THE HAMMONDS OF REDCLIFFE by Carol Bleser

THE HAMMONDS OF REDCLIFFE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Selected letters, 1855-1938, from and to the Hammonds of ""Redcliffe,"" on the South Carolina bank of the Savannah River: a correspondence which carries one Southern family from antebellum eminence to Depression egg-purveying. . . to ""historic preservation."" Singly, the letters are unremarkable--except for the experiences of two of the Hammond women. Plantation-founder James Henry (1807-1864) was the only Hammond of large affairs--remembered for boasting, on the Senate floor, ""Cotton is king"" (and terming slaves ""the mudsills of society""). His letters, however, dwell chiefly on the besmirchment of his name (he had, admittedly but unashamedly, carried on a long dalliance with four young nieces) and the worthlessness of his sons. ""A tough son of a bitch,"" editor Bleser calls him unceremoniously. At his death (in flight, one son wrote another, from Southern defeat), his eldest son Harry put most of the 14,000 Hammond acres up for sale; but as ""no one was buying land,"" it remained in the family--to slip away piecemeal over the next 70 years. Of Reconstruction, and succeeding upheavals, we see little: most of Redcliffe's blacks apparently remained on the plantation (out of choice or no-choice) as wage labor--from which Bleser infers that the number who remained, overall, may ""have been greater than indicated in previous studies."" On firmer ground, she notes that ""the lot of the Southern woman"" changed far less than that of her planter-menfolk. Harry's strong-willed wife Emily silently endured his peccadilloes and bore his rages--while eldest son Henry mocked him (and daughter Julia fumed). More interesting--and ambiguous--were the situations of Julia and her sister Katherine. For uncertain reasons, they, not their brothers, were urged on to higher education--so we find Julia, in 1881, at Harvard Annex studying Botany and Physics, glimpsing ""real New England life"" (with ""no servant to wait at the table""), assessing the platform performance of her sex (""Women will do very well while you praise them but we don't like the other side""), and telling her mother unceasingly of ""the intolerable anguish of being separated from you."" She shortly returned home, rejected the man she loved--and, long after he married, wrote him one after another desolate, not-to-be-mailed letter. Katherine, the beauty, went to Johns Hopkins to study nursing, and almost stuck it out--despite the filthy, all-hours work and a loathsome supervisor. She turned away suitor after suitor; then finally married, at 30, ardent, disarming Dr. John Sedgwick Billings (son of prominent New Yorker John Shaw)--only to be miserable. (He philandered--but also scored her attachment to Redcliffe.) And--in the story's most curious twist--it was their son, John Shaw II, a Time editor enamored of Redcliffe since childhood, who rescued and restored the plantation-house; and, being childless, left it to the state. Bleser sees a feminist lesson in the fates of Julia and Katherine (reasonably, perhaps, in the former case; heavy-handedly in the latter); she hasn't the humor to appreciate John Shaw II's disgruntled flight from Luce-dom to Tara-hood. But the letters are copiously annotated, and certainly worth an airing--for their time-span, plus the light they throw in all sorts of odd directions.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 1570032211
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press