Ex Libris: Archibald Rutledge

Illustration by Stephen Chesley

Affectionately known as “Old Flintlock” to friends and family, Archibald Rutledge was as a prolific a writer as he was diverse. Runner-up for the Nobel Prize in literature, he was South Carolina’s first poet laureate, a position he held for nearly 30 years, and he published dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of poems in national publications like Field and Stream.

The first edition of Old Plantation Days, published privately by Eddy Press circa 1912 and limited to 200 or so copies, included five stories that the latter 1921 commercial edition did not. Thus, The Egret’s Plumes, Claws, The Doom of Ravenswood, and The Ocean’s Menace have been recently published for the first time in a century by the University of South Carolina Press, with The Heart of Regal forthcoming.

These narratives form part of his “chimera stories,” adventure tales with dangerous wildlife and threatening terrain — huge diamondback rattlesnakes, enormous alligators, and prowling bobcats. As Jim Casada writes in the afterward of The Ocean’s Menace, “Rutledge was fascinated by strange places, dangerous beasts, the supernatural.” He also frequently features an introspective paradigm shift in the protagonist as a result of the suspenseful climax.

In The Ocean’s Menace, it is not a wild beast that plays the chimera, but the daunting landscape itself. “That vast lonely, and unsearchable swamp … seven miles long by six miles wide” was an actual mysterious, wild region near his own Hampton Plantation and appears repeatedly in his stories, thrice in a titular role. In his trademark poetic exaggeration, Rutledge’s narrator relates that no one who had ever penetrated “the Ocean” had ever returned: “the Ocean remained inviolate and primeval; the virgin timber, the tall grasses, the exotic flowers, the strange silences, and the stranger noises. To man its doors were closed, and seemed to be closed forever.”

The story follows a young hunter who risks the dangers of the Ocean in pursuit of a buck that he believes is mortally wounded. However, upon finally advancing on his prey, he discovers too late that the deer is not floundering from his rifle shot but in quicksand. “They were no longer pursuer and pursued, but equally in danger, and equally apparently doomed.” In a dramatic shift of roles, the hunter finds that it is only in helping the deer escape the bog that he has a chance of survival. Yet, upon the deer dragging him to safety, “He reached for his knife; but even while he remembered where and how he had lost it, he felt a revulsion of feeling and a sudden sense of manly shame.” His prey thus metamorphoses into his savior, that which he sought to kill offering him redemption.

Despite the fact that true quicksand does not exist in South Carolina, deep, boggy pluff mud can offer an adequate substitute and was clearly a subject of fascination for Old Flintlock with The Doom of Ravenswood offering the same chimera of place in a menacing terrain. In a tale replete with Christian imagery, the protagonist is lured into a bog of quicksand on his journey home by the appeal of picking some beautiful swamp flowers. In the afterward by Charles W. Waring, III, he writes, “The desperate horseman speaks to his pride in being strong and knowledgeable about the woods and how such traits did ‘appear drawbacks’ as he struggled in the depths of the swamp. The author telegraphs his view of the tragic nature of self-reliance devoid of a savior when he says, ‘My fate lay in my own hands; and wretched fate, where to put forth the strength of which I was so proud was but to sink deeper, to strangle, and to die!’”

Claws narrates the harrowing tale of a young boy lost in the swamp on an evening stumbling into the path of a truculent bobcat, desperate for any means of escape from pursuing hounds. The mounting tension culminates when little Paul and the cat are trapped by each other crossing a deep lagoon on the same fallen log. As Ben McC. Moïse explains in his afterward, “It could also be said that the character of the swamp itself played a large part in Rutledge’s narrative. Depicted as treacherous, dark and forbidding, haunted, and beset with stagnant waters and sucking morasses, the swamp took on a very frightening, formidable role, adding greatly to the element of danger so necessary for adventure stories.”

The Egret’s Plumes subtly weaves a cautionary tale of conservation within the adventure of the swamp. Similar to The Ocean’s Menace, in an ironic plot reversal the hunter becomes prey, and his life only possible through the safety of his target. And like The Doom of Ravenswood, the protagonist experiences a life-altering “conversion moment” that fundamentally transforms his perspective and assumptions.

Filled with Columbia artist Stephen Chesley’s bewitching charcoal illustrations, both depicting specific scenes and embellishing the story with portraits of wildlife likely on the periphery, this series published by the USC Press is certain to charm any outdoor enthusiast and lover of Southern literature.

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