This cultural organization helped revive the arts, not just in Charleston and South Carolina, but in the South in general.
This cultural organization helped revive the arts, not just in Charleston and South Carolina, but in the South in general. During the 1920s it had a national audience and was credited with sparking one of the first flowerings of what was subsequently called the Southern Literary Renaissance. Although incorporated in Charleston on November 17, 1920, the movement spearheaded by the Poetry Society had been developing for years. One key player was John Bennett of Ohio, who upon settling in Charleston in 1902 encouraged the use of local motifs and lore in the creative arts. It was not until after World War I, however, that his ideas caught on. The younger DuBose Heyward turned to Bennett for writing advice, as did Hervey Allen of Pittsburgh, who moved south following military service. For several years the three met together to discuss literature and art. At the same time, Laura Bragg of the Charleston Museum, another nonnative, mentored a group of women, including Helen von Kolnitz (later Hyer) and Josephine Pinckney. Meeting together, the two groups worked on Heyward’s idea to found a local organization, based on the Poetry Society of America, with its aim to encourage all southern poets. This was a novel idea at the time, for the South was lagging behind culturally, a lingering result of the Civil War. The region was openly ridiculed by the Baltimore journalist Henry Mencken, who wrote of the area’s sterility in his famous essay “The Sahara of the Bozart.” The Charlestonians did not know of the essay when they founded their organization and had their first meeting in January 1921. By the time of their first annual yearbook, however, they had proved Mencken wrong. The society continued to prosper for the entire decade, bringing in nationally and internationally known speakers and critics and giving large cash awards for poetry, the largest one being the Blindman Prize, named for a poem by Hervey Allen. Critics and poets turned to the group as the leader of the literary arts revival in the South; many states soon founded similar societies. Although other southern groups and schools, such as the Fugitive poets of Nashville, outstripped and eclipsed the Poetry Society of South Carolina, it nevertheless had a profound impact on the decade. Writers affiliated with it won two Pulitzer Prizes (Julia Peterkin for fiction and Robert Lathan for editorial writing) and became the ranking poets of their day, later moving on to prose and drama. The impact of the society was greater than literary, however. As an umbrella organization, it fostered the cultural rebirth of the area and stimulated the growth and development of many other agencies, such as the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. The society declined in national prominence by the end of the 1920s, and over the following years its fortunes waxed and waned. However, it continued into the twenty-first century as a viable group encouraging poets and the writing of poetry.
Greene, Harlan. Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Harrison, James G. The Poetry Society of South Carolina. Charleston: Poetry Society of South Carolina, 1972.