Beaches around the world have inspired many a writer, but what about our Southern sand and surf? Playwright Tennessee Williams said “I work everywhere, but I work best here” about Key West’s South Beach. Obviously, Hemingway felt the same way about that beach town, while closer to our neck of the woods, Kate Chopin was inspired by Grand Isle on the Louisiana coast, and Pat Conroy’s love affair with the Carolina coast continues to this day. Pictured below are some of the South’s literary beaches and notes on how they’ve inspired some of the South’s best writers.
Favorite beach of playwright Tennessee Williams, South Beach in Key West is located at the South end of Duval Street, looking out toward Cuba. A small, public beach, tourists could easily miss its significance to the world of Southern literature if they don’t read the colorful sign out front that says Williams swam here every day while living in Key West. He owned a house in town and was also known to stay at La Concha Hotel, where he’s said to have finished writing “A Streetcar Named Desire.” To find your own literary inspiration, rent a chair for $5 and spend a day at South Beach.
The setting for Pat Conroy’s second novel, “The Water is Wide,” Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina was once home to impoverished Gullah natives. Conroy taught school on the island in the 1960s and witnessed the inequalities in education there. His book is the story of a young teacher’s experience on a forgotten island, which is now home to three golf courses and a resort. Tours are available, and the school where Conroy taught is still there. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by fw_gadget.
Mississippi-born writer Elizabeth Spencer won the O’Henry Award for her short story, “Ship Island.” It tells the sultry tale of a young girl coming of age who is forever changed by a trip she takes to the island. Still largely undeveloped, the barrier island looks much the same as described in Spencer’s story and is accessible by ferry from Gulfport Yacht Harbor. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Plan for Opportunity.
Edgar Allan Poe set his story “The Gold Bug” on Sullivan’s Island off the coast of South Carolina. Poe landed at Fort Moultrie on the island in 1827 after enlisting in the army, and his story’s narrator is said to have been inspired by Dr. Edmund Ravenel, a professor at the medical college who collected shells. The island has remembered the writer by naming its tiny library, a tavern and three streets after him. Fort Moultrie is also open to visitors.
In Kate Chopin’s legendary novel, “The Awakening,” main character Edna Pontellier spends her summers off the coast of Louisiana at a resort on Grand Isle. She learns to swim and eventually goes further and further out into the Gulf waters, finally committing suicide by drowning. The community was devastated after Hurricane Katrina, but has been rebuilding and offers four seasons of fishing and 7 miles of white sand beaches. Photo from Grand Isle Facebook page.
Newer on the Southern literary scene but making just as big a splash with her classic beach reads is Mary Kay Andrews. The best-selling author lives part of the time on Tybee Island and has featured the island and the Georgia coast in several of her books, like “Savannah Breeze.” Andrews’ Tybee beach cottage, The Breeze Inn, is available for rent. Photo from tybeeisland.com.
See our Summer Reading List for more beach reads featuring the Florida Everglades, Miami’s South Beach and Manny’s and St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.