Novelist, short story writer, educator. Born near Ninety-Six, South Carolina, on September 2, 1865, Elliott Crayton McCants was a man of two callings: educator and novelist. McCants attended the Citadel, graduating in 1886; as a condition of his scholarship to that institution, McCants was required to teach for two years in Abbeville, South Carolina. After fulfilling this obligation, McCants then tried his hand at farming, but this venture was a miserable failure; after a year on the farm, McCants found himself broke, so he returned to the classroom, which is where he would remain for the remainder of his professional career. He died on October 23, 1953, in Anderson, South Carolina, at the age of 86.
While McCants was inducted posthumously into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1996, teaching was his professional calling. He spent 58 years as an educator, most of those years in Anderson, South Carolina, where he closed out his career as the superintendent of the city’s public schools, retiring in 1945. He is remembered there as one of the most public-minded citizens of his day, and McCants Middle School is named after him. McCants was a vigorous and outspoken educator whose pastoral sensibilities found their way into the classroom in a significant way: he believed hard work to be the single most important aspect of a student’s education. His writings on the topic continually stress the importance of education not solely for the talented students but as much or more for the average learners who make up the majority of any student body. McCants was a true believer in the role of education to create a better society; in the February, 1937 issue of Forum magazine, he writes, “Left to themselves, most people, whatever their need, will teach themselves nothing.” Shortly thereafter he provides an effective synopsis of the role of the educator in society: “Even with all the aid which environment gives, self-made men are usually ill made.” Effective education, McCants believed, would lead to a better society.
Yet teaching was only one side of McCants’s life of letters; he was also a novelist of some note in his own time. McCants’s literary output was never very prolific, undoubtedly due to his obligations as an educator. His publications fall into two distinct stages. In the first stage, the first decade of the twentieth century, McCants published the works for which he is perhaps best remembered: the postbellum novel In the Red Hills: A Story of the South Carolina Country (1904) and a volume of shorter pieces titled One of the Gray Jackets (1908). While he wrote and published hundreds of short stories in his career, McCants fell silent in terms of longer works for nearly two decades. Then, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he published a spate of books including Histories, Legends, and Stories of South Carolina (1927); the novel White Oak Farm (1928), set in Reconstruction-era South Carolina; and the novel Ninety-Six (1930), a work also set in South Carolina, but this time during the Revolutionary War.
McCants’s literary works consistently deal with pastoral and historical themes within the specific context of South Carolina and its people. In the preface to Histories, Legends, and Stories of South Carolina, McCants describes the book as “an attempt to present that which, for want of a better name, may be called the atmosphere of South Carolina history.” His novels, likewise, explore the collective psyche of the state. Nowadays his tales might be seen as traditional and sentimental, but they were well-received in their day. The most dominant aspect of McCants’s work, however, is the celebration of the independent spirit of South Carolina and its people. It is not difficult to see that McCants prided himself in his identity as a South Carolinian, and his fiction represents a continuing celebration of his native state. He wrote in the preface to One of the Gray Jackets, “Truly, we of Carolina have our troubles as others do, but God has been good to us. Because of all this, at the feet of his mother State the author places his humble offering.”
Perhaps most telling is the novel White Oak Farm. In this novel McCants explores the reconfiguration of the status quo and the racial tensions that existed in agrarian South Carolina after the Civil War. The racial views of Pembroke Gautier, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, may strike readers now as somewhat distasteful, crude, and ignorant. Yet McCants has his narrator present himself openly and honestly as a man whose views of race are at the same time both blameworthy and laudable—he may not believe that racial equality is possible, but at the same time he finds racial oppression to be morally repugnant. As a result, this character undoubtedly personifies McCants’s own view of what it means to be a South Carolinian: proud and independent, at times to a fault, but willing to see that fault where it lies. At one point in the novel, Pembroke claims, “I am a South Carolinian, above all else. If this be a small and narrow patriotism peculiar to ignorance and the agrarian class, then grant me, I pray you, the license of the ignorant. Permit me to be myself. I believe that South Carolina had a right to secede from the Union; I also believe that she was exceedingly ill-advised in attempting to exercise that right. I feel that slavery was a moral wrong and an economic blunder.”
In hindsight, through characters such as Pembroke Gautier, McCants presents us with all that is good and all that is regrettable about the state he loved so, and thus his works display the continuing social education of the state of South Carolina. McCants is willing to see the faults his state’s citizens had embraced in the past, but he cannot allow himself to engage in wholesale condemnation—he loves his birthplace too much.
Cauthen, Charles Edward. South Carolina Goes to War, 1860–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
Epps, Edwin C. Literary South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Hub City Press, 2004. Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.