Novelist and poet William James Rivers (1822-1909) was also one of South Carolina’s first professional historians. Published for the first time, his Reconstruction novel Eunice opens with the burning of the state capital, Columbia, in February of 1865, a scene served well by its author’s eyewitness experience.
The title character, Eunice DeLesline, survives Sherman’s March and the war impoverished. She’s faced with a choice of suitors—Willie Barton, a son of the Old South, and Colonel Loyle, a self-made Confederate captain, while to a third, Union soldier turned evangelist Benjamin Guelty, she is an obsession. Guelty’s threat and Eunice’s marriage choice reflect not only views on ideals for mature romantic relationships, but also the choice of the Reconstruction South—what kind of Southerner might best lead the region to renewed prosperity?
Eunice is a damsel in distress as well as dilemma as the plot teems with twists and characters like the historical Wade Hampton and his Red Shirts, the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans, and carpetbaggers. Throughout, Rivers voices his opinions on race, gender, and power in this transitional period in American history. Tara Courtney McKinney’s introduction and notations set the story in its cultural context.
Scholars and students of southern history may rejoice at this first-time publication of Eunice. Some are sure to delight in comparisons to better known works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Eunice features a similar self-sacrificing Uncle Tom) and Gone with the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara’s marriage partners can be compared to Eunice’s). But for the modern reader, the convoluted, overheated writing style may converge with the author’s of-his-time prejudices and stereotyping, especially of African Americans, to prove a hard slog through the mess Sherman left behind.