In addition to writing novels, Coker reviewed books and published satirical poems in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. For some four decades she was deeply engaged in other efforts that defined her era’s literary and cultural life in South Carolina and the region.
Writer. Once referred to by a friend as “South Carolina’s First Lady of Letters,” Elizabeth Boatwright Coker was born in Darlington on April 21, 1909, the daughter of Purvis Jenkins Boatwright and Bessie Heard. Her career as a published writer began in 1925 when, as an eleventh-grade student, she won the Poetry Society of South Carolina’s Carroll Prize for her poem “Noches.” She went on to become editor of the literary magazine at Converse College, where she earned a B.A. in 1929. She later did graduate work at Middlebury College in Vermont. On September 27, 1930, she married James Lide Coker III, who subse- quently became president of Sonoco Products Company in Hartsville. The marriage produced two children. Except for summer retreats to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and periods of schooling and travel, Coker spent the rest of her life in Hartsville.
Between 1950 and 1981 Coker published nine novels in the genre of the historical romance, allowing her to exploit her deep interest in all periods of the southern and South Carolina experience. Her first novel, Daughter of Strangers (1950), was a dramatic treatment of racial identity set in New Orleans and the South Carolina lowcountry of the 1830s and 1840s. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for six months and was a selection of the Fiction Book Club. After reading the book, fellow South Carolina writer Chapman Milling claimed that Coker was “a national writer to be reckoned with.” Her next novel, The Day of the Peacock (1952), was set in a twentieth-century South Carolina mill village and explored the struggle between old wealth and new labor through the lives of those whose existences were tied to “the most modern spinning plant in the new South of today.” India Allan (1953) shifted in action between South Carolina and Virginia, portraying the lives of South Carolinians caught up in the dramatic events of secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Two more novels followed in quick succession, The Big Drum (1957) and La Belle (1959), the latter a spirited portrait of Marie Boozer, the notorious southern belle who “flirted her way to the top of South Carolina society” before riding away with Sherman’s army after the burning of Columbia.
Coker’s sixth novel, Lady Rich (1963), was distinguished for its Elizabethan English setting. Her 1968 work, The Bees, returned to twentieth-century South Carolina for its depiction of a prominent family at odds with itself. Blood Red Roses (1977), for which Bantam Books paid a record price for the paperback rights, told the story of Hilton Head Island during the Civil War. The Grasshopper King (1981) concerned the doomed Mexican Empire of Maximilian and Carlotta.
In addition to writing novels, Coker reviewed books and published satirical poems in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. In 1962 she won the International P.E.N. Short Story Contest of the American Branch of P.E.N. For some four decades she was deeply engaged in other efforts that defined her era’s literary and cultural life in South Carolina and the region. She stayed in touch with other writers, encouraged new talent, and appeared as a reader and lecturer in innumerable programs. She taught seminars in colleges and universities and lectured throughout the South. She was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1991, and in 1992 she was selected for membership in the South Carolina Hall of Fame. She died in Hartsville on September 1, 1993, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Hartsville.
Coker, Elizabeth Boatwright. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.