“Aiken is a very curious part of the world – great wealth and great poverty, the two utmost extremes of American life,” wrote Hamilton Basso, who spent two winters, 1933 and 1934, in Aiken in a cottage on Kalmia Hill. His landlady was Eulalie Salley, then resident in the antebellum Pickens mansion that is now part of the fabric of the USC Aiken campus.
A native of New Orleans, where as a reporter for three local newspapers he had become familiar with the local literary scene, sharing moments with such luminaries as Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner and experimenting with his own stories and poems, Basso struggled to find his own voice. A job in advertising gave him, for a time, the financial security to shepherd two novels to publication; but their disappointing sales and the onset of the Great Depression – he and his young wife, Etolia, lost half of their savings in a local bank crisis – forced Basso to leave New Orleans and move to the mountains of North Carolina to cut expenses.
The couple settled in 1932 in a rustic cabin in the Pisgah Forest, about four miles from Brevard. At first, Basso enjoyed the beauty of his new surroundings; but with the coming of winter – the plumbing burst due to the cold temperatures – his wife urged him to head further south to what he later described as “hoity-toity” Aiken and “the decadent luxuries of high-balls, soft beds, dressing for dinner.”
The first two winters that the Bassos spent in Aiken – they were to return once again in 1940 – provided the basis for his third novel titled “In Their Own Image." Published in 1935 to mixed reviews, the book should be of considerable interest to local readers because of its evocative recreation of the great divide between the rich and poor in Aiken County during the Great Depression. The cast of characters is representative of two separate populations: On one side are the fabulously wealthy members of Aiken’s winter colony; on the other side are the working class citizens of the mill towns in the Horse Creek Valley.
As the novel opens, advertising executive Pierson James arrives in Aiken by train; he is the invited guest of the nouveau riche, social-climbing Emma Troy. After the death of her husband, who made a fortune from whipped mayonnaise, Emma is intent on making sure that her children have the advantages denied to her in rural Illinois. Thus, she has married her rather stolid son Freddie to the glamorous playgirl Benita Sturme, who is bored with her husband and with Aiken: “It’s a pleasant place for horses. I’d be crazy about it if I were a horse.”
Emma plots to marry off her daughter as well, hoping to ally her family not just to old money but to titled nobility; her choice of a mate for the naïve, freckle-faced Virginia is an impoverished Italian count, whose sole function in life, according to Pierson James, “is to accept invitations” to stay at the homes of rich Americans.
Most of the novel’s plot revolves around the fate of these members of the Troy family, but there is a host of other characters the reader encounters as part of the seemingly endless round of social activities that make up the day-to-day calendar of the winter colonists: parties (brunch, cocktails, dinner), bridge games, polo and tennis matches, and drives through the country.
In stark contrast to the privileged lifestyle of Aiken’s wealthy winter residents, whom one character describes as “aristocrats” not by birthright but by “moneyright,” is the hand-to-mouth existence of the inhabitants of Berrytown, the fictional mill village that Basso situates 10 miles west of Aiken.
Representative of that underprivileged class is Michael Langford, a character who also provides the reader with another set of eyes through which to view the phenomenon of Aiken’s winter residents. Unlike James, who is invited inside the “cottages” of the idle rich, Langford can catch only glimpses of that private enclave from the other side of the hedges and brick walls that close off the outer world from the domain of the wealthy.
As an outsider, the 22-year-old Langford observes the comings and goings of the winter people, who arrive in town annually just after the New Year and depart after the “season” comes to a close following the steeplechase races in March. Fortunate enough to hitch a ride from Berrytown to the commercial core of Aiken, Langford walks down Park Avenue, described as “a wide street with many trees,” until he reaches the scaffold-encased courthouse – the county courthouse was indeed undergoing a facelift in 1934 – and then turns right, crosses the bridge over the railroad cut, and enters the “silent and still” neighborhood of the super-rich.
Dressed in his work clothes, Langford is almost invariably chased away from the gates of Aiken’s walled-in mansions by family retainers paid to preserve the privacy of their bosses. In the case of Emma Troy’s estate, whose main house is a faux French chateau, all he can do is sit across the street and sketch the gate whose hinges are hammered into the shape of a fleur-de-lis. A sensitive soul, Langford has discovered a talent for drawing, and he is simultaneously attracted to the beauty of Aiken’s horse district and incensed by the fact that by an accident of birth he is denied more than a glimpse of that world.
Much happens in this novel, which is a sprawling melodramatic saga of both the haves and the have-nots. There is romance, and there is death, the latter the result of two momentary intersections of the two worlds described in the book.
According to Eulalie Salley, whose real estate business was dependent to a great extent on the patronage of the town’s winter residents, Basso was largely unsympathetic to people whose wealth sheltered them from reality. “Ham was all for the underdog,” she avowed.
Certainly most of the 11 novels that Basso eventually published could be categorized under the heading of social realism. A self-proclaimed “free-thinking liberal,” the author was critical of the social structures that reinforced inequality of opportunity.
Before his death in 1964, Basso himself achieved a modicum of the popular success that he yearned for as an aspiring young writer in New Orleans. He eventually earned a comfortable living as a novelist and a contributor to periodicals such as “The New Republic” and “The New Yorker.”
His best-known fictional work “The View from Pompey’s Head” came out in 1954 and immediately hit the best-seller lists. It was translated to the big screen a year later as a starring vehicle for Richard Egan, who plays the protagonist, a young lawyer who returns to the small Southern town of his youth in order to solve a mystery involving an elderly author. In the end, the secret that Anson Page uncovers serves to reinforce the racial and class prejudices that made him so uncomfortable with the place of his birth. The town in question, the fictional Pompey’s Head, is thought by some to be Beaufort, South Carolina, where Basso lived in 1938-39.
This is the third in a series of columns focused on books with an Aiken connection, all worthy selections for a stay-at-home reading list during the current pandemic.