My brother-in-law Greg Gambrell wrote a fine story in the Electric City News that described our hometown of Anderson through the words of Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel.
Wolfe (1900-1938) was raised in Asheville, N.C., and his older sister Effie married Fred Gambrell, a grocer in Anderson, S.C. Effie (1887-1950) and Fred (1884-1952), portrayed as Daisy and Joe in the book, were Greg's grandparents. Anderson is named Henderson in the book, and Asheville is Altamont.
Wolfe evidently made several trips to Anderson, at a time when it was becoming known as The Electric City, thanks to the genius of William C. Whitner, an electrical pioneer associated with inventor Nikola Tesla. By the time Wolfe visited, our forefathers had electric streetcars and other conveniences.
Yet Wolfe did not see Anderson as a shining city on a hill. In his book, he described "Henderson" as:
"a haven of enervation, red clay, ignorance, slander, and superstition,
in whose effluent rays he (Fred) has been reared."
I had to look up enervation. I hoped it was a deferential compliment to Mr. Whitner's energy and innovations. Instead, Mr. Webster defines enervate as a verb that means "to reduce mental or moral vigor."
Ouch! That's my homefolks you're talking about, mister!
On the other hand, I knew Wolfe didn't mind stepping on toes of those who recognized themselves in his thinly veiled fiction. In Look Homeward, Angel, he also insulted some of his old neighbors in Asheville—to the point that the city library banned his book for several years.
After learning that my hometown had caught the harsh gaze of Thomas Wolfe, I started to wonder: What other writers have left us impressions of primordial Anderson?
The first who came to mind was Hannibal Johnson (1841-1913), a who commanded the Union troops who occupied Anderson in 1865 and 1866. In 1905, Lt. Johnson returned to Anderson, which he described warmly in his memoir, The Sword of Honor. I encountered his book while researching my Civil War newspaper, The Stoneman Gazette.
With a 40-year perspective, Lt. Johnson described Anderson as "an obscure village ... grown into a thriving city." Johnson solicited the governor of Maine to support an Anderson teacher name Lenora Hubbard, who graciously tended for the graves of three Union soldiers in Anderson. Johnson's book includes letters from Miss Hubbard where she describes the hardships of life in Anderson in the Reconstruction era.
I will be on the lookout for other authors' impressions of Anderson. One I need to re-read is Clemson native Ben Robertson (1903-1943), author of Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory. Robertson was a contemporary of Wolfe and wrote a sympathy letter to his mother, Julia Wolfe, after Tom died of tuberculosis at age 38. Robertson (a journalism graduate of Missouri like yours truly) died in a plane crash in Portugal while serving as a World War II correspondent.
If you know of other authors who have written of Anderson's formative years, please leave a comment.