SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY
Sixty-first Annual Meeting
Treasures of the South Caroliniana Library:Carol K. Bleser
The Letters of a Planter's Daughter
When I was a student at Converse College, I came to Columbia to do research for my senior honors paper in history at the South Caroliniana Library. Little did I realize that I was forming a lifetime attachment to this wonderful research library and that my second, third, and fifth books would be drawn from its holdings. It has not mattered that for a time I taught at Colgate University in the snowbelt of upstate New York and for an equal amount of time I have been in upstate South Carolina at Clemson University. My heart and mind belong to the South Caroliniana Library. I am therefore greatly honored to be the speaker at the sixty-first annual meeting of the University South Caroliniana Society.
So much of what we know about history, literature, and culture would be lost forever, if not for the passion and dedication of collectors who donate their holdings to institutions such as the South Caroliniana Library. Actually, this is my second appearance: I spoke to the Society in the 1980s on the nineteenth-century marriage of Elizabeth and Benjamin F. Perry, which also was drawn from materials at the Caroliniana. Thus, I am doubly honored and doubly pleased to be with you today. John Shaw Billings II donated Bryan's letters to the Caroliniana. A journalist, Billings served as first managing editor of Life magazine in 1936 and the second-in-command of Henry Luce's Time-Life-Fortune empire in the 1950s. So much of what we know about history, literature, and culture would be lost forever, if not for the passion and dedication of both collectors of books and original manuscripts who donate their holdings to institutions such as the South Caroliniana Library, and of the staffs of such repositories who carefully acquire and tend to such treasures for future generations of students, readers and scholars. Treasures they are, which are lovingly looked after by curators such as Allen Stokes-to whom hundreds upon hundreds of scholars are deeply indebted-as well as to his very able library staff. It is a wonderful and magnificent thing also that the South Caroliniana Library has the full support of the University of South Carolina and the members of the South Caroliniana Society, who are dedicated to the preservation of these valuable collections, some of which are extremely rare and unusual. No less important, of course to protecting these records from annihilation is to know what items-books and manuscripts-to cull from the piles of accumulated debris of our hyperactive paper producing society. Thus, of great importance is the role of those who acquire the collections for such libraries as the South Caroliniana. As Michael Sadlier, a renowned British bibliophile, wrote in 1930, "In nature, the bird who gets up earliest catches the most worms, but in books [and manuscript collecting] the prizes fall to birds who know worms when they see them." We all owe a special debt of thanks to Allen Stokes and Tom Johnson, who do know worms when they see them. Night after night, Billings secluded himself in his Manhatten penthouse to read the beautifully written letters of his ancestor Maria Bryan of Mt. Zion, Ga. In the movie Jerry Maguire there is a line which has been done to death, "show me the money." At the annual meeting of the South Caroliniana Society, we are given each year a program that shows us the treasures of the South Caroliniana Library-the collections of family papers, the manuscript volumes, the modern political collections, the batches of old letters, rare books, pamphlets, as well as a group labeled Pictorial South Caroliniana-all of which have been acquired as gifts or purchased by members of the Society during the past year. Maria Bryan comes of age in the 1820s before slavery and secession became the all-consuming issues in the South. This afternoon, my address is based on the letters of Maria Bryan, a planter's daughter. This correspondence, although acquired by the Caroliniana almost a quarter century ago, was also only published during this past year. I am here today to show you the treasure contained therein. At Clemson University I teach a graduate course in historical editing to a large group of enthusiastic students who intend to do their Master's theses on historical editing projects. There is so much to teach them, and one thing I especially alert them to is to become good detectives searching for clues and evidence in the most unexpected places. I cite as one example the remarkable and revealing letters of Maria Bryan of Mt. Zion, Georgia, in, of all places, the papers of James Henry Hammond, actually the Hammond-Bryan-Cumming papers, which are on deposit at the South Caroliniana Library. How did they get there? John Shaw Billings II was a gifted journalist who became the first managing editor of Life magazine in 1936 and the second-in-command of Henry Luce's Time-Life-Fortune empire in the 1950s. Yet, through all the late-breaking news, Billings secluded himself, night after night, in the study of his Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment reading the beautifully written letters of Maria Bryan. On one occasion, he recorded in his private diary that he had been at work in his office on stories of Harry Truman and Chiang Kai-shek but had looked forward to getting home to read Maria Bryan's letters, "which were so much more interesting." Although Billings had been at work in his office on stories of Harry Truman and Chiang Kai-shek for Time-Life, he wrote in his diary that he looked forward to getting home to read Maria Bryan's letters, "which were so much more interesting." Billings presumably fell under the spell of the exquisite Maria Bryan sometime after 1935, when he came into possession of his family's plantation home, Redcliffe, at Beech Island, South Carolina, where he had been born in 1898. Redcliffe had been built in the 1850s by James Henry Hammond, a pre-Civil War governor, a United States senator, and one of the richest planters in the antebellum South. Billings, although named for his distinguished paternal grandfather from New York City, took great pride in his mother's Southern heritage. John Billings, having been drawn to Redcliffe again and again over the years, recorded in his diary on March 21, 1935, how happy and excited he was at "having that wonderful old place" for his own.
