Poet, artist, inventor. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1823, Legaré could trace his American ancestry on his father’s side of the family through six generations. The son of John D. Legaré, founding editor of the farm journal Southern Agriculturalist, and Mary Doughty Mathewes, Legaré came from enterprising stock, and from an early age, he was expected to work hard and bring honor to the family name.
In 1841, as part of a twenty-member freshman class, he entered the College of Charleston where he matriculated for one year before transferring to St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, perhaps to be closer to his influential cousin Hugh Swinton Legaré, who was then serving as U.S. Attorney General. Whatever benefit the family anticipated might accrue to the young Legaré from this connection came to naught when Hugh S. Legaré died suddenly while on a trip to Boston with other members of President Tyler’s cabinet in 1843.
Despite the loss of his cousin’s hoped-for patronage, Legaré returned to Charleston, empowered by his undergraduate experience in Baltimore, to take up the duties of law clerk. He also began showcasing his creative talent by exhibiting his paintings in local exhibitions and submitting poems to local periodicals. It was also during this period that a series of lung hemorrhages gave early indication that he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. In quest of a healthier climate and greater financial opportunity, his parents and he moved to Aiken, which then had a reputation as a therapeutic resort, especially for those suffering from consumption.
Once settled in a small cottage, which still stands at the bottom of Laurens Street, his father took up his duties as the local postmaster, and James Legaré tried his hand at a number of activities that he hoped would add to the family’s coffers and also enhance his reputation as a man of intellectual promise. He set up a painting school for the young ladies of the area; apparently not only his teaching skills but also his dark good looks soon attracted the attention of a number of female admirers, among them was to be numbered his future wife, Anne Andrews of Augusta, Georgia.
Legaré also focused considerable time and energy on mechanical invention, including the development of a new type of encaustic tile, an inexpensive glazier’s putty, and a material he called “lignine” or “plastic cotton” from which he fashioned shingles and furniture. Several of his furniture pieces ornamented with plastic cotton decorative elements, including a corner cupboard and a library screen, are in the permanent collection of the Charleston Museum.
Legaré also sought recognition for his poetry and fiction. In 1848, he published the slim volume of verse by which he is best known. Entitled Orta-Undis, roughly translated as “Sprung from the Waves”—a probable reference to the birth of Venus—the book, published by William Ticknor of Boston, attracted good reviews, including the endorsement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who became a faithful correspondent. He also published seventeen stories in some of the most popular national periodicals of the day, including the Knickerbocker Magazine and both Graham’s and Putnam’s Monthly Magazines. Often he was the only southern contributor.
Despite his fragile health, Legaré had a head full of ambitious schemes, most of which remained untried when he died of consumption in 1859 at the age of thirty-five. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church in Aiken; the grave is marked by a memorial stone financed by local high school students in 1942.
Orta-Undis clearly establishes Legaré as a southern poet in the Romantic tradition. Therein are echoes of two versifiers that he especially admired and from whom he derived inspiration: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, particularly in their shared tendency to moralize, and Edgar Allan Poe, especially in their shared devotion to the transforming power of the imagination. Of the poems published during his lifetime, most modern critics give highest marks to those that describe his engagement with the southern landscape, especially the native flora of his home state, like “Haw-Blossoms” and “To Jasmines in December.” Some critical praise has also been lavished on the longest poem in his personal canon,“Ornithologoi” or “Bird Voices,” which celebrates bird song and laments the practice of shooting birds for sport.
Legaré’s verse certainly compares favorably to the compositions of other southern poets of his age, including Henry Timrod and Paul Hamilton Hayne. Had his life not been cut short by illness, he may have made a greater claim to literary celebrity. As it is, like the English poet Thomas Chatterton, whose early death and misunderstood genius made him a Romantic icon, Legaré stands as an exemplar of largely unfulfilled promise.
Davis, Curtis Carroll. That Ambitious Mr. Legaré: The Life of James M. Legaré of South Carolina, Including a Collected Edition of His Verse. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Mack, Tom. Hidden History of Aiken County. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.