A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston

A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston

A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston

A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston

Synopsis

Charleston, South Carolina, today enjoys a reputation as a destination city for cultural and heritage tourism. In A Golden Haze of Memory, Stephanie E. Yuhl looks back to the crucial period between 1920 and 1940, when local leaders developed Charleston's trademark image as "America's Most Historic City."

Eager to assert the national value of their regional cultural traditions and to situate Charleston as a bulwark against the chaos of modern America, these descendants of old-line families downplayed Confederate associations and emphasized the city's colonial and early national prominence. They created a vibrant network of individual artists, literary figures, and organizations--such as the all-white Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals--that nurtured architectural preservation, art, literature, and tourism while appropriating African American folk culture. In the process, they translated their selective and idiosyncratic personal, familial, and class memories into a collective identity for the city.

The Charleston this group built, Yuhl argues, presented a sanitized yet highly marketable version of the American past. Their efforts invited attention and praise from outsiders while protecting social hierarchies and preserving the political and economic power of whites. Through the example of this colorful southern city, Yuhl posits a larger critique about the use of heritage and demonstrates how something as intangible as the recalled past can be transformed into real political, economic, and social power.

Excerpt

When expatriate author Henry James visited Charleston, South Carolina, in 1904, he was struck by the disparity between the city's robust past and its jaundiced present. Instead of the once bustling commercial, cultural, and political seat of the American South, James encountered an exhausted city still reeling from the effects of the Civil War—a city that was undeniably "thin," "vacant," "soft," "unrepaired, irreparable"—indeed, nearly monastic in its relation to the larger, contemporary American scene. "Whereas the ancient order was masculine, fierce and moustachioed," James observed, "the present is at most a sort of sick lioness who has so visibly parted with her teeth and claws that we may patronizingly walk all round her." Years later, in 1922, Ludwig Lewisohn, a contributing editor of the Nation, who grew up in Charleston, echoed these sentiments. the state's economic and political power base had long since shifted to the up-country, usurping the historical prominence of the tidewater city and leaving in its stead a cultural vacuum. "A tiny tongue of land extending from Broad Street in Charleston to the beautiful bay formed by the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers is all of South Carolina that has counted in the past," Lewisohn noted. "The memories that cling to the little peninsula are all that count today." This is the story of how a group of elite white Charlestonians transformed these historical memories of loss and disintegration into a revitalized civic identity that rebuked the chaos of . . .

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