What makes a South Carolina writer?
Does that mean a writer who lives here, was born here, or made their name here?
The 128 writers who make up the new South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to South Carolina Writers, recently published by the University of South Carolina Press, have lived and worked all over the world, and some have dual residencies.
The novelist Ron Rash was raised in South Carolina, lives in North Carolina and writes about both. Dorothy Allison will forever be known for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, even if she now lives in California. Blanche McCrary Boyd lives in Connecticut, but the author of The Redneck Way of Knowledge has deep roots in Charleston.
In some cases, it works the other way.
The late James Dickey, born and raised in Georgia, was a nationally distinguished poet well before he became poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in 1968. But it was while he was here that he published his classic novel, Deliverance, and it is here he remained until his death in 1997. Walter Edgar, the Palmetto State’s leading historian, was born and raised in Alabama.
Janette Turner Hospital, known far and wide as both an Australian and Canadian author, was USC’s writer-in-residence from 1999 to 2010, and she still lives in Columbia.
“There are some writers in the book who are born in South Carolina, but then really spent most of their lives someplace else,” says editor Tom Mack. “They still may have written about that early experience, or set some book in South Carolina. Or those formative years in South Carolina informed their later work.”
What unites almost all of the figures in the book is that they were included in the original South Carolina Encyclopedia or were inducted into the S.C. Academy of Authors.
Many are obvious choices from both the present (Pat Conroy, Dori Sanders, Josephine Humphreys, William Price Fox, John Jakes, George Singleton, Elise Blackwell, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes) and the past (Civil War poet Henry Timrod, the diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut,
novelist DuBose Heyward — whose Porgy became the basis for the musical Porgy and Bess — and the mystery writer Mickey Spillane.)
Others, such as Dorothea Benton Frank and Mary Alice Monroe, made the cut simply because a lot of people read them.
“They had to be added because you just couldn’t ignore the popularity of writers like that, whose chronicles of the Lowcountry may be the only thing some contemporary readers know about our state,” Mack says.
Some entries are forgotten but fascinating names, with histories that suggest just how fleeting literary fame can be — and how it is often tied to history. The mid-19th century writer novelist, poet and historian William Gilmore Simms was once regarded as the Southern James Fenimore Cooper, Mack said. At a time when American literature was coming into its own, Edgar Allen Poe ranked Simms among the best fiction writers in the country.
Simms was also a staunch pro-slavery segregationist.
“He was so strongly associated with the defeated South, and particularly the planter class, that his national reputation suffered, during the war and after the war,” Mack says. “He never received the critical esteem on a national scale that he once had before the war.”
On the opposite side of the scale is Julia Peterkin, whose novel Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929.
Peterkin was ahead of her time: a white woman whose stories of black culture in the Jim Crow South were praised by Harlem Renaissance writers such as W. E. B. DuBois and Countee Cullen. But Peterkin eventually lost her footing in literary society, Mack says, as “more and more black writers gained their voices.”
Some writers are simply neglected, and may even be on the rebound. Mack points to the poet Gamel Woolsey, whom he considers one of the “hidden gems” of South Carolina literature. Born in Aiken in 1897, she not only wrote poetry, but also translated Spanish folk tales and wrote Malaga Burning, a first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War.
“I’m hoping that people will discover a lot of writers with whom they are not already familiar,” said Mack, “or they may want to consider adding works by those writers to their own personal reading list.”
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