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20.04.01 Archibald Rutledge and the Agrarian Life: A Brief Essay, by Alan James Harrelson.

This brief essay by Society Member Alan Harrelson is inspired by Archibald Rutledge’s Home By The River, which was originally published in 1941.  Archibald Hamilton Rutledge (1883–1973) was a Southern poet and educator and the first poet laureate of his home state of South Carolina (1934 to 1973).  He wrote over 50 books and many poems, usually about his hunting and life experiences in South Carolina, many of them first published in outdoors magazines, such as “Field and Stream”.

Of Rutledge, Alan Harrelson writes:

Twentieth century South Carolina writer Archibald Rutledge was a man of well mannered yet piercing character: he meant what he said and said what he meant, “Certain writers have invested plantation life with glamour. I believe it had that glamour. Other writers have insisted that plantation glamour was a myth. I think they are wrong.”  With these and other pointed statements Rutledge penned his literary portraits of his Carolina lowcountry. Originally published in 1941, Home By The River is a gentleman’s tale about a gentleman’s country. Long before the present age of immediate gratification and the relative success of the gospel of progress, Southern writers made conscious effort to compose literature intended to reflect an actual culture. Rutledge was a man with no identity crisis. He identified with his state and the South, but most of all he was the man from Hampton Plantation, his ancestral home-place. 

Regardless as to what the majority of scholars have come to conclude about the “changing” or “postmodern” South, things having to do with place and history still define a goodly portion of what constitutes the Southern tradition. No one understood this better than Rutledge. A native South Carolinian, avid hunter and keeper of his lands, Rutledge wrote of a time and place in the early twentieth century South that had more in common with the agrarian culture of the eighteenth century than the transient and flighty atmosphere of our own time. He wrote of the old ballroom dances at Hampton, the hunting parties of his youth, the people and memories that made up his sense of place in the world. He knew Hampton as a place where one could count on the blooming of spring flowers, and the reality of loving friends and family. He knew it as the very heart of his personal experiences and therefore a central element of his mental and emotional being. With Rutledge, his lands were never merely a catalyst for the production of commodities, but rather a living source of happiness and inspiration. He saw the dangers of American modernity. Home By The River stands as one of Rutledge’s most powerful literary critiques of a changing time. If ever a twentieth century South Carolinian articulated the Southern tradition, it was Archibald Rutledge.

Written after an extended career as an English teacher at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, Home By The River tells Rutledge’s homecoming story. He told of the people that made up his memories, and the reasons why he believed lowcountry life more complete and genuine than life in places more susceptible to the seductive temptations of the modern world. Penned immediately prior to the Second World War, Rutledge captured in his lowcountry memoir many important aspects of the Southern agrarian culture that began to wane significantly during the following decades. His telling of a sense of community is compelling. His understanding of matters spiritual suggests to this author a major correlation in Rutledge’s mind between a loss of land and a loss of soul. There is something pure about a sense of place and belonging to a home that cultivates appreciation for what Russell Kirk called the “permanent things.” Rutledge comprehended the divine. His best pieces show this, including Home By The River, perhaps his most widely known work. For someone interesting in discovering an image of rural South Carolina traditions of home, family, and faith, I can think of no better place to start than Rutledge’s literature on the glamorous Hampton plantation.      

To see our listing of Rutledge’s Home By The River and My Colonel and His Lady, go to 08.01.06. 

Alan James Harrelson