South Carolina earns its bad press from time to time, but we have at least one reason to hold our heads up: Our literary pedigree ain't half bad.
The newly updated South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to South Carolina Writers, out this month from University of South Carolina Press, features 128 of the Palmetto State's greatest men and women of words. With entries penned by a who's-who of contemporary S.C. literati (Marjory Wentworth, Ron Rash, George Singleton, and collection editor Tom Mack, to name a few), the book provides a breezy overview of the fascinating lives of writers dating back to the 18th century.
You've probably heard some of the names before: James Dickey, Pat Conroy, Dorothea Benton Frank. But as we thumbed through the pages, we found a few lesser-known writers who also swelled our Cackalacky chests with pride. Consider these five writers officially added to our spring reading list:
Steven Woodward Naifeh (b. 1952). Writer, publisher, painter, Pulitzer Prize winner. Born in Tehran, Iran, Naifeh earned both a J.D. and an M.A. at Harvard. During law school, Naifeh met his life partner Gregory White Smith. Both men finished their degrees, but neither pursued a career in law. Instead, Naifeh wrote books about art, including his 1976 debut, Culture Making: Money, Success, and the New York Art World. In 1989 Naifeh and Smith moved to Aiken, S.C., where they bought and restored the Joye Cottage, a 60-room mansion built by 19th-century monocle-wearing millionaire William C. Whitney. Naifeh and Smith co-wrote a book about the restoration process titled On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye, and also co-wrote a series of true crime books to finance the research for their passion project, an exhaustive biography of the painter Jackson Pollock. After conducting 2,500 interviews and looking at every authenticated piece of Pollock's work, they published Pollock: An American Saga in 1989. The book was nominated for a National Book Award and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, and it was the basis for the 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris. Naifeh and Smith also published a biography of Vincent van Gogh in 2011.
James Oliver Rigney Jr. (1948-2007). Novelist, critic. The son of a Charleston Naval Shipyard supervisor, Rigney taught himself to read at a young age and developed a lifelong reading habit; his library held more than 14,000 books by the time he died. Clemson University recruited him to play football, but he left after a year to enlist in the U.S. Army, serving two tours in Vietnam, spending part of that time as a helicopter door gunner. Back in the U.S., he enrolled in the Citadel's veteran program and earned a degree in physics, then joined the Navy as a nuclear engineer. In 1977, after an accidental fall on a submarine shattered his knee and leg, Rigney spent part of his lengthy recovery writing his first fantasy novel, the still-unpublished Warriors of the Altaii. A Charleston bookshop owner introduced him to the poet and editor Harriet McDougal, whom he dated and eventually married. After writing a few pieces of historical fiction under the pen name Reagan O'Neal, Rigney returned to the fantasy realm and wrote seven Conan the Barbarian novels from 1982 to 1984 under the pseudonym Robert Jordan. Finally, in 1990, Rigney began writing his masterwork under the name Robert Jordan: the 14-volume Wheel of Time series, which critics compared favorably to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien for its sprawling story arcs and its complex integration of mythology and history. At the time of his death from amyloidosis in 2007, he had sold more than 30 million books, but the Wheel of Time series wasn't finished. Rigney had left behind a detailed outline for the end of the series, and his wife and editor chose the writer Brandon Sanderson to pen the final three volumes. (By the way, the College of Charleston's Addlestone Library is now the home of the James Rigney Collection, which includes first editions, video interviews, and an Apple computer containing 4,000 pages worth of Rigney's notes that he used to write the series. Click here to read the library archivists' blog about the collection.)
Gwen Bristow (1903-1980). Novelist. Bristow, the Marion native who came to be called "Carolina's Best Seller," started her writing career as a seventh-grader reporting for The State newspaper. After studying at Columbia University's Pulitzer School of Journalism for a year, she took a job as a reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where she met and married reporter Bruce Manning. The couple co-wrote four mystery novels between 1930 and 1932, including The Invisible Host and The Mardi Gras Murders, before moving to California, where Manning found work as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer. In California Bristow wrote the bestselling historical fiction novel Deep Summer (1937), which became the first book in her Louisiana Plantation Trilogy. Her 1943 World War II romance novel, Tomorrow Is Forever, was made into a film starring Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in 1946. Her other books included the Literary Guild selection Celia Garth (1959), which was set in Charleston during the Revolutionary War, and her final book Golden Dreams (1980), a nonfiction account of California's gold rush and founding as a state. Critic Susan Quinn Berneis praised Bristow for "the unfolding of American history as displayed around the lives of people who created it," and Eugene Armfield wrote that she belonged "among those Southern novelists who [were] trying to interpret the South and its past in critical terms." She was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2000.
James McBride Dabbs (1896-1970). Writer, educator, theologian, civil rights leader. A farmer's son educated in a one-room rural school in Sumter County, Dabbs went on to be a top student in the University of South Carolina's Class of 1916. He taught English at USC and later at Coker College. In 1937, he moved to his family's ancestral Sumter County farm, Rip Raps Plantation, where he farmed and wrote essays for the rest of his life. While rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost, Dabbs is said to have "out-Agrarianed" the Southern Agrarian writers' movement; the Sumter artist Elizabeth White described him as "a man of letters and of lettuce." He wrote a 1946 pamphlet entitled When Justice and Expediency Meet arguing for the right of African Americans to vote in the state's Democratic primary, and from 1958 to 1964 he served as president of the Southern Regional Council, an interracial civil rights organization. In addition to his writing career, Dabbs was the chief lay theologian of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, writing for various church publications for 30 years and penning a pronouncement on social justice, "Justice, Law, and Order," that his church adopted in 1969. His final thoughts on the Christian faith are recorded in his posthumous book Haunted by God, in which he writes that despite the presence of "evils almost beyond compare" in Southern culture, "somehow we've never ceased being haunted by God." Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" listed Dabbs as one of the six "white brothers in the South [who] have grasped the meaning of the social revolution and committed themselves to it."
Kwame Dawes (b. 1962). Poet, editor, novelist, cultural critic. Born in Ghana, Dawes moved with his family to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1971, and developed a lifelong love for reggae music. After receiving his B.A. in English from the University of the West Indies at Mona and his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of New Brunswick, Dawes took a job in 1992 as an English professor and poet in residence at the University of South Carolina. In 1994, he won the Forward Poetry Prize for his first poetry collection Progeny of Air. Dawes' subsequent poetry collections included more and more references to South Carolina. In Jacko Jacobus (1996), which draws from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, the trickster Jacko runs away from his violent brother in Jamaica and ends up selling crack cocaine in South Carolina. In 2006, Dawes released Wisteria: Twilight Poems from the Swamp Country, based on interviews he conducted with elderly African American residents of Sumter County. But his interests consistently reached outside of state borders, and his other works include Talk Yuh Talk (2000), a series of interviews with West Indian poets; Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2002), a critical examination of the reggae artist's songwriting; and Bruised Totem (2004), a series of ekphrastic poems written in response to an exhibit from the Bareiss Family Collection of African Art. In 2009, he won an Emmy Award for his work on the documentary project livehopelove.com, which portrays the impact of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica via poems, music, and images. In 2012, Dawes left USC to join the faculty at the University of Nebraska and serve as editor of Prairie Schooner.