With the house had come several hundred acres of land, all that remained of the more than fourteen-thousand acre estate owned by his great-grandfather Hammond. Stored in the attic of the house among the jumble of old clothes and broken furniture were cartons of family correspondence, including the letters written by Maria Bryan to her sister Julia Bryan Cumming of Augusta, Georgia. Julia, Billings' great-grandmother, saved many of her sister's letters, and after Maria's unexpected death at the age of thirty-six in January 1844, she put them away in neat bundles, sentimental tokens of affection of her sister's brief life. When Julia Cumming died in 1879, her daughter Emily Cumming Hammond, the wife of Harry Hammond and the daughter-in-law of James Henry Hammond, came into possession of many of her mother's personal belongings, including her mother's private correspondence. Emily transferred Maria's letters along with other Cumming possessions to her home at Redcliffe, where they were stored in the attic and forgotten.
Years later, Billings found them along with a voluminous collection of old correspondence spanning nearly two centuries of letter writing. After the restoration of Redcliffe, Billings began the systematic reading of these family letters, carrying boxes of them with him back to New York. He noted in his diary that "they were like a narcotic." In reading them he was "transported...into the past." The letters he apparently found most addictive were those of his great-great-aunt Maria Bryan. He paid a secretary to type them out and then spent endless hours at night and on weekends seeking to understand the complex network of family and friends she described. He wrote of Maria's life, "[I] was crazy to know more." Even on the landmark date in his life, April 14, 1953, when Henry Luce made John Shaw Billings editor-in-chief of all Time-Life-Fortune publications, Billings hurried home from the office and immersed himself in Maria's letters.
Why had John Shaw Billings become so fixated on the letters of a woman who had died more than a century before? On one level, Billings, as one of the most noted journalists of his age, recognized in Maria a good storyteller. In fact, he found her a lively correspondent and her life as told in her letters more fascinating and humorous than that of the fictional Scarlett O'Hara. On a much more personal level, Billings had confessed often enough in his diary to being in a rut. A moody man, disenchanted with his career, and probably bored by his personal life, Billings became enchanted with the elusive, dark-haired, beautiful Maria. Her intelligent letters became, at one time in his life, his constant companions, yet he could never bring himself to publish them, even though at one time he stated he intended to do just that.
Billings retired from Time, Inc., to Redcliffe in 1954, and for almost two decades he continued to collect and put together the history of four generations of his Hammond-Bryan-Cumming ancestors. That work was still incomplete when his health began to fail in the late 1960s. In 1973, he donated all his books and family papers to the South Caroliniana Library. Redcliffe he deeded to the Palmetto State. When John Shaw Billings died in 1975, at the age of seventy-seven, the pleasure of editing and publishing Maria's remarkable letters was given to me. The book entitled Tokens of Affection: The Letters of a Planter's Daughter in the Old South based on Maria Bryan's correspondence has recently been published by the University of Georgia Press.
Many Victorians exchanged painted miniatures as tokens of affection. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the art of miniature portraiture. I visit every museum exhibiting miniatures that I can. Much like the talented miniaturists I admire, I am drawn to the letters of Maria Bryan of Mt. Zion, Georgia. Like them, the tools and materials she used in her art were portable and small-a goose quill pen and plain paper. The results, however, were quite extraordinary. Much like the finding of a painting in a nineteenth-century locket, Maria successfully captured in her correspondence a vanished civilization in miniature exactness. For over two decades from the mid 1820s to that of the mid 1840s, Maria produced a picture of the life of a slaveholding family living on a middling size plantation in Mt. Zion, Georgia, a small Southern frontier community, seventy-five miles from Augusta. In Maria's letters we encounter a woman of remarkable education and taste. She recounts to her married sister, Julia, who is living in Augusta, at that time the third largest city in Georgia, the myriad of details of life in rural Georgia.
