The Mongrel Din

Letter From Charleston

This year marks the centennial of the publication of Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore, a comedy of manners about a wedding cake.  Or, rather, it is about an honorable young Charlestonian’s determination to keep faith with a decidedly dishonorable young woman whom he has, in a moment of fatal infatuation, promised to marry—thus, the necessity of the cake from whence the novel takes its name.  The novel sold well enough to become one of the best sellers of 1906 and was warmly praised by the likes of Henry James and Edith Wharton.  For several decades, Wister’s witty tale of honor and deception received a generally favorable critical reception, but its critical fortunes declined precipitously after Wister’s death in 1938.  Since the 1960’s, the scant attention paid to Lady Baltimore has focused on its racial politics, to the neglect of the novel as a whole.

This is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs.  Even here in Charleston, the city celebrated so lovingly in the novel’s pages, Lady Baltimore seems to be the subject of a discreet silence.  For some time, I was puzzled by this, for the novel has lost little if any of its original charm.  While DuBose Heyward’s sentimental Porgy is daily fodder for every horse-and-buggy tour guide on Meeting Street and Pat Conroy (a decidedly inferior writer) is feted at Spoleto soirées,...

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