That a tale should live,
While temples perish!  That a poet’s song
Should keep its echoes fresh for all the hills
That could not keep their cities! . . .

So wrote William Gilmore Simms in his poem “The Lions of Mycenae” (1870).  He was alluding to Aeschylus, Horace, and Homer, but was no doubt also hoping his own words would echo on, even as the “temples” about him—his cherished Woodlands plantation house and its massive library, the city of Columbia, and the nascent Confederacy itself—had all perished in the cataclysm of the American Civil War.  Sadly, Simms’ desire for an enduring voice turned out to be a case of wishful thinking.  By the beginning of the 20th century, the man who had been not only the “Old South’s foremost public intellectual,” as David S. Shields puts it, but one of the most successful American authors of the antebellum era, had been all but forgotten.

It is perhaps not surprising that Simms’ legacy has not fared well, for his writings and image, on the surface, would seem to have a lot of factors working against them.  For one thing, Simms had publicly and forcefully agitated for secession before the war, and had then aligned himself closely with the Confederacy during it.  In the wake of all the carnage, few readers North or South wished to be reminded of that ruinous cause, and the person of Simms, regardless of the content of his postwar writings, represented just such a reminder.

Compounding the inconvenience of Simms’ advocacy for Southern nationhood was his robust defense of slavery.  Not only had he considered the system to be economically crucial to the well-being of his region, he had framed slavery as a just and moral institution—the only proper means of regulating interaction between the white and black races.  He wrote frequently of the “civilizing” and “elevating” effect of the slave system on blacks, who, he felt, would revert to savagery if left to their own devices.  Granted, slavery was not always the primary topic of his fiction, poetry, and essays, but it infused his work enough to render it problematic for succeeding generations.

Finally, there is the matter of Simms’ verbose prose style—a potentially insurmountable obstacle for today’s attention-challenged readers.  Consider this sentence from his 1834 novel Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia:

The solitary group of pines, that, here and there, shot up suddenly like illumined spires;—the harsh and repulsive hills, that caught, in differing gradations, a glow and glory from the same bright fountain of light and beauty;—even the low copse, uniform of height, and of dull hues, not yet caparisoned for spring, yet sprinkled with gleaming eyes, and limned in pencilling beams and streaks of fire; these, all, appeared suddenly to be subdued in mood, and appealed, with a freshening interest, to the eye of the traveller whom at midday their aspects discouraged only.

Taken together, the above-mentioned factors have ensured Mr. Simms’ long-standing absence from (what remains of) the American literary canon.  This may be changing, though.  Over the last few decades, a small but passionate group of scholars, including John C. Guilds, David Aiken, and the contributors to William Gilmore Simms’s Unfinished Civil War: Consequences for a Southern Man of Letters, have been laboring to bring Simms’ work back into the public view.  Their central contention—that in neglecting Simms we neglect a pivotal force in the early development of American letters—is a strong one, for Simms, via the many biographies and historical “romances” he penned, was one of the first proponents of a uniquely American literature.  Concomitant with that, as an editor and essayist he aggressively promoted regional writing and can thus be considered a progenitor of the rich Southern literary tradition that flourishes to this day.  “To be national in literature,” he wrote in the preface to his short-story collection The Wigwam and the Cabin (1856),

one must needs be sectional.  No one mind can fully illustrate the characteristics of any great country, and he who depicts one section faithfully has made his proper and sufficient contribution to the great work of national illustration.

This is precisely the conclusion William Faulkner arrived at when, two novels into his career, he made the decision to base his fiction almost exclusively in Yoknapatawpha County: the “little postage stamp of native soil” closely modeled on his native Lafayette County, Mississippi.

Pace today’s literary tastes, the audience of Simms’ day found his stem-winding sentences enthralling.  Northern readers (the bulk of his audience) had no visual reference points for imagining the flora and fauna of the South.  There were no movies or television shows to provide cues, so Simms gave as complete a picture as he could.  His style could almost be considered proto-cinematic—widescreen on the printed page.  Despite its excesses, it certainly impressed his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote,

It may be said, on the whole, that while there are several of our native writers who excel [Simms] at particular points, there is, nevertheless, not one who surpasses him in the aggregate of the higher excellences of fiction.

Simms’ poetry, unlike his prose, has aged rather well, and James Everett Kibler of the University of Georgia has spent many lonely years lobbying for its recognition as some of the best of its era.  The excerpts of Simms’ poems included in William Gil­more Simms’s Unfinished Civil War (particularly in Kibler’s fine essay “Simms’s Last Poems and the ‘Artifice of Eternity’”) certainly seem to justify those efforts.

The majority of scholarly work on Mr. Simms thus far has focused on his voluminous antebellum output, giving short shrift to his Civil War activity and his five years of postbellum writing.  On the surface this is entirely understandable, given that his output slowed significantly with the outbreak of hostilities and never regained its earlier pace.  Nevertheless, in observing how the war affected Simms we are presented with a near-perfect microcosm of how the war affected the South.  Simms suffered as the South suffered: He lost family (including his wife) during the conflict; he lost three homes to fire; he witnessed the “total war” tactics of the Union army as it laid waste to nearby Columbia; he saw slavery repudiated and the old Southern hierarchy upended; he watched as his once-proud region, which had ever so briefly become its own country, was forced to play long-term host to an occupying power.  As Matthew C. Brennan points out in his contribution to the volume at hand (“Simms, the Civil War, and the Poetry of Trauma”), the stupefied writer “teemed with melancholy, grief, and despair” yet “despite being afflicted by trauma, personal and cultural, throughout the Civil War and the rest of the 1860s, Simms managed in his writings to mourn privately as well as publicly—and thus to heal.”  Brennan’s masterly essay details how Simms wrestled with this disorienting upheaval in his poetry, fiction, correspondence, essays, and in his high-profile role as editor of the postbellum collection War Poetry of the South.