Maria's letters are also a testament to the falseness of our standard portrait of the "typical" plantation daughter in the antebellum South. Although supported by the labor of her family's slaves and benefitted by her rank and privilege, Maria is not like Scarlett, the pampered pet of a Southern patriarch. In her early letters to Julia, Maria, much like the majority of planters' daughters, works at housekeeping, tends the sick at home and in the neighborhood, and cuts out and sews the clothing of the family's slaves. She also tutors her younger siblings, grades papers for the teachers at the local academy, entertains a continuous procession of visiting ministers, teachers, relatives, and friends, regularly attends church and revivals, makes countless social calls to friends and acquaintances in nearby towns, and still finds time to copiously devour novels, biographies, and autobiographies.
Currently, there is a historiographical return of interest as to whether Southern white plantation women were eager supporters or vehement opponents of the institution of slavery. Maria's letters contain some fascinating references to individual slaves, household workers, the courtship of a black slave woman, slave marriages and families, and the death of some favorite servants. In only one letter, however, written when Maria was nineteen years old, did she reveal her feelings at that time on the institution of slavery. In January 1827, Maria wrote Julia that their overseer had punished Maria's personal slave, Jenny, because she had not done her full quota of spinning. "It would have distressed you to see her face bloody and swelled," she wrote Julia. "Oh how great an evil is slavery."
Of additional historical interest, Maria comes of age in the 1820s before slavery and secession became inseparably entwined as the all-consuming issues in the South. We have few first-hand published accounts, especially by women, of this period in Southern history, the period that is the prelude to the Civil War. The winds of change that led to the great national tragedy began to be especially felt around the time of the annexation of Texas in January 1845, a year after Maria's death. Many of the characters in her letters were ultimately deeply affected by the cataclysm.
Mt. Zion lay in Hancock County, seven miles northwest of Sparta, the county seat. When Maria Bryan's father migrated there in the mid-1790s, the county was newly opened virgin land. The county had been founded in 1793, coincident with the invention of the cotton gin, which promptly led to the rapid spread of cotton as the major crop throughout Hancock County, as throughout much of the South. The prospering cotton farmers were soon able to replace their simply built frontier cabins with comfortable large houses, and even some grand mansions. The small yeoman farmers were unable to compete with the newly wealthy, slave-based planters, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the white population of the county and an equally dramatic increase in the slave population. By 1820, Hancock County reportedly produced more cotton than any other county in Georgia. As we shall see, Mt. Zion was a small but affluent region being the home of numerous large plantations, several churches, and most important, both a male and an adjunct female Academy.
Joseph Bryan, the Pa of Maria's letters, had been born at Milford, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, between New Haven and Bridgeport in 1768, but left home (which still stands as the Thomas Buckingham house in Milford) at eighteen in 1786, when his mother, over his strong objections, remarried. He settled first in Savannah, but when Hancock County opened up he moved to Mt. Zion, which was to be his home for the remainder of his long life.
A good and thrifty farmer, Joseph, in 1796, married Ann Goode, originally of Virginia. Together, Ma and Pa Bryan made a substantial living for their family, acquiring holdings amounting to approximately 1800 acres and one hundred slaves. In the 1830s, Pa also sought to expand his holdings by seeking out new land in Alabama. Although he held many slaves, Bryan, a member of the American Colonization Society, was considered by some of his neighbors to have abolitionist leanings, as attested to in Maria's letters. The Bryans had eight children, of whom five reached maturity. Julia Ann Bryan, the recipient of Maria's letters, was born in 1803 and educated for a time in New Haven, Connecticut. Maria Bryan, the writer of these letters, was born on New Year's Day in 1808.
