“Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and
swoln, and drowns things weighty and solid.”
At the height of his career, William Gilmore Simms was ranked with the best writers produced by the United States. In the Northeast, his novels were considered inferior only to Cooper’s, and there were many in the South who would have put him higher. As a man of letters, Simms was preeminent in the South, and his labors as editor, reviewer, and godfather gave him an influence that did not dissipate until years after his death. Despite the accolades he received in his lifetime—from Poe and Bryant among others—Simms was chiseled out of the literary pantheon in the course of this century and has endured the writer’s ultimate disgrace: he is better known to scholars and historians than he is to readers. Even in his native state of South Carolina, he is little more than a statue and the original author of the state-history text used by the public schools.
Until fairly recently, I acquiesced in the general condemnation of Simms as a quaint Victorian of no more than historical interest. The novels most frequently pushed upon students. The Yemassee and Eutaw, are, at best, on par with Cooper and not the best of Cooper. But Simms is not without his admirers, and some of those admirers are scholars worth listening to: James Meriwether, Clyde Wilson, and the authors of the two books under review. After persuading me to read Simms’ best novels, Woodcraft and Katharine Walton, bullying me into a fast trip through his letters, and nagging me into reviewing these books, Professor Wilson has forced me to the conclusion that Simms not only deserved the reputation he earned in his lifetime but ought to be considered one of the very few really significant literary figures of 19th-century America.
I say literary figure rather than writer. because like the ancient Eratosthenes who won the nickname Beta for his almost first-rate accomplishments in a variety of fields, Simms succeeded at nothing perfectly. He is one of the first of the great frontier humorists, but Twain took the genre to higher literary heights; he is one of the best American verse satirists who ever wrote, but he lacks epigrammatic wit and occasionally falls back on conventional or even forced rhymes; as an editor he shone without having the money to pay contributors to the Magnolia or the Southern Quarterly Review or any of his other publishing projects doomed, from their very conception, to failure; he is perhaps as good a storyteller as this country ever produced, but his style is frequently diffuse, his syntax clumsy, and his taste too inclined to the macabre, the violent, and the sanguinary. Much of what he wrote, both in prose and verse, could just as well have been left unpublished, but at his best—and it is remarkable how often in his career he managed to hit a rich vein—he is unequaled in his ability to convey experience. Compared to Simms’ best pages and chapters, Hawthorne seems a prissy puritan, Twain a mean-spirited village atheist, and Poe a clever dabbler, not really interested in the human stories that are the blood and marrow of literature. Even in his best work, Twain rarely succeeded in creating true and original characters; like Dickens, he lapses time after time into exaggeration or mere caricature. Simms, on the other hand, when he is not going through the motions of the conventional love story, has created a series of memorable characters—villainous ruffians, like Hellfire Dick, with a slim streak of decency, and the inimitable Captain Porgy, the erudite epicurean who is too fat to climb into the saddle but, for all that, a bold and enterprising soldier. Porgy—Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and Falstaff rolled into one—is probably the most original character in 19th-century American literature and a gauge of defiance against anyone who thinks Simms “conventional.”
Simms’ most enduring legacy is his uneven series of novels written on the Revolutionary War as it was played out in South Carolina; it is an “epic story of America’s battle for freedom and self-identity,” as John Caldwell Guilds sums up the theme of Woodcraft. Professor Guilds has devoted much of his career to rehabilitating Simms’ reputation, and this volume is a solid and lasting contribution to the scholarship on Simms and to American literary history. His judgment on the comparative worth of Simms’ numerous and varied works is judicious and penetrating, and while Guilds is ruthless in detecting flaws, he is also just the sort of critic that Simms himself found in his friend James Henry Hammond, who could pick out the deficiencies in a work while admiring its general design and overall excellence.
If Guilds as an interpreter of Simms has a weakness, it is his attempt to portray the writer as a somewhat coldhearted egotist, insufficiently attentive to his wife:
Though unconditionally loved and revered for almost three decades by his wife, Simms was so self-centered, and so preoccupied with his own disappointments and frustrations, that he often failed to be thoughtful and considerate in his relationship with her.
Most, if not all writers, have a streak of egotism and vanity—why else do they waste their time writing when they could be selling shoes or fleecing the public as journalists and politicians? Simms is not personally effusive, either in his letters or in his novels, but he is grief-stricken at the death of each of his children, giving the lie to social historians who have declared that the frequency of infant mortality deadened the hearts of parents. If he was not the perfect model of uxoriousness, by what standard are we judging him? Hemingway’s? In truth, Guilds’ evidence of coldness and neglect are almost all argumenta ex silentio, and on this basis few husbands could escape censure. One of Simms’ really interesting qualities—and he shared it with Hammond as well as with certain other Southerners of the time—is a certain manliness and frankness. They were their own men in everything, freethinking Christians in religion, reluctant to follow any man’s lead, even Calhoun’s. It falsifies our knowledge of the times to describe such men as sharing “a sense of alienation from Southern society,” except in the etiolated sense that no first-rate man is a herd animal. There is an 18th-century quality to Simms and Hammond, and like Judge Pettigrew and Hugh Legare (to name only two other Charlestonians) they belong as much to the world of Johnson and Gibbon as to the Romantic era.
