New England Against America

The Fiction of Mr. Simms gave indication, we repeat, of genius, and that of no common order. Had he been even a Yankee, this genius would have been rendered immediately manifest to his countrymen, but unhappily (perhaps) he was a Southerner His book, therefore, depended entirely upon its own intrinsic value and resources, but with these it made its way in the end.— EDGAR ALLAN POE

A review of Long Years of Neglect: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms, edited by John Caldwell Guilds. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. 1988, 248 pages.

In the heroic effort to establish an American literature, intellect, and culture before the Civil War, the main line of tension was not between cosmopolitans and provincials, nor between classicists and romanticists. It was regional. But the primary regional dividing line was not drawn, as you may think, along the Appalachians (East vs. West), nor along the Potomac (North vs. South). Rather, it was at the Hudson River (New England vs. America).

This descriptive historical truth is now obscured by the fact that the New Englanders were successful in convincing much of posterity that they were American culture, a process that was assisted by their colonization of Manhattan during the antebellum period through such figures as Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant. Yet the lines of tension were clearly drawn and obvious to everybody at the time: on the one hand, moralistic, reformist, sentimental, pushy, genteel, devolved Puritan, transcendental New Englanders. eager to impose the supremely virtuous model of the closed communities of Massachusetts as the pattern not only for America but for all mankind; on the other hand, a more leisurely and tolerant, openhanded, rural, frontier, traditional, Anglican, gentlemanly (not genteel) spirit that visualized the true American culture as arising from the open spaces South and West of the Hudson (or in the case of Melville, the seas). New York and Philadelphia were in many cultural respects closer to the South than to Boston, at least before the 1850s.

In the literary politics that characterized the antebellum period, a host of well-organized, industrious, mutually admiring New England scribblers pursued a totally ungenerous policy of self-aggrandizement, presenting themselves to the world as America and ignoring or slandering the rest of the country whenever it suited their purposes. After the Civil War, lacking any formal opposition, they had the field pretty much to themselves except for sporadic populist rumblings from the Midwest.

Anyone who will look at what passed for mainstream literary history and criticism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, will find a host of second and third-rate New England writers (Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Bancroft, Motley, and many others now justly forgotten) shamelessly celebrated as the perihelion of American letters, with only an occasional slighting reference to Poe or Melville. When Hawthorne appears it is in an interpretation sanitized to please New England schoolmarms of both sexes. It is little known but true, that the present stature of Poe and Melville and understanding of Hawthorne (all of whom were outside the New England canon) rests upon the heroic efforts of a few scholars and critics in this century to connect, in part, the incredibly mean-spirited and petty Bostonian warp that was imposed on the evaluation of American literature after the Civil War.

It is also a fact that the success of the Bostonians in literary reputation was not matched by the quality of their contributions as measured in the perspective of the ages. American creative literature of the first rank was made almost entirely outside of the Boston-Cambridge ethos. Poe was a self-declared Southerner in perpetual combat all of his short career with the New England spirit: Melville a New York Democrat who could write verse in celebration of the ancient honor of Virginia in the midst of the Civil War and whose obsessed Captain Ahab was possibly (possibly) a metaphorical abolitionist. Hawthorne was a friend of Franklin Pierce, the most Southern of all Northeastern politicians, and the main thrust of his work is a subversion of the self-congratulatory millennialism of his New England brethren. (I do not count Emerson and Thoreau in the first rank. Even those who admire them must admit that they are would-be philosophers and saints, not strictly creative artists.)

After Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne, the second rank of antebellum literature (omitting some interesting one-book authors) is formed up by Cooper and Irving. Both of them achieved sufficient recognition abroad early enough that they could not be buried under Massachusetts obloquy. Both were at odds with the New England spirit. Read Cooper on the nasty lower-class Yankees (in the original precise ethnic meaning of that term) who swarmed into and defaced his ancestral region in upstate New York (Homeward Bound and Home as Found) and in opposition to abolitionists (The American Democrat). And recollect that one of Irving’s most popular stories concerns the disgrace of an absurd canting New Englander, Ichabod Crane, who presumed too much on the good manners of the Hudson Valley Dutch.

Perhaps the most egregious remaining uncorrected legacy of bias from these old literary wars is the long-continued obscurity and misunderstanding that surrounds the Charleston romancer William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), who just possibly, when accurately appreciated, will rank shoulder to shoulder with Cooper and Irving. He was the premier antebellum writer of the South, after Poe, and the premier interpreter of the West, after (or perhaps with) Cooper. One of the most prolific, talented, multifaceted, and wide-ranging of American authors in the 19th century, Simms was recognized everywhere before the Civil War (except in the most chauvinist Boston circles) as a major force in the creation of an American literature. Today he is almost unknown in any serious way except to a few specialists.

