“Ce sonts les modernes qui font des progies.
Nous sommes betes une fois pour toutes.”
This curious big book is an amalgam of left-wing scholarship and commercial panache. On the one hand, the author, a Harvard Ph.D. in American Civilization and a missionary to South Carolina, seems to have enjoyed extended foundation support during the production of this book, as well as a good deal of paid assistance in the drudgery of transcription and research. And his work has received respectful attention in both the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review.
On the other hand, a generous publisher has secured for Tombee a bookclub selection and has allowed the author an indulgent 750 pages to present the biography and diary of a relatively obscure and historically insignificant planter on the Sea Islands of the South Carolina coast. The chain bookstores, in my portion of the Union at least, were piled high with copies of Tombee for the Christmas trade, suggesting a hope of capitalizing on the century-and-a-half-old preoccupation of the American reading public with the Old South that made best-sellers out of Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus, “Marse Chan,” Gone With the Wind, and Roots.
Contained within these bulging covers are two potentially good books, each about a third the size of the artifact that exists. The author seems to have discovered, or rather to have had pointed out to him, the existence of an intimate journal of Thomas B. Chaplin, kept over a period of many years. Chaplin was a planter in the isolated region between St. Helena and Port Royal Sounds inhabited by a few dozen planter families and some thousands of slaves. Leave aside the fact that among those few white families were a number of remarkable men (and women), Elliotts, Rhetts, Seabrooks, and others, of whom Chaplin was probably the least interesting. Leave aside the fact that there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of other planter diaries in existence that are equally or more important than Chaplin’s. (One sometimes gets the sense that this one has assumed immense importance among the intelligentsia of the Northeast because it was the one read by someone from Harvard.) Leave aside the fact that there are certainly dozens of scholars equally qualified to present this material to the reading public as Mr. Rosengarten. Still, Chaplin’s diary is an extended, intimate, and candid record of real life in a vanished part of America. And it is always good to have historical sources made readily available. Thus, the publication of Chaplin’s diary, appropriately introduced and annotated, would have been a valuable scholarly contribution.
Unfortunately, while it remains valuable, the value is compromised by the author’s statement that he cut out a third of the original material. While he describes in several pages himself going about constructing the “published diary” out of the original, his discussion of his editorial procedures is so subjective that he never really meets the basic scholarly requirement of indicating fully the nature of the omitted material.
On the other hand, one might have made use of the diary and other sources and written an interesting short biography of Chaplin, which would have been more useful than the author’s decision to present both an abridged diary and an overextended biography. Like most of his neighbors, Chaplin was an able sportsman and Confederate soldier. Unlike most of his neighbors, he was not a successful agriculturalist. His fortunes declined even before the war and he engaged in a protracted tedious litigation with his stepfather. After the war, like many other 19th-century Americans who lacked nonaddictive pain-killers, he became a dope fiend, which perhaps explains part of his presumed appeal to the contemporary reading public. One might argue that some of his more significant neighbors would have made a better study, should one want to examine in depth the society of the Sea Islands, which was somewhat peculiar by Southern or even by South Carolina standards. But there is a great historical value in studying the more ordinary level in any situation, and I have no quarrel with the selection of subject. Rosengarten’s approach is in the familiar genre of the psychosocial, by which we have learned that beneath their stern exteriors our 19th-century forefathers were quite often as human (i.e., screwed up) as we are. That is fine and well worth knowing, so long as it is kept in perspective with other historical considerations.
A good deal of value and interest emerges from the biographical treatment. Its flaws are two. First, there is no true historical perspective. The reader never quite escapes from the awareness that he is being lectured by a superior modern observer on the political, social, moral, and character shortcomings of other men of another day and place. Though his actions and comments are described fully, one will never understand, from this source alone, what made Chaplin tick. His political beliefs, for instance, are never made meaningful because the author cannot really believe that they were real, serious, inherited, and rational in Chaplin’s world and not just a smoke screen to fool observers.
Secondly, the author felt impelled to frame his biography with an extended and digressive history of the Sea Island region and of South Carolina from early colonial times through Reconstruction. Where first-rate secondary sources exist, as for the Reconstruction period, this is fairly successful. On the whole, it is not. John C. Calhoun dies in the wrong month. Robert Barnwell Rhett, foremost of the fire-eaters, is described as a “provincial.” Rhett was a Southern nationalist, and Rosengarten is free to disapprove of him; however, he was not a “provincial,” as any rudimentary perusal of his correspondence or career will indicate. To characterize a complicated historical figure in this way is little more than sloganeering. At another level the author tells us, “On the eve of secession, the great majority of white people in South Carolina did not own any slaves.” From this statement he proceeds to an extended discussion of the beliefs and motives of the nonslaveholding farmers, about whom he surely knows less than I know about Paraguayans. But the whole discussion is pointless. The most salient fact about antebellum South Carolina was that nearly onehalf of the body of citizens were slaveowners and that, unlike any other American state, there was no “great majority” of nonslaveholding farmers.
Such missteps are trivial taken alone, but cumulatively they suggest a level of historianship somewhat lower than Tombee aspires to. Should you wish to learn something about the Sea Island planters, let me suggest you pass up Tombee and turn to a book by one of their number that is a classic expression of their spirit—Carolina Sports by Land and Water (1846) by William Elliott, which is a good deal more than its title suggests. Or you might turn to the letters of the Jones family from the adjacent region of Georgia, letters published a few years ago as The Children of Pride. Should you want the larger history of the Sea Islands, look at Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction (1964), where it is concisely and reliably presented by a master historian. And the black experience is beautifully rendered in Charles W. Joyner’s Down by the Riverside (1984), which concentrates on another but similar region of the South Carolina Low Country.
There is little in Tombee that the specialist cannot find more reliably elsewhere. Nevertheless, the book has already achieved the critical acclaim which it sought and which was doubtless fore-ordained. I am not apprised of the degree of its commercial success. Presumably, there are still some thousands of “general readers” tucked away in odd corners across that great forest of satellite dishes that make up American culture. But, I suspect, Tombee will prove a bit too heavy and too cynical for them, and too bulky for the Hilton Head tourist trade.
[Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter, by Theodore Rosengarten (New York: William Morrow) $24.95]