Nothing much is known of Maria's childhood, except that she grew up in a piously Presbyterian household, comfortably fixed, and surrounded, in general, by people of education and taste. It is assumed that Maria attended Nathan Beman's Mt. Zion Academy, one of the most celebrated educational institutions in the early history of Georgia. Pa Bryan, descended from Alexander Bryan, an original settler in 1639 of Milford, Connecticut, carried a bit of his six generations of New England heritage with him when he arrived among the first settlers at Mt. Zion. Although Joseph Bryan never became one of the most prosperous planters in Georgia, it was he who persuaded Nathan Beman to come to Mt. Zion in 1812 to open a school and to become pastor of the newly organized Presbyterian Church. Originally, the Academy accepted only male students, but within the year a department for young women was added. Nathan Beman and his younger brother, Carlisle, graduates of Middlebury College in Vermont, made the school famous in the South. Nathan eventually declined, for personal reasons, the presidency of the University of Georgia, and returned north to Troy, New York, becoming a leading abolitionist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
In this stimulating, intellectual environment, Maria most likely received an extraordinarily rich classical education, especially for a young woman growing up in a small Georgia town. At the age of sixteen, she was able to write graceful and apposite references to Newtonian astrophysics. Her letters are testimonials to the quality of the learning dispensed. Undoubtedly, her parents, especially her father, Joseph Bryan, were, along with the Bemans, major forces in Maria's intellectual development. In Maria's letters to Julia, her grammar is almost perfect, her spelling generally good, despite some phonetic variations. She was a rapid and retentive reader who continuously requested books and journals of opinion to sustain her mental appetite. For the most part, Maria had a fondness for romantic novels, but her range of interests was eclectic including her reading of a multi-volume biography of William Wilberforce, the leading English abolitionist of her day.
Despite her extraordinarily rich classical education, the lot of a nineteenth-century educated woman was not rich in opportunities. Her options were to marry and confine herself to domesticity, or to remain single and care for aging parents. Maria's letters reveal some resentment at the fact that she was expected to always defer to the men in her life-her father, uncle, brothers, brothers-in-law, suitors, and male friends, few of whom may have been her equal in matters of the mind. On one occasion, when helping to grade end-of-term papers for Professor Beman, albeit on the quiet, a male student discovered that a female had corrected his composition which so "riled him" wrote Maria, "that he tore his oration into a thousand pieces, and refused to speak it."
A woman of deep feelings, Maria at the beginning of her correspondence was the caretaker of an ailing mother and a cantankerous father, as well as nursemaid to her younger siblings. In one letter to her sister, she wrote in exasperation of the circumscribed world in which she lived and the plight of women in the plantation South who, like herself, sought to escape the narrow confines of their lives. Maria cried out in one letter, "How much of a slave a woman finds herself when she comes to act out of her usual routine." Her affectionate admiration for her older sister Julia, however, was boundless, and in her letters to Julia she passed on as an echo of her own sentiments every compliment to Julia that she heard. Maria had a remarkably good sense of humor and was amused by the vagaries and absurdities of the human condition, which she also passed on to Julia in her letters. I would like to read from her letter of July 22, 1839. In it she wrote to Julia a humorous description of a stylish and haughty lady and her poodle whom she met on a train.
Maria Bryan Harford to Julia Ann Bryan Cumming
[Wilmington, N.C.] July 22, 1839 (Monday Morning) My dear Julia, The journey so far has been prosperous and pleasant....I suppose Robert told you that we got to the [railroad] cars [at Hamburg, terminal of the South Carolina Railroad] considerably before the time. When the omnibus arrived, a lady of very stylish appearance entered the car where I was sitting and took her seat in the corner opposite me, with a small Spanish poodle in her lap. She gave divers directions in a loud and commanding tone about her baggage which, for the information of all, she stated, was two trunks, two carpet bags, a wooden box. Three or four gentlemen seemed in attendance and travelling with her, who stood ready to obey every order. "Mr. Carpenter," said she screaming aloud, "take special care of my bandbox. It has that gipsy [hat] in it that I told you about last night." etc. etc.
After all had taken their seats, the agent came to the window of the car and said, "That dog has not been paid for."
"This dog" said she, holding up the little thing. "What, you don't pretend to charge anything for this poodle that I carry in my lap, it's unheard of."
"I will not pay," said her husband, "it's an imposition." At last the agent begged him to come into the office. He did so (while all the party were exclaiming in different phraseology on the unreasonableness of the demand) and returned saying, "I have paid the fellow a sovereign, and he insists that I owe him a seven pence, but let him get it if he can."
Just at this moment another agent, a large, red-faced man, thundered out, "That dog has not been paid for."
"I have paid for him," said the master of the poodle.
"The car shall not leave this place if it be till twelve o'clock," said the agent, "until that dog is paid for."
Again was the man summoned out, and the lady evidently enjoying the pleasure of causing such a "to do," though enraged at the charge, and urging her friends to take part in the settlement of the matter."
