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A Talent for Living

Josephine Pinckney and the Charleston Literary Tradition

Barbara L. Bellows

Publication Year: 2013

Josephine Pinckney (1895-1957) was an award-winning, best-selling author whose work critics frequently compared to that of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Isak Dinesen. Her flair for storytelling and trenchant social commentary found expression in poetry, five novels-Three O'Clock Dinner was the most successful-stories, essays, and reviews. Pinckney belonged to a distinguished South Carolina family and often used Charleston as her setting, writing in the tradition of Ellen Glasgow by blending social realism with irony, tragedy, and humor in chronicling the foibles of the South's declining upper class. Barbara L. Bellows has produced the first biography of this very private woman and emotionally complex writer, whose life story is also the history of a place and time-Charleston in the first half of the twentieth century. In A Talent for Living, Pinckney's life unfolds like a novel as she struggles to escape aristocratic codes and the ensnaring bonds of southern ladyhood and to embrace modern freedoms. In 1920, with DuBose Heyward and Hervey Allen, she founded the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which helped spark the southern literary renaissance. Her home became a center of intellectual activity with visitors such as the poet Amy Lowell, the charismatic presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, and the founding editor of theSaturday Review of Literature Henry Seidel Canby. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, she absorbed popular contemporary influences, particularly that of Freudian psychology, even as she retained an almost Gothic imagination shaped in her youth by the haunting, tragic beauty of the Low Country and its mystical Gullah culture. A skilled stylist, Pinckney excelled in creating memorable characters, but she never scripted an individual as engaging or intriguing as herself. Bellows offers a fascinating, exhaustively researched portrait of this onetime cultural icon and her well-concealed personal life.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xviii

I wrote this book to solve a mystery. Why had the award-winning author Josephine Pinckney fallen into oblivion after a lifetime of achievement? The story of the Charleston woman who wrote essays, short stories, reviews, a noted book of evocative poetry, and five beautifully crafted novels drew me in while I was doing research for a new introduction to her most celebrated novel, Three O’Clock Din-...

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pp. 1-11

“Immortality works at random,” wrote Josephine Pinckney in 1945, the year she became a best-selling novelist and won international fame. “It perpetuates often the wrong person and misses the right ones.”1 Pinckney proved prescient, even though Three O’Clock Dinner, her most successful of five novels, was released that year by Viking Press with a great deal of “ballyhoo.” A Literary Guild selection, the ...

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1. The Last Aristocrat

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pp. 12-22

Josephine Lyons Scott Pinckney was born in a time and in a place where the dead exercised uncommon power over the living. The time was January 29, 1895, and the place Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Captain Thomas Pinckney, a Confederate veteran from one of South Carolina’s most renowned families, was sixty-six years old when she was born. Her mother, Camilla Scott, who hailed...

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2. The Education of a Young Poet

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pp. 23-37

Josephine Pinckney grew into a honey-haired child with a mass of artfully twirled ringlets. Large sad-looking eyes of a type once called “soulful” dominated her round face. Dressed in laces with chubby feet squeezed into Mary Janes, she was Captain Tom’s delight. He wrapped her in an envelope of affluence remote to the experiences of most young southerners of her generation. Tours of Europe, ...

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3. “My Heart Is Still My Own”

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pp. 38-56

By 1918, other young Charleston women were also awakening to the power of poetry. Josephine Pinckney began meeting with Elizabeth Miles (who later married one of the Galahads, Fred Horlbeck) and Helen von Kolnitz (who, as Helen Hyer, became poet laureate of South Carolina) to read one another’s verse and explore new trends in literature under the tutelage of Laura M. Bragg. Bragg, the ...

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4. Inventing a Southern Literature

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pp. 57-76

In mid-January 1923, Josephine Pinckney awakened “much talk” in Charleston. She and DuBose Heyward had hopped the train to New York (unchaperoned) for a “huge lark” at the annual Poetry Society of America dinner. Hervey Allen discreetly followed on a later run, not wanting to appear to “tag” along with them. For Pinckney, waltzing into the festivities at the Roof Garden of Manhattan’s Hotel...

