Book Reviews - Autumn 2008

Potted History


Learning more about slave life in South Carolina from a legendary potter-poet

By Scott Reynolds Nelson

September 1, 2008


Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, by Leonard Todd, W. W. Norton, 336 pp., $25.95

History tends to be rigidly textual—which is both a strength and a weakness. The scientific method used in other disciplines emphasizes the reproducible experiment. But historians cannot refight the Battle of Hastings or repartition 18th-century Poland while changing a single variable. What keeps us honest is a healthy commitment to written words, to timelines, to verification with multiple sources. We are lost without footnotes. In the classroom, we historians are forever shaking down another historian’s account: Does this footnote prove that? How do we know he crossed the Delaware? Does this account warrant that interpretation?

Yet our text-based obsession can be a problem. A document printed a hundred or more years ago was almost certainly written by a professional intellectual: doctor, lawyer, politician, or priest. When we turn to primary documents for answers to critical questions, we find that the lived experience of most humans is lost. For instance, we have multiple accounts of the Constitutional Convention but few records of the everyday conflicts with imperial soldiers that caused the delegates to come to Philadelphia. We can talk with confidence about the Mexican Revolution, but is it possible, as Luis González has suggested in his book San José de Gracia, that the sewing machine and the cancan more profoundly altered the daily lives of rural Mexicans than the revolution did? Our institutional documents about that period cannot answer the question.

Want to describe American slavery? Here’s the rub. We have hundreds of thousands of slaveholders’ letters, thousands of deeds, 50 or so accounts written by visitors to the South, and only two dozen or so autobiographies of escaped slaves. These autobiographies are interesting, but formulaic—some of them show evidence of careful revision by white, abolitionist, Christian editors. Beyond text, historians grow uncomfortable. We have interviews with ex-slaves made 60 years after slavery ended. Many were conducted by out-of-work white writers who called their subjects Auntie or Uncle, asked ex-slaves about the “good old days,” and revised what they heard by adding their own colorful interpretations of black dialect. The texts about slavery are problematic and scarce. I use song as a source for describing black life, but songs have even worse problems. Large interpretations by historians must rest on these unstable narratives, and it keeps us up at night.

Leonard Todd is not a historian in the traditional sense, and the text used for his book Carolina Clay is the strangest kind you might ever encounter. Todd is a children’s-book author, travel writer, and graphic designer. Carolina Clay is a history of a South Carolina slave named Dave who made pots between the 1830s and the 1870s. The most peculiar sources for this history are the rhyming inscriptions Dave etched on his pots. Of course, these are not just any pots. The stoneware pots cast, glazed, and finished by the potter Dave have become legendary for their workmanship and their unique writing; once sold for pennies, they now sell for six figures. The quotes are short, and at first glance they resemble the Burma Shave commercials of a hundred years later. (“A noble jar, for pork or beef—then carry it around to the Indian chief” or “I saw a lepperd & a lion’s face, then I felt the need of—Grace.”) Yet Todd uses both the words inscribed on Dave’s pots and the pots themselves to tell us the history of slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation in South Carolina. His research methods might remind historians that texts are not just found in diaries, letters, and deeds. Even some autobiographies are written on everyday objects.

Others have tried to tell the story of this potter, but the author has an enviable inside track. One of Dave’s owners was Todd’s ancestor. Laid off 10 years ago from his job as a graphic designer in Manhattan, Todd moved to Edgefield, South Carolina, and interviewed potters, descendants of slave owners and slaves, rooted through scores of county records, reread his family letters, pored over privately held newspapers, and inspected the ruins of old pottery works. One of the book’s great strengths is that the author tells us how he reached his conclusions. We can understand which speculations are based on documents, which on hunches. Todd’s careful analysis of these textual and nontextual records gives us a portrait of a 19th-century pottery factory. He imagines who might have visited the factory and what they could have seen. He suggests what Dave and his owner might have said at key points in Dave’s life. This section describing the work in a pottery burn is one my favorites:

Dr. Landrum’s furnace . . . is known today as a “groundhog” kiln. The name derives from the appearance: Partly dug into sloping ground to help contain the heat and buttress the stone walls, it looks like the home of a giant burrowing animal. . . . A timber agreement signed by Abner Landrum in 1827 suggests that there were firings at Pottersville approximately every two weeks. . . . Dr. Landrum would have two workers start a small blaze in the firebox and keep it gently burning through the night. It would warm the walls of the kiln and the ware inside. Just after dawn the next morning, all the pottery slaves, Dave among them, would gather on the slope leading up to the furnace. In my mind’s eye, I can see Dr. Landrum raising his walking stick as a signal for the men to brick up the loading door. . . . The slave selected to start the day’s work would shove the first thin slabs into the stoke holes. . . . At a certain point early in the evening, after hours of building the strength of the blaze, Dr. Landrum would decisively call for the blastoff. . . . Fire would engulf the interior of the furnace and a sheet of orange flame would leap from the chimney into the darkening sky. As he quickly wiped his forehead, Dave might see Dr. Landrum raise his walking stick and, like a magician in an act of wondrous creation, gesture upward at the rising branching flames. Reuben Drake might whistle a wild little tune of celebration of his flute.

