Southern Gentleman

Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter annotated with the assistance of Susan W. Walker)

(with “The Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin, 1822–1890,” edited and, by Theodore Rosengarten
William Morrow, 750 pp., $22.95

Theodore Rosengarten’s talents were well displayed in his prize-winning book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, a biography of a twentieth-century Alabama sharecropper. He has repeated that success in Tombee, a study of a nineteenth-century low-country slaveholder. His choice of subject, however, raises the question, Why should anyone wish to read a biography and journal of a feckless cotton planter who knew little about himself and less about the society around him? Thomas B. Chaplin of South Carolina lacks distinction, quite in contrast to the patriarchs and matrons of the Jones, Hammond, and Chesnut clans about whom substantial and well-regarded works have recently appeared. With enough resilience to start over again in the chaos of postwar life, these families, living not far from Chaplin, had been architects of late slaveholding civilization.

Chaplin, by contrast, laid scarcely a brick in the edifice and accomplished little for its postwar rehabilitation. At forty he had less money and power than he had had at twenty; at fifty, after the war, he was landless and penniless, a condition for which he and not just the invasion of Union forces was chiefly responsible. A brandy sniffer before the war, he became an opium addict afterward. At times Rosengarten himself must have wondered whether so unpromising a specimen deserved much historical attention.

The answer, though, is a resounding yes. Neurotic, self-pitying, yet likeable, Chaplin reminds us that slaveholders were not all Simon Legrees or “upwardly mobile” entrepreneurs in agribusiness, or pious patricians giving out homilies along with the weekly slave rations. These are character types long popular among historians of the South, but Chaplin’s life reveals some of the more Faulknerian aspects of Southern culture. In his deviation from conventional success, Chaplin was a victim of the very social standard by which he judged himself and others, a circumstance which, Rosengarten shows, lends considerable meaning to his experiences.

Unlike most of life’s losers, he had the discipline required for keeping a diary, writing more or less faithfully from 1845 to 1858 and making further commentary in later, much sadder, years. Ideas, however, touched him “lightly,” says Rosengarten, “like the vapors of a glass of brandy.” Moreover, his initial entries were seldom very reflective about his own or anyone else’s role in events. Only on reflection did he find lessons for humility or show a poignant irony. Even the preservation of the diary suggests the artlessness of the document itself. In 1928 a Charleston pawnbroker sold Chaplin’s book to the South Carolina Historical Society for ten dollars. He had received it from a grandson in exchange for “liquor money.”

In 1845, at age twenty-three, Chaplin began his diary in a happy frame of mind. Lacking a critical faculty, he expected it to be both a practical farming log and an entertaining record of a country gentleman’s pleasant life in a plantation community in St. Helena, one of the Carolina Sea Islands, where he and companions like Ned Capers …

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