Elliot Crayton McCants. Image from Anderson County Museum.
(1865-1963) McCants was born near Ninety-Six, South Carolina. McCants graduated from the Citadel and taught for two years in Abbeville, South Carolina. McCants then tried his hand at farming, but this venture was a miserable failure; after a year on the farm, McCants found himself broke, so he returned to the classroom, which is where he would remain for the remainder of his professional career.
Teaching was his professional calling. He spent 58 years as an educator, most of those years in Anderson, South Carolina, where he closed out his career as the superintendent of the city’s public schools. McCants was a vigorous and outspoken educator whose pastoral sensibilities found their way into the classroom in a significant way: he believed hard work to be the single most important aspect of a student’s education. His writings on the topic continually stress the importance of education not solely for the talented students but as much or more for the average learners who make up the majority of any student body. Effective education, McCants believed, would lead to a better society.
Yet teaching was only one side of McCants’s life; he was also a novelist of some note in his own time. His publications fall into two distinct stages. In the first stage, the first decade of the twentieth century, McCants published the works for which he is perhaps best remembered: the postbellum novel In the Red Hills: A Story of the South Carolina Country (1904) and a volume of shorter pieces titled One of the Gray Jackets (1908). While he wrote and published hundreds of short stories in his career, McCants fell silent in terms of longer works for nearly two decades. Then, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he published a spate of books including Histories, Legends, and Stories of South Carolina (1927); the novel White Oak Farm (1928), set in Reconstruction-era South Carolina; and the novel Ninety-Six (1930), a work also set in South Carolina, but this time during the Revolutionary War.
McCants’s literary works consistently deal with pastoral and historical themes within the specific context of South Carolina and its people. In the preface to Histories, Legends, and Stories of South Carolina, McCants describes the book as “an attempt to present that which, for want of a better name, may be called the atmosphere of South Carolina history.” The most dominant aspect of McCants’s work is the celebration of the independent spirit of South Carolina and its people. It is not difficult to see that McCants prided himself in his identity as a South Carolinian, and his fiction represents a continuing celebration of his native state.
In the novel White Oak Farm, McCants explores the reconfiguration of the status quo and the racial tensions that existed in South Carolina after the Civil War. The racial views of Pembroke Gautier, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, may strike readers now as somewhat distasteful, crude, and ignorant. Yet McCants has his narrator present himself openly and honestly as a man whose views of race are at the same time both blameworthy and laudable–he may not believe that racial equality is possible, but at the same time he finds racial oppression to be morally repugnant. As a result, this character undoubtedly personifies McCants’s own view of what it means to be a South Carolinian: proud and independent, at times to a fault, but willing to see that fault where it lies.
McCants presents us with all that is good and all that is regrettable about the state he loved so, and thus his works display the continuing social education of the state of South Carolina. McCants is willing to see the faults his state’s citizens had embraced in the past, but he cannot allow himself to engage in wholesale condemnation–he loves his birthplace too much.