Happy Birthday William Gilmore Simms

By April 17, 2014Blog


“To write from a people is to write a people—to make them live—to endow them with a life and a name—to preserve them with a history forever.”
–W.G. Simms

The great Southern writer William Gilmore Simms was born on this day in 1806. Unlike the more famous Southern writer, the short-lived Edgar Allan Poe, Simms wrote voluminously and in every literary form: short story, novel, poetry, criticism, essay, history, and biography. Though his work has sometimes been considered uneven in quality, he often wrote superbly. Poe said that Simms was one of the best American writers of the time and that if he had had the self-promotion machinery of the New England literati his name would be a household word. Although he was widely read and admired in his time in Europe and the North, Simms was for a long time after the War between the States dismissed as a mere Southern and second-rate writer; he remains today unrepresented in “mainstream” anthologies of the best American literature. Interestingly, in his own time the Northeastern critics who have dominated American literary discussion considered Simms to be distastefully racy and realistic. Later, when “realism” became the fashion, they labeled him as too romantic and “genteel.” In recent years, a handful of devoted and talented scholars have been forcing out a more just recognition of Simms’s stature and achievements. The ignoring and downplaying of Simms’s stature in American literature has been referred to as “intellectual murder.”

Simms was born and died in Charleston, South Carolina. Though he traveled a great deal, he spent most of his life there or at his plantation 70 miles upcountry near Barnwell. Simms was devoted to the creation of a literature that would represent and sustain America in the same way that European literature supported national identity. He also believed that American literature could only grow and achieve maturity as a union of regional literature since the diverse country could not be represented by the culture of one region. He worked for a lifetime at developing his vision of Southern literature, not only in his own work but in editing several newspapers and magazines in which he encouraged (and sometimes corrected) other writers. Indeed, new Simms works are still being identified regularly from his anonymous and pseudonymous writings in such places.

James Kibler, in a masterful piece of scholarship, has published the definitive collection of Simms’s poetry, the estimation of which has been rising. Some of Simms’s nonfiction was collected in Views and Reviews: In American History and Literature (1846), and more extensive collections are in preparation. Many of Simms’s novels were revised and republished in his own lifetime and most have been republished once or more in recent years. Simms excelled as a novelist both of history and manners. His historical “romances” were assiduously researched. Anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Simms believed that fiction that was accurate in context could provide good instruction in history. He collected irreplaceable Revolutionary War manuscripts (which were burned by Sherman’s army) and interviewed survivors of historic events. He literally recreated in fiction the history of South Carolina and the South Atlantic States in a series of colonial novels, a series of Revolutionary War novels, and a series of books set in the newer, frontier Southern States such as Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, such as Guy Rivers, The Wigwam and the Cabin, and Border Beagles. And these do not by any means comprise a full accounting of all his fictional works. A full Simms bibliography easily contains more than a hundred entries.

There is no good comprehensive biography, and indeed Simms’s activities and writings were so vast that a biography would be a daunting task. The “biographies” by Trent and Wakelyn are meritless academic potboilers that underestimate and misinterpret their subject. Some worthwhile books on Simms are John C. Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (1995); John C. Guilds, ed., Long Years of Neglect: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms (1988); and Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (2005). Simms’s conflict with New England writers who assumed all the credit for the War of Independence and maliciously and deceitfully downplayed the role of the South is discussed in Clyde N. Wilson, “Tiger’s Meat : William Gilmore Simms and the History of the American Revolution,” in The Simms Review, vol. 8 (2000). For those who wish to delve further into Simms’s life and works, there is a wealth of material in The Simms Review, founded by Kibler in 1993 and still publishing regularly and in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms in 6 volumes. Finally, the ongoing Simms Initiative project at the University of South Carolina is intended to make available all of Simms’s works in digital and print-on- demand texts.

I suggest the following Simms’s works: The Life of Francis Marion, The Golden Christmas, The Cassique of Kiawah, Joscelyn, The Partisan, Mellichampe, Katherine Walton, The Scout, The Forayers, Eutaw , and Woodcraft, The Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, Poetry and the Practical, Selected Poems of William Gilmore Simms, Stories and Tales, Paddy McGann, and The Social Principle.

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.

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