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  • Learning from Charles Joyner
  • David Hackett Fischer (bio)

My story about Charles Joyner begins on a front porch, in a rocking chair, as so many southern stories do. But this rocking chair was in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where our mutual friends Anne Marbury and Bert Wyatt-Brown rusticate or marinate every summer. The year was 1984, and the cottage was, as always, piled high with books and papers. In one pile on the front porch next to the rocking chair was a sky blue book with bright white letters, called Down by the Riverside; A South Carolina Slave Community by Charles Joyner.1

I picked it up in that idle way of summer readers, and on the very first page of the introduction found myself caught up in a riveting conversation that reached across many generations in All Saints Parish, South Carolina. Three people were part of it: Charles Joyner himself, Genevieve Chandler, and Ben Horry, born a slave and in 1937 the oldest liver on Waccamaw Neck, a "man one would pay attention to." The reader was invited to listen in as Ben Horry began, "I been here. I seen things.… Thousand of them things happen but I try to forget 'em."2

As the conversation began to flow, this Yankee reader was "hooked and gaffed," as fishermen say on the coast of Maine. I could not put down the book, and many another reader has had that same experience. As the word spread, this extraordinary piece of work was instantly recognized as a classic of scholarship by academic readers in many disciplines. And at the same time it was sold in Piggly Wiggly grocery stores.3

Down by the Riverside was, and is, a great read; but it is much more than that. After my first reading, I began to study the book, as other students have also done. And to study their studied responses is to be amazed by the combination of qualities that close readers have found in the book. These are qualities that do not often coexist. Not many historians have been accused of being both "penetrating and poetic" at the same time; Joyner was.4 Let us look at the terms that other scholars have used to describe the strengths of his book.

Almost everyone who reviewed the book commented on its strength of primary research in materials of many kinds, and on its deep mastery of primary materials, and especially on the care with which the research is documented. One reviewer wrote, "Joyner has made good his claim to have examined 'every kind of evidence available.'"5 A very different set of judgments ran to words such as "colorful, vivid, lively." Yet another set of adjectives described the "grace" and "eloquence" of the book. My own thoughts in that direction are that the writing is remarkable for its rhythm and cadence. The author, musician that he is, has the music of our language in his ear.6

Other academic critics found an entirely different set of qualities. They wrote of the book's analytic rigor and precision and of its mastery of many learned disciplines. Alan Dundes observed of Charles Joyner that "his particular combination of history, folklore, and linguistics is probably unique in the country." He might have added anthropology, demography, and economics.7 Still other critics were impressed by the use of these various methods with "empathy," "subtlety," and "intelligence." Peter Wood wrote of Charles Joyner that "his sensitivity, precision, and warmth can be applied to subtleties of folktales, or to the ironies of history.… Joyner has given himself an exceptionally broad scholarly base."8

Yet more commentators remarked on Charles Joyner's success in reconstructing the daily lives of slaves and the life of a slave community. The words were "perception" and "comprehension." Lawrence Levine, a leading historian of slave culture, wrote of this book, "I know of no other work that deals as exhaustively, comprehensively, and authoritatively with a slave community in the United States."9 Other adjectives centered on qualities of judgment in this book. Orlando Patterson wrote of Charles Joyner's work, "he is wise where others are aggressively sharp, profound where others are quick and facile...


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pp. 21-24
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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