Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 92-96
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Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance. By Harlan Greene. University of Georgia Press, 2001. 372 pp. Cloth $34.95
Harlan Greene has set out to establish that John Bennett was a leading figure in the "Charleston Renaissance," and he brings impressive credentials and a missionary zeal to the project. Greene, a Charlestonian, novelist, and archivist, became fascinated with Bennett while cataloging thirty linear feet of his papers at the South Carolina Historical Society. It's easy to see why.
Bennett was born in 1865, the son of a merchant in Chillicothe, Ohio. During several years of ill health as a child he read and drew avidly, and mastered the art of cutting silhouettes. Dropping out of high school, he worked for a newspaper, then went to Cincinnati to prepare for art school in New York until family business reverses forced him to return to newspaper work. Desperate to go to art school, he freelanced articles, stories, poems, illustrations, and silhouettes, and took any other odd jobs he could find. During these lean years, he developed depression, eyestrain, and allergies, which he treated with patent medicines laced with cocaine, becoming addicted. He recovered, and in 1891 sold his first piece to the St. Nicholas Magazine for children. He became a regular contributor, but a bout with cholera brought a return to depression and cocaine. He began going to Salt Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to rest and recuperate. There he met the Augustine Smythe family, from Charleston, sold them a couple of watercolors, and began a correspondence with Augustine.
In 1895 his struggle began to pay off. He published a great deal, including a poem that was widely reprinted, and later anthologized and set to music (ending up in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations). When his sister suggested a story about child actors in Elizabethan England, Bennett wrote Master Skylark, a children's book [End Page 92] about a boy kidnapped and taken to London in a company of players. St. Nicholas bought the serial rights, and Greene used the money to enroll in the Art Students' League in New York. When Master Skylark became a bestseller, Bennett tried to follow up his success, even dropping out of art school to write. But his health failed again and he returned to cocaine. When his doctor suggested a warm climate, he accepted Augustine Smythe's invitation to come to Charleston.
There he finished Barnaby Lee, which St. Nicholas also bought. The money allowed him to marry Susan Smythe in 1902. His marriage into one of Charleston's best families gave him immediate, if tentative, acceptance in Charleston society. He became active in the town's cultural life, assembling a souvenir calendar for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, lecturing to the Federation of Women's Clubs on "Spiritual Songs of the Old Plantations," and beginning to write on Charleston subjects—even began using Gullah dialect in his stories. He was made an honorary curator of the Charleston Museum.
But social disaster loomed. Although he had been in Charleston for a decade, he had not learned what should not be said in front of ladies. In February 1908, he lectured again to the Women's Clubs, this time on "Grotesque Legends of Charleston," using black folktales he had collected. His stories included miscegenation and the word "chemise," and were called by the Charleston News and Courier "a startlingly realistic exposition of Revolting Savage Fancies." Charleston society cut him dead, and he began again the cycle of illness, depression, and addiction. He could not write. He retreated to a Smythe estate in North Carolina, where he worked outdoors.
World War I marked the beginning of Charleston's cultural renaissance and the end of Bennett's isolation, as he began to reenter society through volunteer work. The Sketch Club, founded in 1915, was the first of many organizations that revitalized Charleston's cultural life, looking both inward for subject matter and outward to connect with the most up-to-date artists and writers elsewhere. Nationally recognized artists began...