Magazine article American Libraries

In Charleston, Home Libraries Are as Individualistic as Their Owners

Magazine article American Libraries

In Charleston, Home Libraries Are as Individualistic as Their Owners

Article excerpt


Situated at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charleston, South Carolina, was the natural place for a settlement when colonists first arrived in this area in 1670. Among them were educated people--physicians, lawyers, and ministers--who brought with them treasured books and an appreciation for learning and culture that has continued to this day. As one would expect in such a historic venue, Charleston has many collectors of rare books and artifacts.

We'd like to invite you along as we enjoy the hospitality of five individuals who have significant private libraries: John Bennett III, Harlan Greene, Gene Waddell, Dan Ravenel, and Henry Smythe.

The Charleston Renaissance lives on

In the 1920s, artists and writers gathered in Charleston to form a productive group that has since come to be called the Charleston Renaissance. DuBose Heyward, author of the story (Porgy, 1925) on which George and Ira Gershwin based Porgy and Bess, is the most famous member of the group, but Martha Severens's book The Charleston Renaissance (Saraland Press, 1998) contains literary history that will be familiar to many.

John Bennett III is the grandson of John Bennett, founder of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, artist, poet, novelist, and central figure in the Charleston Renaissance. The younger Bennett, an attorney, lives in a once-elegant mansion that strikes visitors as the quintessence of the now-lost Charleston.

Bennett possesses a trove of works from talented Renaissance folks: prints by Alfred Hutty, known for his 1930s etchings of Charleston before it became gentrified; a first edition of Porgy and Bess inscribed by DuBose Heyward; Scarlet Sister Mary (1928) by Julia Peterkin, a very risque book in its time; romances by Drayton Mayrant, a Barbara Cartland of her era (1930s-1940s); works by Hervey Allen, author of Anthony Adverse (1933), which was made into a classic film; and a publisher's copy of Bennett's grandfather's work Doctor to the Dead (1946), the finest collection of Charleston ghost stories.

Bennett is a friend of novelist Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides (1986) made it big as a movie a few years ago, and has signed first editions of all Conroy's books.

The other side of Bennett's family descended from Joseph Dulker, who immigrated in 1797 and was a merchant on Rainbow Row, the modern name for a downtown row of 18th-century houses of different colors on the Charleston Battery; his daughter married Langdon Chevas, president of the short-lived (1791-1811) Bank of the United States.

Bennett has fond memories of the days when the College of Charleston had a mere 200 students (it now has about 8,900) and the Book Basement, a local bookstore (now defunct), was located on the campus--an oasis of culture, Bennett says, in a sea of American conformity.

Books contain more than printed words

Harlan Greene, head of special collections at the Charleston County Library, lives on Wentworth Street in downtown Charleston with his private library. This quaint little home in the bustling city is the location of 2,500 books, most containing 19th- and 20th-century South Carolina literature. Walking through the house (and stopping to pet both of Greene's adorable dogs), one is greeted at the top of the stairs by an enormous old poster advertising Porgy and Bess, which acts as a doorway into the library. DuBose Heyward is prominent in this collection, and one of Greene's most prized possessions is an original Heyward manuscript.

Greene also has acquired a number of limited-edition Charleston books of the '20s, many with etchings by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, a local artist well known for her landscapes and her depictions of plantation life after the Civil War. (Reproductions of her works sell well to tourists.)

Greene began his personal collection when he was in his teens. …

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