Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist and poet
April 17, 1806
Charleston, South Carolina
June 11, 1870
Charleston, South Carolina
William Gilmore Simms was known in his lifetime as a novelist, short-story writer, poet, historian, and journalist; his reputation rests on his novels, though as an antebellum Southern writer who supported slavery, he fell out of popularity after the Civil War. Simms’s childhood was an unusual one. His mother died while he was still an infant, and his father left the baby William in the care of his maternal grandmother. He seems to have had only casual schooling, but he read widely and listened intently to his grandmother’s stories of the American Revolution as it had occurred in the South. When the boy was ten years old, his father, a frontiersman who had gone westward toward the Mississippi River, paid a visit to Charleston, and at eighteen William went to visit his father on his plantation in what is now Mississippi. William Gilmore Simms.
William Gilmore Simms.
During this visit he observed frontier life and American Indian tribes. Upon his return to Charleston, Simms published some poems, most of them with a Byronic flavor. In 1828 he entered upon the editorship of a short-lived magazine titled The Tablet. After its failure he became editor of the Charleston City Gazette, which opposed the election of John C. Calhoun. Because of the political animosity he incurred as a result, plus the deaths of his wife, grandmother, and father, Simms left for the North, where he found friends and a future.
Some early work was published shortly after he left Charleston, but his first important success came with the publication of Guy Rivers in 1834. A story of gold mining in northern Georgia, the novel, packed with action, is a romantic piece of writing with a realistic American theme. His next work was The Partisan, which was probably inspired by his grandmother’s accounts of the revolution. In the same year, 1835, The Yemassee appeared; it was destined to remain his most popular book. It is an exciting tale of early days in South Carolina, notable for its realistic portrayal of Native Americans. Simms’s portrayal of American Indians has been judged by scholars to be more accurate than the more popular, idealized pictures presented by James Fenimore Cooper in his novels. Simms’s realism, in fact, was a little too much for his own day. Two of his novels, Beauchampe and Charlemont, both about a celebrated Kentucky murder case, were considered in his lifetime too realistic to be within the bounds of good taste.
Following his second marriage in 1836, Simms’s life began to change. Filling the position of a wealthy planter on his wife’s plantation and raising a family of fifteen children made him a prominent spokesman for the southern notion of Greek democracy in the United States. He also staunchly defended the institution of slavery. Simms’s theories on slavery were found in his The History of South Carolina, and he was also a sharp critic of Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; in response he wrote a pro-slavery novel called The Sword and the Distaff (later republished as Woodcraft). His viewpoint and his reputation as an author made him a great man in the South, but they caused him to be unpopular in the North. While his works were in vogue before the Civil War, they were neglected afterward. All Simms’s important writing came before the war, which both ruined his reputation in the North and destroyed his home and way of life in the South.
Simms’s reputation has been slow in returning. For a half century his books were out of print, except for The Yemassee. His novels were influenced by his reading of Sir Walter Scott, and his work has frequently been compared with that of Cooper. He wrote about South Carolina during the eighteenth century and about the pre–Civil War frontier, then east of the Mississippi River. He celebrated little-known elements of American history and culture. He excelled at three kinds of fiction: the border romance, of which Guy Rivers is his best; the novel of Indian warfare, of which The Yemassee is a classic; and the romance about the American Revolution, of which The Partisan is a good example. In addition to fiction, poetry, and history, Simms wrote biographies of Francis Marion, Captain John Smith, and Nathanael Greene.