"Go, Mr. Leach," said she. "See it out."
"Mr. Thornton, have you paid for your cane? Do pay for your cane."
"Well, I'll never travel this road again if I live a hundred years."
I confess my feelings went with the agents, for I saw they were contending for the regulations of the road, and had some excuse for their irritation in the insulting remarks that were made to them.
After all had seated themselves in the car the husband of the lady, rather a poor looking man who seemed just waked up after a night's revel, and seemed as if he had rather play "Sneak, that even bully in any farce," declared he'd publish the affair when he got to Charleston.
"Look here," said he to the agent, "what is your name, sir?"
"Sturges," said the man in a loud tone.
"I thought so" said the other.
The agent then, as if giving direction to some of the attendants of the car, said, "Let that dog be put in the baggage car."
"Well then, sir," said the lady, "you put me there too, if you send my poodle there. Let's go back. Was there ever such treatment!"
By this time several young men started up, and there seemed as if there would be a melee in good earnest, and the person who was called Mr. Carpenter, an exceedingly pleasant-looking stout young man with a very dirty shirt collar, stepped forward and, making a motion with his hands as if about to roll up his sleeves, and 'oint [anoint] his hands by spitting upon them, said "Let any one attempt it. That's more than I can stand. Whoever enters the door to remove this dog shall trample first over my cold corse."
He really said this in so heroic a style that it was quite exciting, and I only wished within myself that he had said his warm corse, because of course, as I reasoned, his corse will not have time to become cold. However, the agent, who evidently had no design to enforce the latter's threat, did not answer to the invitations made him "to come on" but quietly kept at his writing, and the train moved off, much to my satisfaction.
Maria, a very attractive dark-haired beauty, as her portraits show, had considerable social charm and conversational ability as her letter shows, and enough sexual attraction to collect several marriage proposals. She married twice, but bore no children. Her childlessness apparently did not disappoint Maria or either of her husbands, despite her contemporaries' belief that wives without children were incomplete, as has been noted by Mary Boykin Chesnut, the famous South Carolina Civil War diarist. Maria, in fact, wrote Julia on one occasion after seeing a pregnant friend that she regretted "that the happiness of the conjugal relation was obliged to be bought at so dear a price." The two men she married remain, in her letters to her sister, relatively dim, faceless characters. Her love for her first husband, William Harford, can best be determined by her impulsive actions, not her words. She married Harford in 1831, despite the strong opposition of her patriarchal father and her gentle but sickly mother, and she left her unforgiving family behind in Georgia, moving with her new husband to New Orleans. She remained in the Crescent City through several seasons of cholera and yellow fever, epidemics which she described to her sister in much detail but with much detachment, as if an observer on location at that exotic and deadly seaport. She, however, worried aloud in her letters to Julia over her husband's health as he struggled as an engineer to help construct the Pontchartrain Canal. Maria suffered severe pangs of homesickness that lasted unabated until she returned a widow to Mt. Zion in 1836.
Presumably left quite well off at Harford's death, Maria, in the summer of 1839, set off on a five-month tour of the North. In her letters to Julia, the thirty-one-year-old widow described at length her stay at the fashionable United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. A wealthy widow at age 31, Maria set off on a five month tour of the North, and mingled with prominent visitors at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
She bragged of meeting President Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State John Forsyth, Henry Clay, Winfield Scott, "the Rutledges, Heywards, and Draytons of [South] Carolina, the Livingstons of New York, and all the elite of the land." She recounted to Julia the budding romance of their brother, Joseph, her traveling companion, and a Southern belle whom they met at the resort. The flirtation ended abruptly when Brother was accused by a friend of the young woman's family of having overstepped the bounds of social propriety. They quickly parted. Although Maria had been dazzled by this small, privileged corner of the world, she returned home apparently even more convinced of the superiority of the Southern way of life. After her return to Mt. Zion, the restless Maria at age thirty-three married a local doctor on April 11, 1841. Her father again objected to her marriage.
When Maria's letters begin, on March 7, 1824, she is just sixteen years old; two weeks before her twenty-one-year-old sister Julia married Henry Harford Cumming. The bridegroom was the son of Ann Clay and Thomas Cumming of Augusta, Georgia. Henry, the son of a prosperous family went on to become one of the ablest lawyers in Georgia. When Julia moved away, Maria's letters commenced.
