Publishers Weekly magazine once called Berry Fleming “the quintessential Southern writer; funny, wise and like the best of those from the South, an incredibly good storyteller.” His long career began in 1927 with the publication of The Conqueror’s Stone, an adventure story about a bloodthirsty pirate off the South Carolina coast. Fleming is best known for his novel Colonel Effingham’s Raid, published in 1943. Among his other books are Siesta (1935), The Lightwood Tree (1947), The Fortune Tellers (1951), Carnival (1953), The Winter Rider (1960), Lucinderella (1967), The Acrobats (1969), The Make-Believers (1972), The Affair at Honey Hill (1981), and The Bookman’s Tale and Others (1986).
Fleming grew up in Augusta, the son of Daisy and Porter Fleming. His father was in the cotton and fertilizer businesses. He graduated in 1922 from Harvard University. One year earlier he had sold his first article to the New York Evening Post. He began his writing career in New York, where he met Anne Shirley Molloy of Lexington, Kentucky. They married in 1925 and remained married until her death in 1973.
When Fleming moved back to Augusta in 1940 after living in New York for more than a decade, he became disturbed by “political shenanigans” there: the arrest of a printer named Bridges Evans, who had openly criticized the Cracker Party, prompted him to write Colonel Effingham’s Raid, a thinly veiled story of political corruption in Richmond County. This was the most popular novel Fleming ever wrote, a best-selling Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It describes a thinly disguised Cracker Party, a small group of political bosses who controlled the Augusta and Richmond County governments. In the novel Augusta is disguised as Fredericksville, as it is in Fleming’s later novel The Make-Believers. Partially as a result of the novel and of Fleming’s own activism, the Crackers were defeated at the polls in 1946. Earlier that year Twentieth Century Fox released a film version of Colonel Effingham’s Raid, starring Savannah-born actor Charles Coburn in the title role. Fleming’s later novels did not fare as well. He blamed his decision to serve as his own agent for the relative neglect of his books in later years.
Along with writing, painting was a lifelong passion for Fleming. He studied in 1946 at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art in Augusta, with Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia, and at the University of Wisconsin. In June 1973, he became one of the first winners of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts program with the award presented by then Governor Jimmy Carter.
Fleming died in 1989 at the age of ninety, shortly after the republication of several of his novels brought increased attention to his work. In 1988 North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Fleming “is a Southern novelist who is able to treat his material with humor and detachment…. He shows a gift for wit as well as for broader humor, a delicate eye for detail, a keen eye for nuance of manners.”