A measure of the neglect is that the first and last biography of Simms was published in 1892, and that a superficial and badly misconceived one. An excellent six-volume edition of his letters has been produced in South Carolina, but this has been little used by literary scholars and even less by historians, few of whom have awoken to the fact that Simms was the most articulate intellectual in the South in the late antebellum period and thus is, or ought to be, of considerable interest to general as well as literary history.

There are, it is true, some formidable obstacles to an appreciation of Simms. One of the contributors to Long Years of Neglect, James E. Kibler. Jr, (with an essay on Simms’s poetry), has said elsewhere that Simms must have written steadily with both hands all his life. He published about 70 or so separate titles—poetry, plays, novels, short stories, history, essays—and probably an equal amount of material, often anonymous or pseudonymous, in the numerous Southern journals of which he served as editor and chief contributor. (In his spare time, Simms was a planter, a public man, and the chief literary talent scout and critic of the South.)

Not only is the volume and diversity of his work so daunting as to encourage most scholars to pass him by. but much of the vast output is hard to find. The Cassique of Kiawah, possibly Simms’s best novel, was until recently virtually unobtainable. Woodcraft, the other possible best, is a little more available, having been reprinted in South Carolina in an annotated edition along with Simms’s other Revolutionary War novels during the American Revolution bicentennial. By a strange fate, Simms’s best-known and most available novel, The Yemassee, the one which most people are likely to have read if they have read anything, is far from his best.

Added to these logistical obstacles are the ideological problems. As an unapologetic and explicit defender of the regime of the Old South, Simms is a highly unsympathetic and nearly incomprehensible figure for most modern scholars. Even so, the main reason that Simms’s writings are relatively unknown and undervalued is scholarly inertia—the tendency to repeat old errors generation after generation rather than do the hard work of real exploration and reassessment.

In fact, in the past half-century or so, there has been a very large accumulation of specialized scholarship on Simms, in books, articles, and theses, exploring specific aspects of his oeuvres and life. The net result has been a gradually rising estimate of his literary standing. This considerable literature has never been formulated in a way that has had much impact on general history: however, the present volume of essays does not come out of the blue, but is an expression of a long-gathering movement. In the book are a dozen essays by both literary scholars and historians on Simms’s major works and aspects of his career. It remains to be seen whether the insights and judgments presented here will be integrated into a more general understanding.

I do not want to claim too much. Simms possessed a high order of talent, not genius. He did not write Moby Dick, or The Scarier Letter. Any author as prolific as he was is bound to suffer from unevenness. He is sometimes careless and melodramatic, not, as in the conventional Parringtonian account, because his art was undermined by a romantic and extroverted Southern society, but because a restless temperament led him ever onward to new material. However, at his best, Simms could tell an important story well, with great dramatic conviction and a serious confrontation of moral and social issues.

I do not want to put down Cooper, whom I admire and who has an essential place in American literature. Moreover, Cooper preceded and made possible Simms’s literary- exploitation of the materials of the American Revolution and frontier. Nevertheless, comparison with Cooper is the most telling that can be made for Simms. I would contend that in his best works Simms was a better storyteller than Cooper, a better plotter, a better psychologist. Moreover, he had a much ampler historical and social imagination as well as a vast fund of something Cooper lacked entirely—humor. Most readers have found Simms’s frontiersmen and Indians superior to the more famous characters of Cooper. Moreover, Simms truly anticipated many of the great achievements of 20th century Southern literature, whereas Cooper has no real progeny.

Most of Simms’s major work, and much of the lesser, is found in the three series of novels, or “romances” as he called them, that he produced more or less simultaneously from the 1830s to the 1850s: those set in the colonial Southeast (The Yemassee, The Lily and the Totem, The Cassique of Kiawah, and others); those concerned with the American Revolution in South Carolina (The Partisan, Mellichampe, The Scout, Katharine Walton, The Forayers, Eutaw, Joscelyn, and Woodcraft): and the “border romances,” set in the newer Southern states (Guy Rivers, Richard Hurdis, Border Beagles, Beauchampe, and others).

In these books Simms created an all-encompassing, Balzacian panorama, from the 16th to the 19th century, of the history and society of the region south and west of Virginia, a region that is, after all, large and authentically American, even if seldom noticed, except negatively, in Boston. In the process he explored as extensively as anyone ever has the great dramas of colonial settlement, Revolution, and the conquest of the frontier, and portrayed fully every social class—the aristocracy, lesser gentry, yeomen, poor whites, frontiersmen, slaves, Indians. At their best these books display drama, humor, robust realism, large and complex historical themes, and a sophisticated treatment of manners.

