How Grand a Flame

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although the content of HOW GRAND A FLAME is clearly described in its subtitle, “A Chronicle of a Plantation Family, 1813-1947,” Clyde Bresee’s achievement becomes evident only when one begins to turn the pages of this outstanding history. Like his earlier book SEA ISLAND YANKEE, HOW GRAND A FLAME tells the story of life on James Island, across the Ashley River from Charleston, South Carolina. Whereas SEA ISLAND YANKEE was a personal memoir, recalling the Bresee family’s life on the Lawton plantation during the 1920’s, HOW GRAND A FLAME is a thoroughly researched historical account of the lives of three generations of Lawtons, their wives and children, and the blacks who worked for them, first as slaves, later as employees.

In the history of the Lawtons can be seen a reflection of the political and economic history of the entire region in which they lived. Winborn Lawton II, who was consolidating his property during the War of 1812, governed the plantation during the great period of King Cotton; his son, Wallace Lawton, held it together during war, anarchy, and occupation; and after the boll weevil halted cotton production, Wallace’s son, St. John Alison Lawton, turned it to new uses, to cattle and dairying. It is the glimpses of personal history, however, which bring the book to life. By using comments which the onetime slave Peter Brown made to his father and by quoting at length from the unpublished journals of Wallace’s wife Cecelia, Bresee reveals the frustrations, the conflicts, and the nobility of these people from the past. He obviously understands them, perhaps in part because, like them, he always thought of James Island as his real home.