There is much in Simms’ hard-won wisdom that could be of value to a modern audience.  David Moltke-Hansen (editor of the collection) writes in his essay “When History Failed” of Simms’ antebellum romanticizing of warfare as the “greatest element of modern civilization,” a violent yet necessary consolidation of cultures that inevitably pushed mankind ever upward in its development.  Simms lauded the heroism and honor often born in the duress of battle, implying that war itself might be the ideal catalyst for producing such qualities.  This rosy view of military conflict led Simms unhesitatingly to throw in his lot with the secessionists, confident that, as in ages past, the “honorable” side would surely emerge triumphant.  Needless to say, the disastrous outcome of the war caused him to rethink many of his earlier notions.  Moltke-Hansen writes that Simms came to understand that

one could not anticipate or direct history, guide social and cultural developments, or build a new nation—all fundamental ambitions and measures of worth to the antebellum Simms.  The war had proved that, at the end of the day, those ambitions were chimerical.

Todd Hagstette adds, in “Private vs. Public Honor in Wartime South Carolina,”

For Simms, the world had formerly exhibited an apt harmony in the interactions of its people.  The superior groups won, led, and mastered; the lesser groups lost, followed, and served. . . . How problematic, then, was the Civil War to adherents of this viewpoint?  If victory attended the culturally evolved, riding on the wings of tacit kismet, the South’s loss involved more than military defeat.  Simms, like many of his peers, never fully reconciled Union victory with the South’s supposed honor and rectitude.

Simms never gave up his belief in the rightness of the Southern cause, but his enthusiasm for war and his serene confidence in its salutary effect on civilization were surely chastened.

William Gilmore Simms’s Unfinished Civil War approaches Simms’ personal upheaval from every conceivable angle, and David Moltke-Hansen is to be commended for his careful ordering of the essays.  He has assembled his writers in such a way that ideas and themes raised in earlier selections are echoed, reinforced, or sometimes gently countered later on, giving the impression of a lively, naturally evolving conversation.  For example, Steven D. Smith’s fascinating study of Simms as historian, “Imagining the Swamp Fox,” seems at first glance to be only tangentially relevant to the Civil War, yet in its detailed examination of Simms’ pre-war approach to history and mythmaking it complements and clarifies Hagstette’s and others’ discussions of Simms’ perceptions of such matters in the wake of the war.

Moltke-Hansen’s masterstroke may be the pairing of Jeffery J. Rogers’ essay “The Demands of Citizenship in the Confederate Republic” with Ehren Foley’s “Isaac Nimmons and the Burning of Woodlands.”  In the former piece, Rogers utilizes all of the tools of the historian’s trade to create an almost Proustian immersion in Simms’ day-to-day wartime activities.  Here we see Simms improving his marksmanship, sending unsolicited military advice to the new Confederate government, and penning “increasingly urgent” editorials for the Charleston Mercury warning (prophetically, it turned out) of the state’s vulnerability to amphibious assault.  We also get a tantalizing glimpse of Simms’ ambition to produce a “Library of the Confederate States.”  Rogers writes,

These volumes would contain “a wholesome variety” of the entire scope of southern letters—“History, Biography, Statesmanship, Poetry & Fiction”—spanning the entire history of the South from the colonial era to the Confederacy. . . . Such a project would have served to reinforce southern national identity and bolster Confederate resolve.  Included within one grand series of books would have been the mind and heart of a people then struggling for political independence, which was the outward manifestation and fateful culmination of the cultural and intellectual distinctiveness represented by the literature southerners had produced.  In essence Simms was proposing a Confederate national bible showing southerners who they were and what they were fighting to affirm.

This series, sadly never realized, surely stands alongside Shelby Foote’s unfinished “Two Gates to the City” as one of the great what-ifs of Southern literary history.

If Rogers’ essay gives us a detailed view of life from the master’s house, Ehren Foley’s evocation of life on the slave side of the equation is nothing less than astonishing, given the limited resources with which he had to work.  Foley focuses his piece primarily on Isaac Nimmons, Simms’ “trusted body servant and coachman” who came to be accused of the 1865 torching of Simms’ Woodlands home.  Simms, incredulous at the suggestion that his loyal slave might have betrayed him, testified on Nimmons’ behalf and, as Foley writes, “that sponsorship likely proved a decisive factor in Isaac’s acquittal.”  Yet we come to see how Simms’ convictions, over time, began to waver in the cold light of postwar reality.  He watched, astonished, as some of his former slaves abandoned Woodlands outright (including Nimmons, who procured employment at a nearby plantation in Barnwell), while others, newly emboldened, pushed for a greater stake in its management.  Foley’s major achievement here is his compassionate treatment of both the deeply traumatized Simms and the newly emancipated Nimmons.  Foley points out that “we ultimately cannot know whether Nimmons took the opportunity that others did to attack the property of his master,” but he highlights the very possibility as an example of the seismic shift in social hierarchy that had taken place practically overnight throughout the South.  His essay is a tour de force in historical analysis.

This volume is not without its vexations.  The book is pockmarked here and there by lapses into academese (turgid cogitations on gender theory and the like), but these are blessedly few and far between.  For the most part, the contributors have approached their work with vigor and panache.  There is no glory to be gained in devoting one’s academic career to William Gilmore Simms, so this collection represents a true labor of love on the part of all concerned.  Ultimately, it succeeds not just as a valuable contribution to Simms studies but as a larger examination of the impact of our country’s most tragic conflict on a man who represented, as well as anyone of his day, the mind of the South.


[William Gilmore Simms’s Unfinished Civil War: Consequences for a Southern Man of Letters, edited by David Moltke-Hansen (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press) 288 pp., $29.95]