A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston
By Stephanie E. Yuhl. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005; ix + 193 pp., illustrations; cloth $55.95; paper $19.95.
The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston
By Maurie D. McInnis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005; ix + 332 pp., illustrations, tables, maps; cloth $34.95.
Cultural resource managers and interpreters make the past come alive through stories. The tools they use—the buildings and artifacts—often survive because wealthy individuals with selective memories kept relics from earlier times. In this way, in Charleston, began the preservation movement early in the 20th century. Self-appointed custodians of Charleston's cultural heritage concentrated on the city's role in the founding of the nation. They skipped over the divisiveness and devastation of the Civil War, preferring to recall the by-gone days when Charleston was British America's wealthiest city.
Cultural resource managers are not only aware of preservation's debt to these ladies and gentlemen, but they also must admit the short-comings of a version of the past that, in Charleston, emphasized the continuity of tradition, social hierarchy, and racial deference. New books by Stephanie Yuhl and Maurie McInnis put the creators of Charleston's preservation movement and the creators of the objects those women and men saved in the 1920s and 1930s in context.(1) The studies are meticulously researched. The authors' thorough examinations of their subjects offer thought-provoking accounts of historic Charleston and the ambitions and motivations of those who shaped it, defined its boundaries, and preserved it.
In A Golden Haze of Memory, Stephanie Yuhl chronicles how a group of elite whites organized a network of cultural entities dedicated to celebrating specific aspects of the city's heritage. A mixture of organizations and clubs, this network included the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (SPOD) that Susan Pringle Frost called to arms, as well as the Poetry Society and the Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals. The first dwellings rescued by SPOD—the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House—marked the beginning of the historic house museum movement in Charleston, which was followed by the establishment of a municipal board of architectural review in the 1930s and a survey of the city's historic urban fabric published in 1944 as This Is Charleston. The opening of the restored Dock Street Theatre in 1937, a project that had local and federal support signified, in Yuhl's words, "the maturation of elite white historical re-membering and their cultural refashioning of civic identity between the wars."
The "historic Charleston" promoted by these early preservationists glossed over racial and ethnic differences, commercial history, and the institution of slavery. The appropriation of African American culture by whites, specifically the spirituals that whites sang to white audiences, and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in novels, motion pictures, and in the Low Country paintings of farm hands and flower women by Elizabeth O'Neill Verner distracted many people from the violence of the Jim Crow era in which the initial Charleston preservationists lived.(2)
The mobilization of Charleston's elites in the cause of remembrance was a statement of power and resistance. The golden haze of memory buffered white elites from societal changes that challenged their understanding of traditional agrarian social and economic hierarchies and their place in the world. The monuments, art, and music through which they expressed their nostalgia relied, ironically, on a mass-consumer market. SPOD, for instance, charged admission to its house museums to offset the costs of preservation. Artists Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Verner needed customers to buy their paintings. These often saccharine representations of Charleston mirrored the elites' view of the past and helped forge a collective identity for the city that, as Yuhl argues, was sanitized and highly profitable.
The self-conscious turn to the past in Charleston for help in coping with the present was not just a modern phenomenon. Antebellum Charlestonians had longed for a return to another golden age—that of the 18th century. They had witnessed the shift in trade away from the coast, felt the demoralizing effects of a port in decline, and reacted, ironically, by barring the railroad from town. They were especially alarmed by an alleged slave rebellion plotted by Denmark Vesey in 1822 and its implications.
In The Politics of Taste, Maurie McInnis introduces these 18th-century Charlestonians but does not apologize for the master class. Instead, McInnis elucidates the connections between the rhetoric of their pro-slavery belief system and the material world in which they lived. Through an examination of their possessions, fine and decorative arts, and architecture, McInnis demonstrates how material goods represented their creators and owners and communicated and mediated relationships. The visual culture of the master class, so proudly displayed, was a physical expression of aristocratic dominance. It also affirmed one's success and rightful place at the apex of Charleston's hierarchical society. The refinement they showed through fashion, furnishings, and buildings, and achieved through travel and education was a counter to the charge of societal degeneration.
Slavery supplied the means by which the aristocracy was able to pursue refinement and display their good taste. Slavery also helped shape the city's architectural character. After the Vesey plot was uncovered, the city authorized the construction of an arsenal, which was supported by other public structures, including a jail, city guard house, and work house. Efforts of the elite whites to control their slaves' movement and to restrict their activities also dictated the layout of Charleston's "single house." Within the confines of the house, garden, and back lot, architecture literally walled in one group.
McInnis interprets the racial typography of Charleston by looking beneath the facade of control exemplified by the calm, mostly classically inspired, British-filtered architecture of the mansion houses. McInnis addresses the cultural accommodations between white and black as well as the uneasy dependence of white women on enslaved persons to manage their households. She notes, too, the existence of opportunities for small, daily acts of resistance and independence on the part of the enslaved.
The material legacy and visual culture that McInnis studies are what Yuhl's preservation, artistic, literary, and civic groups fastened onto and fashioned into Charleston's tourism industry. Both authors encourage their readers to pursue more of the stories that Charleston and its artifacts have to tell. By highlighting the mutual exclusivity of slavery and the cosmopolitan culture of the city's elite in the 18th and 19th centuries, and investigating the impetus for and motivations of the city's much admired preservation ethos in the 20th, the authors have helped tremendously in pointing us in that direction.
Virginia Barrett Price
Heritage Documentation Programs
National Park Service
1. Carter L. Hudgins reviewed these two books in tandem in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65 no. 2 (June 2006): 310-12.
2. For more on this theme, see Melvin Patrick Ely, The Adventures of Amos N' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon (New York, NY: Free Press, 1991).