Friday, June 7, 2013
SEABROOK: AN IMPROBABLE YET IMPERISHABLE FRIENDSHIP
It is far past time when I should have acknowledged what is the most significant friendship of my life other than that which I enjoy with my dear wife Ruth. Not only is the friendship remarkable for its candor, mutual respect and longevity between two tumultuous artistic spirits, it would appear on its surface to be wildly improbable given the vast differences between us in terms of backgrounds, learning and experiences of the world. People who know me best will understand that I speak of Charles Pinckney Seabrook Wilkinson.
Seabrook, as he's familiarly known, is a scion of an ancient South Carolina Lowcountry family and is a thirteenth-generation Charlestonian; his very name gives forth echoes of some of Carolina's most distinguished founders, patriots, politicians, soldiers and writers. He took an undergraduate degree in art history from Harvard and advanced degrees in theology from Oxford; he taught at one of Great Britain's most prestigious preparatory schools; and he now lives in Key West while maintaining an intimate connection to his native Carolina Lowcountry by writing historical articles and reviews for the Charleston Mercury, of which he is literary editor. A poet of genius who frames his verse in often archaic forms yet infuses every line with a wisdom not just grounded in the cherished past but also acutely viewing the present in its full panoply of beauties and terrors, he has published two collections, A Local Habitation, drawing upon his deep love for his Carolina homeland; and A Resident Alien: Key West Poems.
Consider that sterling c.v. Then think of plain old Charles Price, born in the foothills of Western North Carolina of hardworking lower middle class forebears; imperfectly educated at whatever public schools happened to lie at hand as my Methodist preacher father was shipped hither and yon by the powers that were; graduating from undistinguished High Point College (now known--unconvincingly to me--as High Point University); and earning a graduate degree in Public Administration (!) from UNC-CH. Hardly a resume promising brilliance. I too became a writer, though I could never essay any type of poetry, much less verse as robust and ravishingly beautiful as Seabrook's. No, I tackled the far less demanding genre of historical fiction.
How could two spirits so unlike have met? And having met, how could we have found common ground? Or established a friendship so profound and enduring? Seabrook and I became acquainted by chance ten years ago when, upon publication of my novel Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, I was invited to do a reading at what was then a literary component of the famed Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Seabrook was the master of ceremonies of the event, and it was clear to me as we exchanged e-mails in advance of my appearance that I was dealing with no ordinary person.
Nor was the difference restricted to our approaches to writing. When we met in Charleston for the festival, Seabrook's physical presence caught me by surprise. I had expected a shrunken, bent-backed academic; Seabrook towers well over six feet, is sturdy of frame still reminiscent of his early days as a rugby player, wears an abundant cloud of silver hair above a rosy and cherubic face that might belong to an 18th-century English squire--or to one of his own Lowcountry ancestors; and his smile is blinding. Not for nothing was he besought as a cast member for the Mel Gibson film The Patriot; had he agreed to take the part he would've been utterly convincing; indeed, he may have had the gravitas to save the movie (which badly needed saving). In contrast I need not limn here my own unprepossessing physical appearance at the time of our meeting, much less now. Naturally I felt overmatched, intellectually and in every other way.
Fortunately on this occasion I was not without my sense of humor. Seabrook, bless him, is not withdrawn; and at dinner after my reading he entertained Ruth and me with certain anecdotes about his august past and lineage, prominently mentioning that he was a member of the Charles King and Martyr Society, dedicated to the memory of King Charles I, the English monarch beheaded by Cromwell during the English Civil War. Thinking to prick what seemed to me a bit of bombast, I inquired whether the Society he spoke of was dedicated to King Charles the monarch or King Charles the spaniel. The question delighted Seabrook; he unleashed a thunder of laughter and replied, in his plummiest British accent, "Oh, if it were the spaniel, there would be a lot more slobbering!" His response cemented a friendship which endures to this day.
Ever since, we have been in almost daily contact by e-mail. We trade our written works for each to critique; Seabrook has diligently read and commented on nearly every line I've ever written, impartially treating as worthy even the unlikeliest of my output, including (unbelievably) my crass soft-porn novels about Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin and a sex-crazed knight named William Pom hewing and screwing his way through medieval Southern France. Never has Seabrook failed to treat my work with anything but the most sincere respect. Of course I have tried to return the favor, but always knowing that due to my imperfect education and limited background I could never summon the intellectual mastery to be as helpful a critic to him as he is to me.
Seabrook has been to Burnsville to read his poems at our Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and has delighted our audiences with his wit and art. He and I have both been speakers and presenters at conferences of Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, a Camden, SC-based organization of professional and amateur historians dedicated to acknowledging the importance of the Southern theater of war in our foundational experience as a nation. In that connection I should mention that Seabrook is actually a collateral descendant of Major General Nathanael Greene, the Rhode Island-born, Quaker-raised Continental Army commander who won the Southern war and a man whom I made a central character of my 2008 novel Nor the Battle to the Strong. In that connection I should mention that Seabrook wrote a most glowing review of that now-forgotten novel for The Mercury--a review I still cherish and reread whenever my faith in my writing begins to flag.
So here's to you, Seabrook! Bless you. You are a true original and a companion of the mind and heart never to be equaled. May our friendship endure always.