Seed From Madagascar, first published in 1937 and now printed for the third time, is an agrarian memoir. Its author was one of the last rice planters of coastal Carolina, from a family who had been in the business for two centuries. Duncan Heyward details the methodology of rice planting as only one well acquainted with the crop could. The volume, however, is one of those literary treasures that transcend social and economic history: beautifully written, of interest to others than students of rice culture and the high civilization it produced. Heyward is our Marcus Cato of rice planting. He is eminently practical and writes in an appropriately clean, clear prose sharply edged by verisimilitude. But there is as much of Vergil’s Georgica in Seed From Madagascar as there is of Cato’s De Agricultura. The volume should be seen in the context of the great Low Country Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s, where it belongs with the paintings of Alice Huger Smith and Elizabeth Verner; the prose of Verner, Herbert Ravenel Sass, DuBose Heyward, Josephine Pinckney, and Julia Peterkin; the Preservation Society’s movement to protect and restore Charleston’s architectural heritage; and the formation of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, an institution that became a major stimulus to the literary Renaissance in the South as a whole.
The human drama of loss and dispossession is quietly played out before our eyes as we witness the destruction of an agrarian way of life, one that took over two centuries to create: we come to know this rice farmer who, with five generations of rice planters staring at him accusingly from their portraits on the walls, signs away his land to become an insurance salesman and stockbroker. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that Peter Coclanis’s introduction to the new edition is pedestrian in its concepts and superficial in its ideas. Coclanis fails to go beyond the narrowness of fashionable concerns to grasp the merits of a work that can stand in the company of great celebrations of life on the land.
For there is no mistaking that Heyward loved the soil he farmed and the crop he raised. “I know of no crop,” he wrote, “which in beauty can be compared with a crop of rice. In my dreams I still see the crops I used to grow, and when I am awake, I am conscious of the fact that my dreams failed to do them justice.” He could sympathize with his grandfather Charles Heyward’s feelings in the year 1865 half a century later: “Charles Heyward’s heart was yearning for Combahee, which he was destined never to see again.” In 1913, “when rice planting was ended on my plantations,” the same silence that Charles Heyward had encountered in 1865 “certainly got on my nerves. . . . Especially did it hurt me to see abandoned the lands which had been reclaimed by my people and planted by them for so many years.” Heyward recounts the habit of an old, rich planting friend, no doubt seeing himself in the man: “Each year at harvest time his family noticed that he hung on the wall of his house on the plantation a sheaf of rice, and removed the one he placed there the year before. Two years ago, when he died at a ripe old age, he requested his family to place the sheaf on his casket instead of flowers. He wanted the sheaf to go with him to the grave.” Perhaps only a farmer can truly understand Heyward’s love of the crop he planted, his bond to the land and the wav of life surrounding it, and the magnitude of his loss.
How peculiar that the introduction refers to the volume as an “oddly moving book.” Why should it be “odd” that the book is “moving”? Is it because Heyward’s father owned slaves? Or because Heward was a patrician Southerner? Or because he was a farmer? Beyond his failure to discern literary merit, Coclanis is unable to place Seed From Madagascar in the context of the Low Country Renaissance, as well as to recognize that what we have witnessed in these 250 pages is a full-blown tragedy. Heyward, himself, as Coclanis notes, considered his storv a “tragic one,” as did his old Gullah friend Judy, who wept when she heard that the Heywards no longer owned their old rice lands but had passed them to the DuPonts of Delaware to use as a hunting preserve—knowing as she did the traditions of the land that she and her people, black and white, had labored to “reclaim” and mold to provide life and human sustenance. Now all were leaving; the land was becoming “unsettled.” What would she do? She did not want to leave. The land had its associations for her, as it did for Heyward. Her people were buried there; so were his. She knew its rhythms and had lived in accordance with them. Displacement and dispossession: these are the twin burdens of the tragedy Coclanis denies. Heyward’s book, he asserts, is “an oft powerful lament, but not a tragedy true.”
This untrue tragedy involves the complete destruction of an agrarian wav of life. Heyward skillfully describes that life within the embrace of nature and all her moods. He shows its rootedness and the humility, reverence, and wisdom that such closeness to nature and nature’s God breeds through stories that reveal harmonies and continuities and a strong sense of place. In the course of the volume, this life reaches its end as the descendants of slaves and masters alike are left to confront not just “Ole Stephney,” as the Gullahs called the specter of hunger, but alienation, loss of community, loss of meaning and old agrarian values, urban existence, and “the cash-register evaluation of life,” as a noted modern historian has called it. Given Heyward’s acutely discerning understanding of these changes, one can see why, in selling the family land to outsiders who knew nothing of its traditions, he did indeed feel he was betraying his ancestors, who, Coclanis blithely assures us, given their “resourcefulness and ambition” would actually “have lauded rather than reproached him for the nimbleness he displayed in leaving agriculture.”
One soon catches the drift of his introduction, which begins by asserting that there were no genuine aristocracy and no real traditions in the South anyway, only myths and convenient fabrications and inventions. What was forfeited was of no real value, and if nothing is lost, where is the tragedy? We have seen this sort of reasoning before: it is, in fact, the cliched and regnant view in revisionist history today. Southerners, it seems, should be thankful for the torch that released them from a backward and outmoded way of living; they should be grateful for a liberating war against civilians, for a holocaust performed by a conquering army bent on subjugation, for short-term pillage and long-term economic exploitation. Heyward—evenly, calmly—makes such charges in a subtle and genteel manner, often through symbolism and allegory, while eschewing specific accusations.
So one is led to the inevitable question: What is Mr. Coclanis’s agenda and from whence comes the climate of thought that produces such introductions? Heyward and his “indecent world” are merely the latest in a long line of victims sacrificed by the sanctimonious modern. But there is no footwork that can dance us around the enormous truth that Heyward’s is the story, in little, of the destruction of the old America and many of its strongest values, of an agrarian way of life consciously created from the thinking of such Southerners as Washington, Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline, John Randolph of Roanoke, Calhoun, and the Heyward family itself, more than six generations of whom lived the very agrarian philosophy that created in large part the American experiment—a noble experiment that with the 20th century and the passing of private agriculture is on the verge of lapsing into a warmed-over version of European socialism. When Duncan Heyward exchanged his family lands of several centuries for the insurance agent’s pad and the stockbroker’s ticker tape, his tragedy was not just his own or the South’s, but the nation’s. “National Enormity” was not slavery; it was the total destruction of an agrarian way of life and an agrarian people—both white and black—who drew their being from it and were rightly distraught at losing it.
[Seed From Madagascar, by Duncan Clinch Heyward (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 312 pp., $21.95]