On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.
Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”
The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. I never signed up to spend this much time researching him. It all began with an innocent freelance assignment for DoubleTake magazine in January 1997. Now here I am, three books later, a fourth in progress, making yet another trip in Smith’s footsteps, having already visited twenty-five states, made 137 trips to New York City, spent a month in Japan and the Pacific, and conducted more than five hundred oral-history interviews.
There are people I’d sign up to spend years studying, such as “the four Ms” of my life: (Bernard) Malamud, (Thelonious) Monk, (Joseph) Mitchell, and (Janet) Malcolm. Smith wouldn’t have made the short or long list. I stayed on his trail because it led me to intriguing people—jazz musicians, photographers, and other artists, and various obscure, underground, and behind-the-scenes figures. Plus, the work attracted funding that helped me pay my bills. Looking back, I’m not sure which factor was more important.
Smith’s astonishing darkroom effort—the meticulous shading and resulting warm texture of his prints—fueled by alcohol, amphetamines, and loud music, is an archival marvel to experience: some three thousand master prints and fifty thousand five-by-seven work prints. But more than his photographs, I am moved by his tape recordings, the 4,500 hours of absurd, bizarre, and unique audio goulash made in the isolated squalor of his Manhattan flower district “jazz loft,” where Life executives and photography officials and other associates reckoned Smith had retreated once and for all to lose his mind. They weren’t wrong; desperate, ten-thousand-word letters with an 821 Sixth Avenue return address exist to prove it. But a certain kind of beauty can be found in a hole.
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Smith’s image as a sensitive maverick, which took root in his twenties with combat photography in the Pacific theater of World War II, cemented into legend with “Nurse Midwife.” It goes like this: “Midwife” was Smith’s first assignment after being confined to Bellevue when police found him wandering the Upper West Side naked (or in his boxers; accounts differ) in the spring of 1951. With a new opportunity to prove himself, Smith bucked Life’s editors and South Carolina officials by choosing Maude Callen, a black woman, as the focus of his essay, instead of a white subject. He reportedly undertook two weeks of midwife training to gain perspective, then followed Callen for two and a half months, winning her trust and friendship. (By contrast, James Agee and Walker Evans spent less time, two months, in rural Alabama in 1936 for their epic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) The resulting twelve-page essay in Life inspired $27,000 in unsolicited donations to Callen, helping her to build a new clinic. For the rest of his life, Smith called “Midwife” his favorite story and Callen the most impressive human being he’d ever met.
The cinder blocks and mortar of Callen’s new clinic memorialized the heroism Smith felt and desired. It fueled his megalomania, palpable by age sixteen when he painted w. eugene smith, photographer on the side of his mother’s station wagon. His mythology made him famous. Then it grew tiresome and sold him short. Perhaps no iconic photographer in American history has more unseen prints than Smith.
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I wasn’t sure what I could learn by visiting Berkeley County sixty years after “Midwife” was published and twenty-two years after Callen had passed away at age ninety-two. Before leaving home, I consulted Duke biologist Matt Johnson, who studies peat moss in Hell Hole Swamp, which is in the center of Callen’s former house-call territory. Matt described the region’s ecological and cultural Jekyll-and-Hyde patterns this way:
The Hell Hole Swamp Wilderness area is part of the Francis Marion National Forest. It first shows up as “Hell Hole” on a 1775 map, which disproves the theory that Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” named it during the Revolutionary War. Somewhere I read that the name “Hell Hole” goes back to the native people who reportedly would not enter “The Hells,” believing there to be spirits at work.
The swamp is a combination of pine savannah and pocosins. The latter is a uniquely Southern coastal plain ecotype: cypress, or Taxodium, trees rise and loom over a dense understory choked with Smilax, locally called “blasphemy vine,” and standing water that frequently has several species of Sphagnum, or peat moss, floating in it.
During Prohibition, the pocosins are where the moonshiners would hide from the authorities. The moonshine economy pretty much kept the area afloat, so to speak. Every year, on the first weekend in May, there’s the Hell Hole Swamp Festival in nearby Jamestown. The mascot of the festival is a moonshine still made out of a car radiator. They reenact abductions of moonshiners by the Feds.
