By Paul Theobald
Colcorton is clearly Edith Pope’s greatest literary achievement. It is an engrossing novel with a strong female protagonist—one who was compared to Ma Joad by a contemporary reviewer. The book delves into taboo subjects for its time, like interracial marriage, and the psychological burden of hiding partial Black ancestry from White society. Before going into more detail, however, I’d like to share a little about Edith Pope.
A native of St. Augustine, Florida, Edith was sent to Baldwin Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, for her high school years. She returned to Florida for college, attending Florida State. Her first book, a collection of poems, was published during her junior year. Her first novel, Not Magnolia (1928) was published just a year after graduating. From Florida State, Edith went back north and in 1931 she received a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. Edith’s first three novels were published under her maiden name, Edith Everett Taylor. In 1938 she married Verle Pope, who served for a time as a state senator in Florida, and as president of Florida State University. Some reviewers were confused by the name change, and when Colcorton was published in 1944, they thought they were reading a first novel. In all, Edith published six rural novels, three under her maiden name, and three under her married name. Edith enjoyed modest success as a novelist, and today there is a major thoroughfare in St. Augustine known as Edith Pope Boulevard. But like so many novelists who chose to write about the rural experience in this country, her work has long been out of print, and her reputation never garnered the acclaim it deserved.
Colcorton is an impressive novel. By all contemporary accounts, it narrowly missed receiving the Pulitzer prize in 1945 (which went to a WWII novel called A Bell for Adano). It’s the story of two children, heirs to a pre-Civil War plantation called Colcorton. The parents died young and, unbeknownst to the children, their patriarchal grandfather was a successful and rather large slave trader who was involved in a long-term relationship with a slave. That slave was a grandmother to Abby and Jared Clanghearne, although they never knew this. Abby was several years older than Jared and after the death of their parents, she eked out a living on the few acres left of the once large Clangherane plantation. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, she made enough to send Jared through college and law school. There is no happy ending to Colcorton, however. Jared marries, but is murdered after a night of drinking. His wife was pregnant at the time and Abby helps to raise the child. In many ways, Abby shifts from a life of toil to promote Jared, to a life of toil to promote Jared’s son.
There are many twists and turns in this book, and the characters are very well developed. Always in the background there is the secret partial Black ancestry that burdens Abby and Jared after it was discovered. Rural coastal Florida is almost a character in itself in this book. The countryside, and the ocean, are described in painstaking, and beautiful, detail. Colcorton is an excellent novel and deserves the attention of contemporary readers.