YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Destination: South Carolina

Into Charleston's storied past

Taking a literary walk in the city's historic district is like reading an atmospheric Southern novel, except that you get to see the scenes, not just imagine them.

November 03, 2002|Emilie C. Harting | Special to The Times

Charleston, S.C. — "This is the writers' city, isn't it? You know, that novel 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,' " whispered the woman standing next to me. She had just stepped off the bus at Charleston Place, the departure and arrival point for many tours of this evocative Old South port.

"That's Savannah," I said, correcting her. "We're in Charleston. But this is also a writers' city.

"Walking around the historic district is like reading a Southern novel," I told the woman. "Scenes from stories and writers' lives keep popping out at you."

My husband, Rob, and I were about to take a literary walk I'd mapped out with the help of history books on the city. We would make a loop roughly south on Church Street, amble around the waterfront to the Battery, then proceed back up Meeting Street to the center of town. (It's generally the same route you take on other city tours.)

We were on a January vacation to the Low Country, as this coastal area of southeast South Carolina is called. Because I search out writers' homes wherever I travel, I wanted to explore the literary side of this bewitching city.

Charleston sits on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Once you enter the historic district at the tip, there is little need for a car.

The historic sites, restaurants and Low Country music places are within a 10-by-10-block area. Tour buses are not allowed in the district, but there is ample public transportation, carriage rides are popular and there are taxis if your feet get tired.

Home of 'Porgy and Bess'

The tourist disappeared before I could tell her about the Southern Literary Tradition, a bookshop open by appointment only in the historic Nicholas Trott house.

The moment we entered the house on Cumberland Street, it was clear that Charleston and the surrounding area had a rich literary history. Photographs of writers from the 11 Southern states gazed out at us from the shelves: a beguiling Carson McCullers; a cigarette-puffing Lillian Hellman; a natty Truman Capote; and a demure Gail Godwin.

At the end of a tour through rooms filled with books dating back three centuries, owner Trudy Evans served us tea. She explained that writers and artists have always gravitated toward Charleston, with its theater, music, art and a reputation as one of the most refined cities in the South.

Contemporary writers Bret Lott ("Jewel," "The Hunt Club") and Josephine Humphreys live in the immediate area, Evans said, and Pat Conroy is a South Carolinian. All three speak often about the importance of the city to them, and their writings describe the savannas and sweeping beaches.

For example, "The Hunt Club," full of intrigue, is set in a men's hunting club that actually exists in eerie dark swamps nearby. The movie version of "Rich in Love," the well-received novel by Humphreys, was filmed here. And Sinclair Lewis, Henry James and Hellman often came for weeks at a time.

Because Charleston was not damaged during the Civil War, layers of architecture date back more than three centuries. Houses on many streets were built with their sides facing the street, so as you pass by you can peek through wrought-iron gates to elaborate frontyard gardens that bloom all year but are most radiant in spring.

On Church Street we stood across from the Dock Street Theater, a brown stone building with light blue wrought-iron trim. As a Northerner I was intrigued that Charleston, without Puritans to squelch the arts, has had continuous theater since the early 1700s. The original Dock Street Theater was built in 1735 and stood a few blocks away. But even more surprising was that opera was performed in Charleston in 1685.

Farther down Church Street we came to the gray, West Indian-style buildings that were the inspiration for Dubose Heyward's novel "Porgy," which became the George Gershwin musical "Porgy and Bess."

Sammy Smalls, a Charleston character who is thought to be the inspiration for the Porgy character, may have lived in these buildings. Until World War II, much of the historic district -- now upscale and beautifully restored -- was run-down; those gray structures would have been tenements with noisy courtyards like the one in the musical.

The block got the name Cabbage Row because residents had vegetables for sale on their windowsills; in the novel and musical, Heyward called it Catfish Row.

We toured the imposing Heyward-Washington House next door -- this was a district where white aristocrats and poor blacks lived side by side after the Civil War -- partly because it is one of the most noteworthy historic houses in Charleston, with early 18th century furniture and original outbuildings, including a separate kitchen house with slave quarters.

Thomas Heyward, the original owner and great-great-grandfather of Dubose Heyward, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the many wealthy plantation owners who lived in Charleston.

Los Angeles Times Articles