Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom

By Okie, Tom | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom


Okie, Tom, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Lowcountry Time and Tide: The Fall of the South Carolina Rice Kingdom. By James H. Tuten. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 178; $34.95, cloth.)

Unlike most historians of the South Carolina low country, James Tuten once worked on a rice plantation - though by the time he arrived in 1988, Hobonny Plantation had not grown rice in more than fifty years. What had been one of the low country's great rice plantations in the late nineteenth century was by the late twentieth century a duck-hunting resort, a trophy of sorts for a Savannah businessman. In some ways,Tuten'sburden in Lowcountry Time and Tide is to explain his experience on Hobonny. How was it that an antebellum rice plantation had survived, albeit in modified form, into his lifetime? Why do rice plantations still command respectful fascination in the lowcountry?

These questions form an altogether different starting point than most studies of the region. Instead of analyzing rice cultivation's decline, as scholars of antebellum rice culture have done, Tuten seeks to explain its persistence; he offers a view of the collapse from the inside. Tuten's argument is that rice planting possessed "cultural capital" - a concept he borrows from social theorist Pierre Bourdieu - not offered by other livelihoods. Rice culture meant something more than income for low-country whites and blacks alike.

Tuten makes his case by focusing on a few prominent families: the Heywards, the Elliotts, and the Middletons. The book's first section puts the story in chronological order. Chapter 1 sets the stage by describing rice cultivation and processing in the low country up to the 1870s. Chapter 2 describes how planters - almost entirely a younger generation who had never managed slaves - returned to their rice plantations and brought them back into production. Many of these families grew more rice in the 1 870s and 1 880s than they had before the war, but hurricanes and other afflictions of the 1 890s hastened a decline that was already in motion due to competition from southwestern prairie rice and a lack of willing field workers. Planters sought to diversify in the 1890s and 1900s, growing cotton, harvesting timber and turpentine, selling seed rice, and planting truck crops. These desperate exercises receive attention in chapter 3.

The early chapters, then, are long on description but short on analysis. Tuten does not return to the book's most arresting themes until chapters 4 and 5, which catalog changes in production practices and rice as a food way and symbol. The fourth chapter describes how the South Carolina Agricultural Society joined the extension service at Clemson University to investigate and treat (with mixed success) what ailed low-country rice cultivation - "red rice," salt water, bobolinks, water weevils, and the "rice blast" disease. Meanwhile, the contraction of the labor pool meant that planters had to use more animal and steam power to grow, transport, and mill their rice. In the fifth chapter, Tuten turns finally to the "cultural capital" of rice: its appearance in regional art, on paper money, on low-country bedposts, in low-country cookbooks, and in the failed attempt to make Carolina rice into a nationally recognized brand. An epilogue traces the legacies of low-country rice into the late twentieth century, when plantations passed into a variety of hands - from boxing champion Joe Frazier to South Carolina poet laureate Archibald Rutledge - evidence, according to Tuten, of the power of the "plantation mystique" (p. …

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