From April through October the mosquitoes are thick enough to make a dense gray cloud everywhere. It’s a truly nasty place to be, unless you study peat moss. Even then, you need a machete and Deet. But Hell Hole Swamp is a weird place—in the thick of summer, the mosquitoes are actually absent due to the abundance of dragonflies. If you bring some waders and stand in the center of the swamp, it can be a pretty serene experience.
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I peeled off I-95 after passing South of the Border. Driving back roads seventy miles further southeast, I entered northern Berkeley County on SC-52 heading down toward the crossroad with SC-45, at the little town of St. Stephen. Spanish moss dripped stereotypically from the pines and live oaks, but scenes of abandoned grocery stores, pawnshops, and roadside hair salons, or rotting wood-plank barns and the wild, unfarmed fields that mark today’s rural Southern landscape won’t be displayed in homage magazines like Garden and Gun and Southern Living, nor promoted in New York’s current crush on fried chicken, boiled peanuts, pork barbecue, pimento cheese, and the rest.
During Maude Callen’s midcentury prime, SC-45 and SC-52 formed the axis of her daily travels, with the then-dirt 45 connecting her home in Pineville with Hell Hole Swamp ten miles to the east, and 52 reaching south thirteen miles to Monck’s Corner, the county seat with a population of around five thousand. Callen put 36,000 miles a year on her car driving around this poverty-stricken area, which was nearly 90 percent black. Her job was a necessity; the doctors from Monck’s Corner wouldn’t go there.
It’s easy to forget, or to not know in the first place (unless you read Faulkner and Welty), how vital and complicated these small Southern towns once were. Joseph Mitchell grew up in Fairmont, North Carolina, a town of three thousand people just across the border, and later he became the bard of back-alley New York City. In an interview late in his life with the Raleigh News & Observer, he compared the Fairmont of his youth to New York’s bustling wharfs and waterfront docks: each contained multitudes. Both are now long gone. Today, the Christmas lights and ornaments around Berkeley County make things more melancholy, not merry.
I met Keith Gourdin (pronounced guh-dine) at the trailer-size red-brick post office on Highway 45 in Pineville, which is not a town anymore, just a word on a green sign you pass when driving by. Gourdin was born in Berkeley County in 1939. He and his wife, Betty, have been married since 1960 and live in a classic small-town Southern mansion built in Pineville by his grandparents. His French Huguenot ancestors settled in Berkeley County in the seventeenth century and operated several cotton plantations there.
In the past decade, with his farming and land management slowing down, Gourdin has become a meticulous historian of Berkeley County, combing archives and memories. “I wish I’d started this research before my parents passed away,” he told me, “because they’d have given me beaucoup info.” Today, everybody in the county, black and white, knows Gourdin. On top of his pool table, in a foyer with a fourteen-foot ceiling, Gourdin has built a model of Pineville in its midcentury prime, replete with replica churches, stores, houses, railroad tracks, and roads.
As a child and youth, Gourdin lived two miles down Highway 45 from Maude Callen’s house and the clinic that was built after Gene Smith’s essay. When he was sick and needed care, particularly procedures involving needles, he begged his mother to take him to “Nurse Maude” instead of the doctors in Monck’s Corner. “She didn’t make you hurt,” he told me.
Gourdin was twelve years old when Smith’s “Nurse Midwife” story was published in Life. The piece created a stir in Pineville, measureable by a middle-school kid on his bicycle. “The staff at the post office had to work overtime to handle all of Nurse Maude’s mail,” said Gourdin. “I remember people talking about how the carriers had to make several extra deliveries per day to keep up with the mail she was getting from around the country. She was getting mail from around the world.”
The mail was delivered on a dirt road. Today that road is paved, though seldom traveled. Decay and desolation prevail, just as they did after Sherman plowed through. Maude Callen’s patients have moved to Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Wilmington. Her former clinic is forlorn. And a small bowl of boiled peanuts are ten dollars at lunch on Seventeeth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. A fried chicken breast is eighteen dollars in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Sam Stephenson is Lehman Brady Joint Visiting Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He is currently finishing a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Photographs by Courtney Fitzpatrick.