Pinckney, Josephine (Lyons Scott)

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PINCKNEY, Josephine (Lyons Scott)

Born 25 January 1895, Charleston, South Carolina; died 4 October 1957, New York City

Daughter of Thomas and Camilla Scott Pinckney

Josephine Pinckney's Charleston heritage is evident in most of her writing. During the 1920s, she was active in the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which she helped to found; she was also one of its leading poets. Some of Pinckney's work was published in Poetry before she gathered it together in Sea-Drinking Cities (1927).

Pinckney's poetry skillfully evokes scenes and moods of the Carolina Low Country; at times, however, it tends to be artificial and contrived. Realizing her limitations, Pinckney soon turned to writing prose fiction. During the 1930s, Pinckney published short stories in some of the better literary magazines. Hilton Head (1941) is a fictionalized account of the life of Henry Woodward, one of the first English settlers of South Carolina. Pinckney's research into Woodward's life and into the Native American and Spanish, as well as early English, settlements of the period was painstaking. The prose style is at times marred by Pinckney's background as a poet of the imagist school, producing descriptions with the quality of stiff brocade. The major flaw is her failure to dramatize the complex actions she presents. The novel's best passages are those which describe landscapes and personal interactions.

Pinckney realized her inability to dramatize action, and in Three O'Clock Dinner (1945) she found a genuine fictional mode in the novel of manners, especially the manners of Charleston. A Literary Guild selection, this was the most popular of Pinckney's works and perhaps her best. Set in early 20th-century Charleston, the story is of the inroads made by the daughter of a German immigrant family into one of the bastions of Charleston aristocracy, the Redcliff family. Although the girl fails to breech the family bulwark, she does shake and weaken its foundations. Pinckney's skillful description of Charleston manners displays both the charms and shortcomings of her characters, and she retains the ability to capture the scenery and moods of her native city.

Charleston is also the setting for Great Mischief (1948), but here it is the Charleston of the late 19th century. In addition to her careful research on the period, Pinckney explores the superstitions of the time and includes a historically accurate account of 19th-century witchcraft. These elements are woven together so skillfully the line between fantasy and reality is blurred not only for the characters but also for the readers. The night of the witches' sabbath coincides with the great Charleston earthquake of 1886 so both the main character and the reader are left to wonder if the witching was real or merely a dream.

In My Son and Foe (1952), Pinckney abandons the Charleston setting to study the interactions of her characters in the crucible of a small, remote Caribbean island—interactions of love and jealousy, good and evil. Pinckney returned to a Charleston setting with Splendid in Ashes (1958). She chronicles the feelings of a generation of Charlestonians about the life and times of Augustus Grimshawe, recently deceased. Grimshawe's career and personality, as well as the personalities of those with whom he came into contact, are revealed as the characters react to the news of his death. Pinckney ties the past to the present with a skillful combination of reminiscence and flashback.

Pinckney's first two books are the works of a literary novice. With her third book, Pinckney found herself and became not only a writer with popular appeal but also a skillful delineator of the manners of the rigid Charlestonian society she knew so well. In her best novel, Pinckney reveals the Charlestonian mind with wit and ironic humor.


Davidson, D., The Spyglass: Views and Reviews (1963).

Reference works:

American Novelists of Today (1951). TCAS.

Other references:

NYHTBR (20 Jan. 1952). NYTBR (23 Sept. 1945, 21 March 1948, 4 May 1958).