In reading Maria's letters we can easily imagine the loneliness felt by the teenager at her sister's departure for Augusta and a new life. The emotional links between the Bryan and Cumming households were to be Maria's letters; the more practical bond was to be cemented by Uncle Jacob, a Cumming slave, mentioned frequently in Maria's letters, who regularly drove a wagon between Augusta and Mt. Zion, delivering both news and parcels. Augusta, too, as time went by brought bright lights and more social opportunities to the young Bryan women isolated in Mt. Zion. Maria and her younger sister, Sophia, found husbands while staying in Augusta with Julia and Henry, and their cousin, Catherine Wales, Maria wrote, "did not care about returning to the humdrum sort of life we lead here at Mt. Zion after quaffing so largely of the sweets of fashionable life in Augusta." Henry appears in Maria's letters as "Brother Henry," and later as "Mr. Cumming." The relationship between sister-in-law and brother-in-law was sometimes strained. In Maria's first letter to Julia after her marriage, she confessed to wishing that Julia had remained single, so that "we could have been nice snug old maids living always together." On the surface, Henry appeared kindly and affectionate toward Maria, but behind her back he wrote his wife that Maria played the role of a belle, was frivolous, vain, and seemed addicted to pursuing male attention.
In the tug of war over Julia, Maria wrote on May 13, 1824, that Julia would "by degrees become far more attached to other objects, and estranged from me." In that same letter, Maria remarked that "you never could have loved me with one quarter of the affection that I have felt towards you, or you would never have given me up with so much willingness." Of Henry, she wrote, "I verily believe that he, with all his fine, soft, speeches, would be unable to mollify my bitter feelings."
Maria, of course, was right. Over time, Julia's visits home gradually diminished. As Julia's visits home became less frequent, her children's stays at Mt. Zion became more frequent under the supervision of their Aunt Maria, who, though childless, seemingly was astute in the raising of her sister's children.
For almost twenty years, Maria's unforgettable descriptions of enduring family ties and friendships, of household slaves and the institution of slavery, of tantalizing revelations of family secrets, and of rifts and reconciliations made up a family saga in all its joys and sorrows. As suddenly as Maria's letters began in March 1824, they abruptly ended at her death on January 15, 1844, at the age of thirty-six. Julia, pregnant at the time with her eighth and final child, named her daughter, born in March of that year, Maria Bryan Cumming, in memory of her dearly beloved sister. Maria left to posterity not only her letters, but also some cherished memories held by the nieces and nephews she helped to raise as well as her namesake, Maria.
Hancock County, in middle Georgia, once the heart of the greatest cotton growing region in the world, is now much poorer, and seven miles from Sparta, the village of Mt. Zion, once prosperous and bustling, where Maria Bryan lived most all of her life, has vanished almost without a trace. The houses, farm buildings, and even the famous Mt. Zion Academy are all gone; the Mt. Zion Presbyterian church building stands abandoned. On a visit to Mt. Zion, I stared out across a vacant field which once had been the homeplace of the Bryan family. Only a huge tree, which Maria must have seen daily, remains. It stands next to an unpaved country road, probably the same dirt road that served the Bryans and their neighbors overs 150 years ago.
In conclusion, Maria's letters are our best record of the once vital life in Mt. Zion. The cotton plantations and farms are long gone, the homes are reduced to scattered foundations overgrown with scrub, the Mt. Zion Academy is but a few foundation stones far off the paved roads and never observed even by the seven present day inhabitants of the region, life-long residents all. The cultivated fields disappeared finally with the advent of the boll weevil in the early part of this century. The limited agriculture consists of fields of hay and tree farming. The Presbyterian Church still stands, but no longer used, on the west side of Highway 77, about seven miles north of Sparta. Behind it, overgrown and protected from casual human incursion by ticks and snakes, lie the gravestones of Maria and her family.
The memory of Maria's life, which could have been only a faded name on a moldy tombstone in the Mt. Zion cemetery, is preserved because of the fortunate retention of her letters by her sister, Julia, their substance, and Maria's storytelling ability. In style and sensibility, Maria's letters in Tokens of Affection remind me of the novels of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Barbara Pym. However, Maria's fascinating story is true.
Maria's letters to Julia endure and shine through a century and a half not only as a memorial to a life cut short, but, also, as a richly woven textured description of antebellum Southern society in all its complexity and vibrancy.
| 1998 USCS Program | University South Caroliniana Society |
| South Caroliniana Library |
This page copyright © 1997-98, The Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.