A Letter from America XIV: A Trip to Charleston, with Local Botany (May)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Production schedules being what they are, you are reading this column in the lovely month of May, though it was written in the depths of a snowy New England March. Our too solid flesh is not about to melt, but seems fated to remain frozen for some time to come. But that is no concern of yours. Seated on the broad verandah, your gaze looks across the verdant greensward to the carefully trimmed parterres; the stench of the Venus fly-traps beneath the porch pays tribute to your defiantly post-modern gardening tastes. One of your staff slides noiselessly up to your chaise, proffering a broad silver slaver containing only your favorite cocktail and the latest issue of ABR. As evening sinks and the pet howler monkeys cavort on the lawn uttering their lugubrious cries, you allow yourself a small sigh of satisfaction as you turn to Letter from America.

Several weeks ago I could stand the winter no longer and went on a short jaunt to Charleston, South Carolina, a town with a wonderful history in both books and gardens. One of the richest towns of colonial America, Charleston was a base for such famous early naturalists as Mark Catesby, Andre Michaux and his son, and John James Audubon. Indeed, a visitor might get the impression that Audubon lived there all his life, so frequently do his name and images appear. In fact he only visited for brief stretches, although his co-author John Bachman was a native and his sons married local girls, Bachman’s daughters. The French botanist and secret agent Michaux had a far greater impact on the city and surrounding area, for he started one of the first commercial nurseries in the United States there in the 1786, importing many seeds and plants. Catesby, in the 1730s, took things in the other direction, exporting many American plants and trees to England, and made them known to European audiences through his Natural History of Carolina....

Modern Charleston has made itself a tourist mecca, but in a low-key, down-home sort of way. There are several good opportunities for book browsing. The Charleston Rare Book Company should not be missed, and the two branches of Atlantic Books offer a well-chosen out-of-print stock. Dining had also moved up several notches since I was last there, moving past the fancy forms of grits that used to represent Southern nouvelle cuisine [note to English readers: grits are a tasteless, colorless pablum thought to be edible by Americans who talk slow]. I recommend McCrady’s, which as a serious and unusual wine list, and Cru Café, which is truly New Southern.

But you don’t come to Charleston for food or bookstores – you come for the gardens. In town, head for a walking tour of the historic area south of Broad Street, where the antebellum mansions are concentrated. That means "pre-Civil War" around here, the major defining event in Charleston thinking (one native confessed to me that the devastating Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was a great relief because "before that all we talked about was the Civil War, and now we talk about Hugo as well"). The astounding architecture and the world of half-glimpsed hidden gardens is completely fascinating to any real estate or garden fantasist, and will become a real test of how shameless one is at peering through garden gates and looking over walls.

To see the real gardens, though, you have to go out of town, up the road that runs along the Ashley River, to Middleton Place Plantation. Here the Middletons, the richest family in colonial Carolina, began laying out the oldest surviving formal garden in America in 1741. Added to by several generations, the extensive gardens still survive in something close to their original form. A striking feature are the camellias, in full bloom on a warm and sunny February day. Andre Michaux presented the first camellias here to Arthur Middleton in 1786, and they are claimed to be the first introduced in America (this pride of place is disputed by the Audubon Gardens next door, who claim theirs are earlier, but as their signs refer to "Michaeu," I discount their assertions). The gardens overlook the Ashley River, which would have been the main highway to Charleston until the late nineteenth century.

A tour of the plantation house revealed an unexpected bibliographical connection. The main mansion was burned by the damn Yankees (anything that burned or fell down in the South for twenty years of either side of the Civil War is blamed on the Yankees) but a wing the size of a regular house survives. Here I was reminded that one of the scions of the family was John Izard Middleton, generally considered the first classical archeologist of the United States. The Middletons in general are a reminder how European these colonial elites might be; most of them went to England for their later education and made the Grand Tour like any English gentleman; others of the family served the United States as ambassadors to Russia and elsewhere for decades. John Izard spent most of his adult life in Italy, and in 1812 published in London a superb aquatint book, Grecian Remains of Italy...with Topographical and Picturesque Views of Ancient Latium. This book is aquatint at its most appealing, especially its large folding plate of Monte Cavo, a tour de force of the medium. To my surprise, John Izard’s beautiful original watercolors for this book are hung in the entrance hall and up the front stairs, with a copy of the book in a case below. The rugged scenes of ruins were sublime; the view of the gardens picturesque, and all in all it was a nice combination of book and garden for a winter’s day, far from the frozen wastes of New England.

– William S. Reese