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ARCHIBALD RUTLEDGE: THE FIRST POET LAUREATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

October 21, 2017

I recently found a list of famous authors from North and South Carolina.  As I scanned the list I saw names that I expected to be included.

American Book Award winning author Allison Hedge Coke, whose works often focused on working class issues in Western North Carolina, was mentioned.

Pat Conroy, whose novels were set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, spent his teen years in Beaufort.

Charles Frazier, author of the bestseller Cold Mountain, hails from Asheville.

Peggy Parish, creator of the children’s series Amelia Bedelia was from Manning, South Carolina.

William Sydney Porter, a prolific short story writer from Greensboro, used the pen name O. Henry.

Tom Robbins from Blowing Rock and Nicholas Sparks from New Bern are popular novelists.

Timothy Tyson, historian at Duke University is author of the bestselling Blood Done Sign My Name.

Thomas Wolfe, author of the classics Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, was a native of Asheville.

I was surprised that no poets were included on the list. Sidney Lanier who lived in Tryon and Maya Angelou who taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, were not mentioned.

How could any list of Carolina authors not include Archibald Rutledge?

Born in McClellanville, South Carolina, in October, 1883, Archibald Rutledge’s parents were Colonel Henry Middleton and Margaret Seabrook Rutledge.  His ancestors included a governor of South Carolina, a chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Young Rutledge enjoyed hunting and fishing on his family’s estate, historic Hampton Plantation on the banks of Wambaw Creek near the Lower Santee River. During the Revolutionary War, Francis Marion used the house as a hideout.  George Washington spent one night there.  It was an inspiring place for Archibald to grow up.

He loved the out-of-doors, and early on it was clear that he had a gift for writing.  At three years of age, he composed his first piece of poetry.

I saw a little rattle snake

too young to make his rattle shake.

Being chased by a wicked bull named Abel and being circled by a shark in Tyger Creek were among the adventures, about which he would later write.

Archibald Rutledge attended Porter Military Academy, now known as the distinguished Porter-Gaud School in Charleston.  He graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York.  There he was editor of the college newspaper and the class poet.  After graduating at the top of his class in 1904, he became the head of the English department at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.  For 37 years, he lived away from South Carolina.

During his time in Pennsylvania, he became one of America’s best loved outdoor writers.  His stories appeared in Outdoor Life and Field and Stream.  He wrote more than 50 books, including An American Hunter, Old Plantation Days, and Wildlife of the South.  His stories revealed the behavior of fox, deer, eagles, crows, and snakes.

Archibald Rutledge’s poems were widely published in magazines and books.  South Carolina Governor Ibra Blackwood was impressed with the writings of Rutledge. Though the author was living in Pennsylvania, the governor regarded him as a true South Carolina native.  In 1934, Archibald Rutledge became the first Poet Laureate of South Carolina.

Rutledge returned to South Carolina in the summertime with his three sons to hunt and fish.  He not only visited Hampton Plantation, but also made trips to the Appalachian Mountains.  From the ocean to the hills, he loved our state.

When he retired, he returned to Hampton Plantation and spent the remainder of his nearly 90 years, restoring his home.

I recently found an autographed copy of his collection of poems, Deep River. It was published in 1960 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His poems cover a wide range of subjects, from simple observations to profound thought. Many derive from his Lowcountry roots.

Spanish Moss

In Spanish moss there’s a mystery:

It veils the southern coast;

It shrouds the oaks and cypresses;

In it the little birds are lost.

It makes each wood a haunted place,

And every tree a ghost.

 

Other examples of his verse reveal a deep regard for people.

 

Permanent Wave

As my train sped through Lula,

A tiny Georgia town,

Dreaming amid the quiet hills,

Unknown to earth’s renown,

A little girl stood waving

At my proud heedless train;

I had just time to wave to her,

And see her wave again

When she was lost forever

Behind a low green hill,

But I shall always see her there,

Smiling and waving still.

 

In 1959, Grace Freeman, who would later become poet laureate of South Carolina, paid a visit to Rutledge at Hampton plantation. While she was there, a yellow school bus, full of elementary school students, came to visit. Dressed in hunting clothes, the weathered poet greeted the children.

One youngster exclaimed, “Why he is just an old backwoodsman!” The nature-loving writer would probably concur.

Among his nearly 100 books, were titles such as God’s Children, The Angel Standing, and Peace in the Heart. His writings gave testimony to his personal faith.

When asked about his writing, he said, “My formula is to find a subject worth writing about, and then to make it simple, and then to make it clear, and then to make it reach the heart, and then to make it beautiful.”

The autobiography of Archibald Rutledge is entitled In His Hand.  The title itself is an affirmation of his faith.

Archibald Rutledge died in 1973 in McClellanville, South Carolina.

Just last week I saw the poet’s name in our county. Archibald Rutledge Apartments are located near the Spartanburg Regional Hospital. The sight of his name prompted this column.

How many people in Spartanburg know the name Archibald Rutledge? How many have read any of his poetry? Perhaps this writing will prompt you to read some of the works of this remarkable South Carolinian.

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