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5. A Grave for Love

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pp. 77-90

Whenever Josephine would become deeply involved in the local cultural affairs of Charleston, Camilla Pinckney would plan another trip. In the late summer of 1923, the Pinckneys returned to East Gloucester. Almost immediately, they became embroiled in a scandal that reverberated up and down the Atlantic seaboard. It all began innocently enough. Camilla wanted to attend the dedication of an old...

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6. Sea-Drinking Cities

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pp. 91-110

In January 1925 Camilla and Josephine left Charleston in a great flurry of steamer trunks and suitcases bound for Italy aboard the Conte Russo. The unbounded vista on the high seas, salt spray, and new faces pulled Pinckney out of her depression. A shipboard romance restored her confidence a bit after her recent disappointing “affaires du coeur.” She could now joke with Hervey Allen about the “charming...

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7. Thirty-six Chalmers Street

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pp. 111-131

After the death of Camilla Pinckney, Josephine fled the overblown mausoleum of her past at 21 King Street. “I shall have to have a less exigent establishment if I am to do any writing,” she wrote Hervey Allen. She explained her plans to first rent and then sell the looming mansion that had taken on the characteristics of her mother: formal, forbidding, and very high maintenance.1...

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8. Speaking for the South

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pp. 132-152

In 1930, Pinckney’s career again intersected with that of Donald Davidson when she reluctantly agreed to make her first foray into expository writing. Howard Mumford Jones, her friend from Chapel Hill, invited them both to participate in a symposium on the South. With a working title of “Civilization Below the Potomac,” William T. Couch of the University of North Carolina Press envisioned...

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9. Farewell to First Love

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pp. 153-163

“As a means of helping the [poetry] pot to boil” once again, Pinckney wrote “They Shall Return as Strangers,” an allegory about southerners losing touch with their land which was accepted by the Virginia Quarterly Review in April 1934. Pinckney’s story was her contribution to the on-going discussion about the impact of industrialization on the South and its people. Pinckney rejects the Agrarian’s romanticism ...

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10. Willkie and War

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pp. 164-176

Pinckney fell out of love with Henry Woodward early in their relationship. He disappointed her. She wanted a hero, a leader, a mouthpiece for her various ideas about politics and government. In Hilton Head she had hoped to make the point that America had aristocratic as well as democratic origins, that the founders were both realists and utopians. After two terms of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she had had...

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11. American Fantasy

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pp. 177-193

In October 1944, Marshall Best, managing editor of Viking Press, surveyed the stack of mail on his desk with dismay. The stream of authors anxious to publish with this prestigious house seemed to swell every year. A small pale blue envelope of the sort used for social correspondence caught his eye in the mounded drift of white overstuffed packets. Intrigued, he opened it. The upright Best was immediately...

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12. Great Mischief

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pp. 194-211

As Josephine Pinckney’s star ascended in the Viking Press firmament, she felt herself being dragged deeper into the artistic netherworld where literature and commerce merged. She wondered if in her reach for fame she had unwittingly made a Faustian bargain. At least a dozen literary agents hounded her to sign with them. Her Viking editors barraged her with pestering letters urging her to...

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13. “Death, My Son and Foe”

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pp. 212-230

Josephine Pinckney neared the peak of her career as she started work on her fourth novel. She had fans across the country and in Europe eagerly awaiting her next book. All of Charleston was Pinckney’s stage. As “leading lady,” she played many roles—author, poet, preservationist, hostess to the famous, civic leader, philanthropist, political intriguer. An article in the ...


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pp. 231-266


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pp. 267-280


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pp. 281-301

Image Plates

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pp. Plate 1-Plate 14

E-ISBN-13: 9780807157343
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807131633

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013