Too much, in fact, has been written of Southern romanticism, and like all provincial cultures. South Carolina has always remained at least two generations behind the fashions. European visitors frequently noticed an austere, almost Puritanical streak in Charleston life, a sense of reserve that might be mistaken for coldness in a people less passionate. Even at the beginning of this century, Owen Wister instilled a strange combination of aloofness and heartiness into the central characters of his novel Lady Baltimore.
Guilds’ principal mistake lies in his refusal to take Simms’ poetry seriously. In a superbly concise introduction to his first selection of Gilmore Simms’ verse, James Kibler sets out to counter the well-entrenched opinion that the writer “did not use his experiences as the source of his work.” Kibler’s answer is the poetry: “No poems could be any more honest or intensely personal. . . . Clearly art for Simms was not an escape from reality but a way of facing it.”
Simms is, in general, a competent versifier by American standards of the time, which is not saying a great deal, since American writers and critics have a very high degree of tolerance for incompetent verse. As is the case with his novels, what first strikes the reader about his poetry is the great range of Simms’ work: social and political satire, love poetry, descriptive verse, and some of the most melancholy reflections that saw print in a melancholy age. In “What’s Left”— hitherto published only as an anonymous lyric in a newspaper—the coldhearted poet muses on the death of his wife (he had also lost nine children to say nothing of every worldly possession, including his plantation house with a library of nearly 11,000 books). He thinks of the possibility of another love, another marriage, but concludes:
Who, with his memories of the past.
In midnight hours, a mournful throng,
But trembles lest the tempest blast,
Shall hush the sweetest spells of song!
Who, with each soft, subsiding strain.
But feels some memory, stern and sharp,
Nor hears anew the shriek of pain,
in all the pauses of the harp!
Simms does not always touch chords so profound in his verse, but as a Horatian satirist he is frequently memorable. Here is a cynical apology for an evening’s flirtation:
The fact is, dear Fanny, I’m human,
Very weak, I may say, on a spree:
And no matter of what sort the woman.
I’m her slave if she cottons to me.
But this cursed sobriety ever
Undoes every chain of delight.
And my memory, by daylight, has never
Any sense of what takes place by night.
If I did not know better, I should declare this poem the source of the popular song, “I went to bed at two with a ten and woke up at ten with a two.”
The one undoubted masterpiece of satire included by Kibler is Simms’ poem “Chilhowee” (in two different versions). Simms answers a friend who had idealized the life of the noble savages in the village before them by painting a squalid picture of Indian life, a drunken spree leading to an ill-advised attack on a squatter’s farm and the loss of their property. But in his conclusion, the poet—who in other places wrote far more sympathetically of the Indians he had known—turns the table on the good progressive American democrats:
Five years hence.
And the foul settlement we gaze on now
will be a village of the paler race,
having its thousand souls.
Churches will rise,
With taverns on each hand. To the right, see
That gloomy house of morals called a jail;
And from the town hall, on the opposite square.
You yet shall hear some uncomb’d orator
Discourse of freedom, politics, and law.
In tones shall make your blood boil, and your hair
Start up in bristles. It may be your fortune
To hear his comment on your favorite themes,
“Nature and Freedom”; while your eyes discern
“Fat Terrapin,” “Grey Weasel,” and perchance.
The aged “Blazing Pine,”—all Christians then,—
Cowering bewildered, ‘mongst the clamorous crowd
Which hangs delighted on the orator’s words—
Heedful, delightful, drunk as any there!
Whatever alienation Simms might have felt, he kept to himself, and his poetry is filled with tributes both to Charleston and to the South. On excellent terms with many northern writers, Simms had no use for the north’s political leaders. As early as 1850 he had taken their measure:
He proffers love, he prates of ties
That still should bind our fates in one.
Yet weaves his subtle web of lies.
To share and leave us all undone.
Simms, who was present when Sherman torched Columbia, missed seeing his own house burned to the ground by Yankee troops, but the war was more fatal to his literary career than to his fortunes. Northern publishers reneged on their contracts, and the doors remained closed in the years between the war and his death in 1870; for a hundred years his works have been effectively excluded from the nation’s literary canon. The Library of American Literature, with all its faults the most constructive project of the contemporary American publishing business, has brought back into print even Jack London’s investigative reporting on the London slums but has so far managed to ignore one of our dominant literary voices of the last century. Guilds, Kibler, James Meriwether, and other Southern literary historians, however, are doing their best to undo the effects of “long years of neglect.”
[Simms: A Literary Life, by John Caldwell Guilds (Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press) 456 pp., $35.00]
[Selected Poems of William Gilmore Simms, edited by James Everett Kibler, Jr. (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press) 426 pp., $50.00]