Literary Charleston

Josephine Pinckney – from a LIFE Magazine spread

On a rainy spring morning earlier this year, I stood outside a restaurant in Portland, Oregon, sheltering myself from the storm, congratulating my friend Jennie who had called to share the news of her engagement. I had been on vacation, visiting family with my sister who came down from Seattle for the weekend. That wintery morning, Labor Day weekend seemed so far away, but I immediately knew there would be nothing that would stop me from flying to Charleston for that wedding.

Before I knew it, summer was over and I was packing up every summer dress I owned and preparing to fly across the country. Knowing that there had to be a blog post waiting for me, I did a little research into the Charleston literary scene and discovered the delightful and charming Ms. Josephine Pinckney, a novelist popular in the 1930s and 40s.

I have been making my way through a fascinating biography by Barbara Bellows titled: “A Talent for Living: Josephine Pinckney and the Charleston Literary Tradition” And I have no doubt that “Jo” and I would make great friends. She possessed a real passion for life, literature and love, was a keen observer of social interaction and surrounded herself with others who shared these affinities. She led the efforts to form the Poetry Society of South Carolina in 1920, was deeply involved in historic preservation efforts and immersed herself in all things of cultural value.

21 King Street, 1935 (courtesy South Carolina Historical Society)

While Josephine Pinckney has faded into relative obscurity now, she was quite a character in her day, hosting lavish parties at her family’s home at 21 King Street and cavorting with famous writers, poets and actors of the time. She took great efforts to acquaint herself with artists whom she admired, including Boston poet Amy Lowell, a hugely influential figure in the literary world at the time. At the age of  27, Jo traveled to Boston for an intimate dinner party with Lowell (aged 48). The two established a immediate and tight friendship, and traveled to visit each other until Lowell’s untimely death just three years after their meeting.

I so admire Jo’s confidence to confront one of her heroes, someone who must have been hugely intimidating to a young, amateur poet. Her efforts uncovered a friend and mentor who would provide a lifetime of inspiration.

my visit to 21 King Street, Sept 3, 2010

I thought of the connection between these two poets as I stood outside 21 King Street on a warm, summer day in early September. I had just arrived in Charleston hours before and was glad to have a few hours to wander around before meeting friends for dinner. Luckily, my “roomies” for the weekend – Jaime and Antonia – were willing to trek down the long blocks of King Street as I searched for number 21. I was glad to have them by my side in an unfamiliar city and thankful that they were willing to participate in one of my literary ghost hunts. By chance, the journey provided a nice introduction to the city as we happened upon a number of historic homes and structures. Nearly every building was graced by a plaque proclaiming its historic value and I loved every bit of it.

Finally, we came to 21 King Street, a massive three-story home with a foreboding front door and, interestingly enough, no plaque denoting its value as a literary historic landmark. Jo had lived in this home with her prominent Charleston family until her mother passed away in 1928. By that time, she had already made incredibly impressive inroads in the renaissance of literary Charleston and preservation of its rich, deep history. If that doesn’t deserve a plaque, I don’t know what does.

Bellows’ biography has a nice description of the house:

The towering 21 King Street offered Josephine one great advantage over the traditional eighteenth-century Charleston houses huddled together in rows with shuttered windows and walled gardens. The view from the fourth floor offered her a perspective on the world enjoyed by few Charlestonians, whose preoccupation with keeping prying eyes out also limited their vision. Below her, the dense live oaks and broad-leafed magnolias that canopied the old city formed a green carpet, a verdant pathway to the shimmering, slow-moving currents at work. . .”

Learning about such a remarkable woman has given me a greater understanding and love for of the history of this gorgeous city. There’s so much more to write about her. . . my next blog post will focus on her interaction with other parts of Charleston, including Middleton Plantation and the Dock Street Theatre.

> By the way, I came across this wonderful blog post by a woman who shares my interest in Josephine. She’s included great photos of Jo from a LIFE Magazine spread.

Congrats Jennie & Daniel!
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3 thoughts on “Literary Charleston

  1. Loved reading this and am so pleased you got so much out of your visit to Charleston. I knew you would love the city! Look forward to more visits.

  2. I am not familiar with Ms. Josephine, but now I will add her works to my list of Southern female writers…If you ever want to trek back to the South to see Eudora Welty’s Mississippi home or Flannery O’Connor’s hometown of Millidgeville, GA, count me in!

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