Three distinct yet ultimately interconnected narratives and histories of one of America’s prettiest and most complex cities.
I don’t know that Charleston will ever escape the shadow of Fort Sumter, the legacy of the shots fired on that federal fortress in the city’s harbor on April 12th, 1861; those shots constituted the action that (by most historians’ accounts) truly inaugurated the Civil War, and while of course they were simply the culmination of a variety of other histories, they nonetheless stand alone as the defining moment that ushered in four of the most destructive and divisive years in the nation’s history. Nor is it coincidence that such a moment occurred in Charleston—South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the union, nearly three weeks before the second state (Mississippi) did so, and Charleston, perhaps the state’s most significant city, was thus one of the hotbeds of Confederate activity from the outset. If Charleston will indeed forever be associated with the outbreak of the war, that wouldn’t necessarily be out of line.
Yet to my mind, if we American Studiers are to identify a defining face for Charleston throughout those subsequent war years, it’s a pretty complex and compelling one: the face of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose wartime diary Mary Chesnut’s Civil War remains one of our literary history’s most singular and significant works. Chesnut’s book, in its multiple editions but most especially in the Pulitzer-winning version edited by C. Vann Woodward (and available at that link), reflects an intimate, evolving, self-reflective, contradictory, and never uninteresting version of the city (although Mary and her politically active husband moved to other Confederate sites during the war as well) and the period. Mary is not without her prejudices and limitations, of course, but she is also, as the diary consistently reveals, nothing less than a three-dimensional and vital American, someone whose voice and identity, perspective and experiences can greatly enhance our sense of our national histories and communities.
Compelling as Mary Chesnut was and remains, however, it’s two fictional Charlestonians whom I would nominate as the best faces to represent the city’s complex American histories and communities. Those two are Porgy and Bess, two African American residents of the fictional Catfish Row (based directly on the city’s Cabbage Row) in the early decades of the twentieth century; they were originally created by novelist DuBose Heyward in Porgy (1925), moved into a play of the same name two years later by Heyward and his wife Dorothy, and brought to international and lasting prominence in Heyward and George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). That latter work, which Gershwin famously called an American folk opera, could be said to have originated an entire new artistic genre, one that brought the lives and voices (in every sense) of its title characters and their community to the kind of heightened and epic status that opera always conveys. While it has been met with its share of critiques and controversy, and is certainly not without its racial stereotypes or limitations, the opera also foregrounds a side of Charleston and America that we would do well to locate at the heart of the city’s histories and stories.
So is Charleston Fort Sumter and those defining shots? Mary Sumter and her revealing diary? Porgy and Bess and their street and saga? Yup. Next city post tomorrow,
PS. Any cities you’d nominate for the final post? I’m open to suggestions!
2/23 Memory Day nominee: W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the subject of my (sadly lost) introductory blog post for many reasons that can be boiled down to this one: I believe him to be the single most impressive and inspiring American. Let’s just make it official: from now on my Hall will be known as the Du Bois Hall of American Inspiration.