By a twist of fate even more curious than the popularity of The Yemassee there is a lingering impression that Simms was a prudish, stilted writer, full of wooden figures of Southern ladies and gentlemen. Though he did pay some allegiance to ideal aristocratic types, as models for a society that was emerging from the lawlessness and crudity of the frontier, the impression of artificiality is far from just. In fact, in his own time and later, Simms was usually subjected to the opposite criticism. The New Englanders thought that he was too graphic and realistic in dealing with the hard facts of sex, violence, and human drives. Later, when Victorian standards were being abandoned for “realism,” he was dismissed as a mere romanticist. He was, thus, first condemned for not being genteel enough, and then for being too much so.

It is closer to the truth to say that Simms, like Faulkner and the other Southern greats, dealt with a full range of characters well, especially vividly and convincingly with the middle order of Southern society, the non-aristocratic whites, and that his most predominant characteristic and greatest virtue as a writer is a robust and often sophisticated realism. Contrary to an oft-repeated judgment also, Simms’s women are as close to flesh and blood as those of any contemporary male writer, as Anne M. Blythe shows in discussing the range of female characters in her essay herein on The Cassique of Kiawah. The same can be said about the strong and shrewd widow Eveleigh in Woodcraft. The essay by Blythe on The Cassique of Kiawah and that on Woodcraft by James B. Meriwether, the scholar who has been responsible for bringing a number of Simms’s books back into print, are the most important perhaps of a number of good essays in this collection, focusing as they do with considerable depth and insight on Simms’s two more enduring books. Woodcraft, as Meriwether shows, is a study, at the same time profound and humorous, of the difficult process of restoring social order in South Carolina after the guerrilla civil warfare of the Revolution, told through the experiences of Captain Porgy, a Rabelaisian member of the lesser gentry. Any Southerner will recognize Captain Porgy as an archetypal character of high authenticity. Woodcraft displays Simms’s historical and social perceptions at their most complex.

Another aspect of Simms’s work usefully explicated in this collection is his relationship to the genre known as backwoods humor. In this connection are the essays by Linda E. McDaniel on Paddy McGann and Mary Ann Wimsatt on Simms’s short fiction. Paddy McGann, one of Simms’s late creations, was a South Carolina river boatman, candid and self-assertive in the tradition of the frontier, who by a series of fantastic adventures is transported to New York where he observes the literary society of the day and undergoes haunting experiences of the supernatural reality of evil. Among the short stories, “Sharp Snaffles: How He Got His Capital and His Wife” is surely a neglected masterpiece of 19th century American writing. It is the story of a landless North Carolina mountaineer’s struggle to establish himself as a man and a member of his community. As the essayists show, these works contain seriously conceived and crafted elements of the exuberant fantasy and humor of the American tall tale, interwoven with moral struggle and social criticism and a mature understanding of the human condition. No one who is familiar with these works can dismiss Simms as a mere shallow defender of the aristocracy.

Among the biographical essays, the more noteworthy are Miriam J. Shillingsburg on Simms’s last lecture tour in the North in 1856, an eye-opening account of the literary politics that have been previously mentioned, and an analysis by David Moltke-Hansen of the development of Simms’s understanding of American history. Simms’s achievements in the realm of history are certainly another area of unjust neglect.

Much of Simms’s fiction was profoundly historical. He also wrote history and biography, and he thought deeply and originally about the stormy relationship between historical fact and literary art, as may be seen by perusing his collected essays Views and Reviews in American Literature: History and Fiction (1845). In the collection under review new ground is broken in Nicholas C. Meriwether’s essay on The Lily and the Totem, a failed but interesting attempt by Simms to combine history and fiction in a new genre. It is perhaps not too much to say that in his theory and practice Simms anticipated some of the most creative historical writers of our own time—John Lukacs, Solzhenitsyn, George Garrett, Shelby Foote—in a testing of the frontier between fact and art and a realization of the dead end of so-called objective history.

I have made some rather sweeping assertions about the rightful place of William Gilmore Simms in American letters which the 12 essayists, or many of them, will not necessarily endorse. They are a good deal more circumspect, modest, and scholarly in putting forth his claims than I have been, though most would agree that his standing ought to be higher than it is. You are free to disagree with me, but I will not take you seriously until you have read Woodcraft, The Cassique of Kiawah, Paddy McGann, “Sharp Snaffles,” and Views and Reviews in American Literature. If you have not, you do not know Simms. You do not really know 19th century American literature.

The writers of the essays would not necessarily agree, either, with the description of 19th century literary politics with which I introduced my discussion. Yet surely Simms’s neglect, if such it is, reflects more than an accidental overlooking of one writer. It reflects a particular partisan heritage of ideological, not literary, judgments which ought to be exposed and re-examined.

The title of the introductory essay by the editor of this collection, John C. Guilds, makes a statement and poses a question: “Long Years of Neglect: Atonement at Last?” The statement is undoubtedly true. The question remains to be answered, though this volume marshals a powerful and pertinent case for reparations.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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