The disciplined imagination here is impressive. We get a sense of what the author knows about 19th-century kilns, how he knows it, and what he thinks he knows. Todd’s summoning up of imaginary detail (the flute, the walking stick) are nicely done without being overwrought. Todd has the flair of a novelist or travel-writer for the telling detail, which makes every chapter memorable. He uses the color of the pots to determine where Dave lived at what time (each pot’s color differed, based on glaze formula, humidity, and location). Using literary and nonliterary sources, he carefully demon­strates how certain aspects of Dave’s life (his alleged time as a typesetter) are pure invention. Todd nicely dovetails periods in Dave’s life and his pots with discussions of the emergence of the cotton gin, the Nullification debates, the sale of slaves downriver, and the arrival of railroads. We can imagine how certain quotations on the pots (“I wonder where is all my relation—friendship to all—and, every nation”) might refer to the recent disappearance of his wife and children after a portion of the planter’s family moved to Louisiana. We discover how Dave’s life was profoundly shaped by these events, not least when a train on the newly built South Carolina Railroad rolled over his leg. Todd’s reconstruction of the drinking spree that may have led to this tragedy has a light enough touch to be simultaneously convincing and horrifying.

Some of the early and later parts of the book are less successful, in part because of the closeness between author and subject. At times Todd’s musings about whether he has biracial relatives, his attempts to reconstruct the friendship between his ancestor and Dave, and the author’s visits to black descendants of South Carolina slaves makes the book resemble Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family—with jugs. The best history comes from disciplined imagination, but sometimes this book is stronger on the imagination than on the discipline. Attempts to make the story more romantic than it is are problematic. (Did Dave have a love life? What was it like for him to try to vote for the first time?)

In other places Todd’s unfamiliarity with the literature on slavery make the imagination seem less disciplined than it could be. Certainly the footnotes hit some important works of more than 20 years ago. Although the book is sympathetic, it has some dated opinions about slave life. Dave “might never have seen his father,” Leonard tells us, “because stable family groups were rare among slaves being bought and sold.” Since the 1970s, historians have learned a great deal about fictive kinship, in which slaves in the quarter reconstructed families in the wake of slave sales. The terms “Auntie” and “Uncle” are vestiges of these invented family trees. After the war Todd does see evidence of Dave’s being at the head of a complex postwar family, but Todd coins the term “kinship colony” to describe a mixed family community, which has been better explained by historians Julie Saville and Brenda Stevenson. The discussion of how slaves acquired last names has been explored in detail elsewhere. Todd’s analysis of oddly metered rhymes might have benefitted if he had used the research of Lawrence Levine. It’s not that Todd doesn’t have enough references, but his very selective reading of recent books leaves him trying to describe patterns that would be instantly familiar to scholars of the antebellum South. Because he doesn’t have these other stories from other places, his narrative seems flat at times and his imagination misfires: Slaves could not have played military tunes on a flute as he suggests: it would have signaled insurrection. Dave’s choice of last name—his first master’s name—does not suggest that he wanted to be compared to Francis Drake. Choosing your first master’s name was customary; it would have helped Dave’s Louisiana aunts, uncles, and cousins to find him in South Carolina. Todd refers to current works for a fact or quote—Mia Bey here, Stephen Kantrowitz there—but he seems unaware of their larger arguments and either repeats them unknowingly or takes a circuitous route to explain the obvious. This is particularly true for the postwar period, where the author gives a tragic, but unsatisfying account of how white Southerners regained power in South Carolina.

One hates to cavil with such a beautifully written book. It is rich with telling quotations from contemporary sources that come from approximately the same time and place as events in Dave’s life. It is a brilliant evocation of the skilled work of slaves in a South Carolina whose white citizens were growing increasingly bellicose and violent. The research on Dave himself is amazing, and the picture of the antebellum South Carolina backcountry is extremely rich. Carolina Clay will likely stand as the most complete history of Dave, a man who has quickly assumed heroic proportions in South Carolina. I plan to assign it in my class on the South. But of course I will then subject it to the most searching criticism. What else can I do? I’m a text-bound historian.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is the author of Steel Drivin’ Man (about railroad legend John Henry). He teaches American history at the College of ­William and Mary.

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