Novelist, poet, nonfiction writer. Baldwin was born in McClellanville, South Carolina, on October 27, 1944. He is the son of William P. Baldwin, Jr., a wildlife biologist and real-estate broker, and Agnes Leland, a title researcher and historian. He was raised in the lowcountry in Savannah, Georgia, and in Bluffton and Summerville, South Carolina. He graduated from high school in Summerville in 1962. Baldwin married Lillian Morrison on August 15, 1965, and they have two sons, Aaron and Malcolm. Baldwin is a would-have-been architect with two degrees from Clemson University, a B.A. in history (1966) and an M.A. in English (1968). After university he returned to McClellanville and has remained in the area, where he has made a living by crabbing, oystering, shrimping, serving as a magistrate, writing screenplays for Hollywood, designing and building houses, and writing fiction.
Baldwin has said: “I think of myself as a novelist. Whenever I get ahead in life, I write a novel, which is why I stay broke.” His first novel, The Hard to Catch Mercy (1993), was universally well received, winning the Lillian Smith Award for Fiction and becoming a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. In the oral tradition of the South, the novel is narrated by the fourteen-year-old Willie T. Allson, who in the year 1916 is sent on a mythic journey to gain his manhood. With humor and passion Baldwin tells the entertaining and anecdote-filled story of the Allson family and their life in the South Carolina lowcountry. The landscape comes to life, and the characters stand out as highly original and yet convincingly real human beings of that place and time. It is a grotesque, violent, and above all compelling story of initiation and recognition. The boy learns about revenge, death, sex, the abiding influence of the past on the present, the “failures” of his family’s collective memory, and the possibility of happiness. All in all, Baldwin’s first novel was a splendid entry for him into the ranks of accomplished South Carolina novelists.
The fun Baldwin had with his stereotyping of classic southern fiction in his first novel was continued, and perhaps exaggerated, in his second, The Fennel Family Papers (1996). In this novel he satirized a young historian’s pathetic attempt to get tenure by securing and publishing the historic papers of an ancient, notorious, and decadent family, the Fennels. This Swiftian tale of the eccentric South Carolina family, who supposedly were keepers of the lighthouse of Dog Tooth Shoal since before the Revolutionary War, is darkly comic. From the story of the naively ambitious academic’s research among the violent and mad members of the Fennel family, Baldwin created unforgettable and hilarious satire.
Baldwin has also published with the photographer Jane Iseley four nonfiction books about historic Charleston and the plantations of the lowcountry. He has also published two oral history reports featuring Mrs. Emily Whaley (1913–1998), grande dame of Charleston society, and her recollections of her garden, cuisine, recipes, and entertaining. In a similar vein is his oral history report Heaven Is a Beautiful Place (2000), based on his conversations with Genevieve C. “Sister” Peterkin (b. 1928), which is a memoir of life at Murrell’s Inlet on the South Carolina coast. The screenplay for that book—Heaven Is a Beautiful Place—won Baldwin a Silver Remy at the Houston Film Festival in 2012.
Baldwin’s third novel A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of His Death (2005) is a mixture of fiction and historical fact based on the prominent Charleston newspaper editor Francis W. Warrington’s life and his violent death in a duel on March 12, 1889. The novel evokes the language of both polite upper-class society and intimate domestic or hidden lives. The novel is most effective as a study of turbulent gender patterns, the codes of honor in the Old South society, and their dramatic consequences.
With The Unpainted South (2011) Baldwin, together with photographer Selden Hill, continued to document the South with an emphasis on the lowcountry. The newest element in his work is poetry, which won him the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. Baldwin, who is a member of the South Carolina Poetry Society, has continued his lyrical celebrations of the state’s natural resources, lifestyles, cuisine, oral history, and architecture in These Our Offerings (2012), a book with photographs by Selden Hill, Sharon Cumbee, and Robert Epps.
Abbott, Reginald. “The Hard to Catch Mercy: A Review.” Southern Quarterly 32 (summer 1994): 169–71.
Baldwin, William, Currie McCullough, and Bradford Collins. William McCullough, Southern Painter in Conversation with William Baldwin, Southern Writer. Charleston: The History Press, 2006.