Only in the last several years have I thought of myself as a writer. Somehow it always seemed pretentious to admit to writing, especially in the fields of fiction and poetry. In the past when working with newspapers or magazines (albeit small, regional ones), I could own up to being an editor—after all, my name was printed on the masthead. But as a writer, I’ve yet to see a book with my name as author.
FROM A DIARY, LONG AGO AND NOT SO FAR AWAY
For several years, I’ve been working on my third manuscript for a novel. My fascination with the Old South and Civil War began, I suppose, with the family legend of my father’s grandfather. A photo shows him to be a distinguished, white haired man with a vibrant mustache and a missing arm. The tale goes that in returning home after losing his arm in the Civil War, he was on a train robbed by the James gang. The robbers stole everybody’s valuables, except those of the Confederate soldiers.
Apart from that, years ago I read Tombee, the diary of Thomas Chaplin, who inherited a plantation on St. Helena Island in the 1840s. He described the crops he planted, his slaves and their work, talked of disputes with his sickly wife, castigated himself for drinking too much, and grieved over the death of his young daughter to marsh fever. The tone and detail make it apparent that he wrote the diary for himself. Theodore Rosengarten, who edited Tombee, provides an introduction that goes into the nooks and crannies of Chaplin’s life.
About five years ago, I reread Tombee. More recently, I went to Beaufort and found the plantation house, now privately owned. Looking on it and the landscape that was once Chaplin’s fields where his slaves tilled the soil was a near religious experience. Thomas Chaplin wasn’t a literary man and was undistinguished in his day. Yet he lives on in his house. His day-to-day existence persists in his diary. That it survived the War and was saved from oblivion seems more than serendipity. Maybe it was fate. I can’t seem to escape the notion that his fate and mine are connected some way. So I’m writing a story about a plantation owner on St. Helena Island, one who would have known Thomas Chaplin.