Charleston, South Carolina -- Pat Conroy, the novelist whose every book from his first major work, The Water Is Wide, to his most recent, The Lords of Discipline, has been made into a successful movie, admits to fea long love affair" with the city of Charleston.
For anyone who knows his work, which is permeated with the sights and smells of the Carolina low country and which constantly celebrates the beauty of its great port city, the admission is superfluous. Clearly, the affair has not been all rapture. It is not that Conroy's love is unrequited. His books sell well, are prominently and proudly displayed in the local book shops, and the controversy that arose over his novel based on his years as a cadet at The Citadel, swirled around the film, not his book. Yet Charleston has not taken him to her heart. He is not one of them and he minds terribly. This has led him to aver:
"Charleston has the look of a city where art should erupt in uncontrollable torrents; a city where poets should grow as naturally and abundantly as azaleas, with an arsenal of imagery almost Byzantine in excess. But that is not how Charleston works. . . . The city demands valentines from its artists."
Conroy is perhaps a little hard on the town. For Charleston is not now and never has been a Sahara of the beaux arts. In fact, it is currently basking in the golden glow of a literary renaissance. Last month, Josephine Humphreys was awarded the $7,500 Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for her first novel, Dreams of Sleep, published in 1984.
The novel is hardly a valentine to Charleston. It deals with two of the many worlds that make up the city, and its gripping intensity stems from the tension between those two worlds. It has nothing to do with the myths, legends and snobbish conceits associated with the people in the magic kingdom south of Broad Street -- that posh neighborhood of palmettos and antebellum mansions facing the sea. In Humphreys' words she has "no lead into all that" (although she does come from an old Charleston family).
Humphreys, who has described herself as being "as conservative in my way of living as any writer I know: station wagon, car pool, Cub Scout pack leader," also believes that "Charleston is becoming an exciting place for writers. I know I grew up thinking that traditionally this was a literary city; but I never knew any writers until I published this book." Just back from the presentation of the award in New York, she found it "fun to be with thousands of writers and book people; but I could never live with this constantly."
Humphreys' accolade came hard on the heels of another critically acclaimed first novel by a Charleston author. Padell, who graduated from the College of Charleston, was nominated for the 1984 American Book Award for the best first novel for Edisto. Powell is temporarily back in Charleston, working on his second book, although he now teaches fiction writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Harlan Greene, archivist for the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, set his novel Why We Never Danced the Charleston (1984) in the 1920s, when another literary triumvirate -- formed by DuBose Heyward, Josephine Pickney and John Bennet -- found Charleston was a good place for writers. Greene, whose book is coming out in Penguin paperback in the fall, says research for his novel led him to the conclusion that the 1920s were fertile fields for Southern writing. "I wonder whether the same thing is happening now," he says.
THE CITY has always been a home to writers, and Charlestonians have always treated them as ordinary people doing a normal job. Frank B. Gilbreth, who came to live in Charleston in 1934 a a $30-a-week reporter for The Charleston Evening Post, is the author or co-author of 10 books, including the legendary best seller Cheaper By the Dozen, which he wrote with Ernestine G. Carey. He says that Charleston is a "good place for writers and anybody else who wants to be creative. There's an atmosphere here without much disturbance." He also feels that, "We have become again -- as we were in the early days -- a center of art and culture. More and more talented people are moving here."
The city's established writers offer, unsolicited, enthusiastic testimonials to the city's charms. Patricia Colbert-Robinson, 62, has written 10 plays, most of them produced at the city's Dock Street Theater, and three novels -- Octavia, A Clearing in the Fog and Savage Summer. The novels were written in collaboration with Nancy Stevenson, who went into politics and became the state's first woman lieutenant governor. Says Colbert-Robinson, "I always wanted to write for the people here, not elsewhere. I enjoy writing for the same reason I enjoy living here -- the kindliness, good manners and grace of the people, the beauty of the town. In Charleston you still find abiding individualism, continuity and an understanding of tragedy and a wonderful antic kind of humor."
One of those abiding individualists is Charleston's most unusual writer, Robert Marks. Under the nom de plume of John Colleton, Marks has written a series of erotic novels, all set in Charleston and most published in paperback by NAL. The first of his stories about 1,001 nights in the Holy City (as Charlestonians call their town in gentle and protective self mockery) was called The Trembling of the Leaf. Later came The Seduction of Mariana and, more recently, On or About the First Day in June. June is a luscious young Charleston belle.
Marks, a PhD who had written some 30 books on subjects ranging from hypnotism to Buckminster Fuller before he essayed titillation for the masses -- selling millions of copies and, by his own admission, making a substantial fortune out of it -- is a highly respected and appreciated member of the Charleston community if not, perhaps, of Charleston "society." He is known for his generosity as a patron of the arts and as a man who does not merely give money but also time, ideas and enthusiasm. He lives on Tradd Street, the city's oldest and most historic thoroughfare. According to Marks, "No one here is consciously harsh to anyone else, not by intent. The gentleness and beauty of Charleston is rare in the world." He too feels that something is happening in Charleston, the stirring of a cultural rebirth. "Charles ton people are as sophisticated -- maybe more -- than people elsewhere." And, hear this, "Life in Charleston is more far out than any of my work -- at least that's what I hear."
Apart from the many worlds of the old peninsula city, where two races mingle with more amicability than in any other American city I know, there are the worlds of suburban Charleston and of the "other city" -- North Charleston, which is Mickey Spillane country (he lives just north up the coast, by the way, in secluded splendor). And there is also Gian- Carlo Menotti's Spoleto festival, which recently concluded a glorious two weeks (May 25 to June 9). It brings such frissons for Charleston's writers as Bruce Beresford of Breaker Morant fame, here to direct Puccini's The Golden Girl of the West, talking about his own work and stimulating goodness knows how many other local writers.
Not that the stimulation is really necessary. Charleston seems to be a good place to write about anything, even terrorism. Just off Putnam's press is Frank O'Neill's first novel Agents of Sympathy -- international intrigue honed on a word processor in a stately home in Charleston.
Writing comes naturally to Charleston, as I discovered when I went to the house where O'Neill is deep into his second novel. It was the birthday party of John Hamilton, who, with his wife Betty O'Neill Werner, runs the Tradd Street Press. The most important gifts on display that day were two poems, written by friends and neighbors.