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Correspondence

Charmless

Early in Owen Wister’s 1905 novel Lady Baltimore, the narrator, recently arrived in Charleston from Philadelphia, remarks upon the stillness of the city, its “silent verandas” and cloistered gardens behind their wrought iron gates—“this little city of oblivion . . . with its lavender and pressed shut memories . . . ”  For Wister the people of Charleston had somehow been spared “by [their] very adversity” the indignities of Gilded Age America and its mad scramble for status and wealth.  In their faces, in their reticence, in the soft refinement of their manners Wister found a “moral elegance” that he believed to have all but vanished in the great cities of the North, amid the “sullen welter of democracy.”  Charleston had indeed suffered much adversity: siege and bombardment in 1863-64, the chaos of Reconstruction, economic devastation, a major earthquake in 1886.  Yet miraculously much of its unique architectural heritage had remained intact, while its ruling planter and merchant elite, led by the “Broad Street Ring,” reestablished political control.  Despite the attempts of some to railroad Charleston into the arms of the burgeoning New South, the city remained—for the most part—haughtily resistant to progress through the first two decades of the 20th century.  Even as the nation danced the “Charleston”...

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