsbury or Theodore Rosengarten, whose thorough discussion of “The Southern Agriculturalist” includes the observation, “The country’s distrust of the city is a very old tradition.”) He also engages in the deplorable “what if” generalizations so common among feminist social historians:
But the bonds of feeling and expression between women and men . . . were stretched thinner and more precariously across a deep misgiving about social life. It was a misgiving about whether the separate realms of the sexes, in dividing up social reality, splintered social reality.
As ever, slovenly syntax and mixed metaphor betray the confused mind. Fortunately, few of the contributors to this significant symposium are subject to fits of ideological posturing. For the most part, they are sound scholars who succeed in combining original research with the broader approach of intellectual history. If they have a fault, it is perhaps this: most of them (with the exception of Lacy Ford and Moltke-Hansen) seem to be writing from outside the Southern tradition rather than within it.
Alas for the South. . . . No one interested in American intellectual history can afford to neglect Charleston’s contribution now that so good a start has been made at exploring this unknown territory.
[Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, edited by Michael O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press) $45.00]