Authors: William Gilmore Simms

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and poet

April 17, 1806

Charleston, South Carolina

June 11, 1870

Charleston, South Carolina

Biography

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.

By Mathew Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Martin Faber: The Story of a Criminal, 1833 Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia, 1834 The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina, 1835 The Partisan: A Tale of the Revolution, 1835 Mellichampe: A Legend of the Santee, 1836 Richard Hurdis: Or, The Avenger of Blood, a Tale of Alabama, 1838 Pelayo: A Story of the Goth, 1838 The Damsel of Darien, 1839 Border Beagles: A Tale of Mississippi, 1840 The Kinsmen: Or, The Black Riders of the Congaree, 1841 (revised as The Scout, 1854) Confession: Or, The Blind Heart, 1841 Beauchampe: Or, The Kentucky Tragedy, a Tale of Passion, 1842 Helen Halsey: Or, The Swamp State of Conelachita, a Tale of the Borders, 1845 Count Julian: Or, The Last Days of the Goth, a Historical Romance, 1845 Katharine Walton: Or, The Rebel of Dorchester, 1851 The Sword and the Distaff: Or, “Fair, Fat and Forty,” 1852 (revised as Woodcraft, 1854) As Good a Comedy: Or, The Tennessean's Story, 1852 The Golden Christmas: A Chronicle of St. John's, Berkeley, 1852 Vasconselos: A Romance of the New World, 1853 Southward Ho! A Spell of Sunshine, 1854 The Forayers: Or, The Raid of the Dog-Days, 1855 Eutaw: A Sequel to the Forayers, 1856 Charlemont: Or, The Pride of the Village, 1856 The Cassique of Kiawah: A Colonial Romance, 1859 Joscelyn: A Tale of the Revolution, 1867 Short Fiction: The Book of My Lady, 1833 Carl Werner, 1838 The Wigwam and the Cabin, 1845 Southward Ho!, 1854 Drama: Michael Bonham: Or, The Fall of Bexar, a Tale of Texas, pb. 1852 Poetry: Monody, on the Death of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 1825 Early Lays, 1827 Lyrical and Other Poems, 1827 The Vision of Cortes, 1829 The Tri-Color, 1830 Atalantis: A Story of the Sea, 1832 Areytos: Or, Songs of the South, 1846 Poems Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative, 1853 Simm's Poems: Areytos Songs and Ballads of the South, 1860 Nonfiction: The History of South Carolina, 1840 The Geography of South Carolina, 1843 The Life of Francis Marion, 1844 Views and Reviews in American Literature, History, and Fiction, 1845 The Life of Captain John Smith, 1846 The Life of Chevalier Bayard, 1847 The Life of Nathanael Greene, 1849 The Lily and the Totem: Or, The Huguenots in Florida, 1850 South-Carolina in the Revolutionary War, 1853 A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C., 1865 The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, 1952-1956 (5 volumes; Mary C. Simms Oliphant, editor) Miscellaneous: The Centennial Edition of the Writings of William Gilmore Simms, 1969-1975 (16 volumes; John C. Guilds and James B. Meriwether, editors) Bibliography Butterworth, Keen, and James E. Kibler, Jr. William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. This very thorough bibliography lists all writings about Simms in chronological order, from 1825 to 1979. The lengthy introduction gives general background information, and the index provides an efficient means of locating books and articles on specific topics relating to Simms. Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story Before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Current-Garcia gives a useful overview of early nineteenth century American short fiction, including a chapter on “Simms and the Southern Frontier Humorists.” Several bibliographies are also included. Guilds, John Caldwell. Simms: A Literary Life. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992. The first critical biography of Simms to appear in one hundred years, Guilds’s book proceeds in a chronological fashion and emphasizes Simms’s accomplishments as a novelist. Five appendices include a chart of birth and death dates for Simms’s fifteen children; the will of Nash Roach, Simms’s father-in-law, bequeathing the bulk of his estate to Simms and Chevillette Roach Simms, his wife; a letter written by Simms to the United States Congress in support of an international copyright bill; two elegies published in Charleston periodicals after Simms’s death; and a useful list of Simms’s writings appearing in book form. Guilds, John Caldwell, ed. “Long Years of Neglect”: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988. The twelve essays in this collection address Simms as novelist, poet, historical philosopher, humorist, lecturer, and literary critic. Mary Ann Wimsatt’s essay on “The Evolution of Simms’ Backwoods Humor” deals particularly with Simms’s short fiction. Guilds, John Caldwell, and Caroline Collins, eds. William Gilmore Simms and the American Frontier. Athens: University of Georgia, 1997. A good look at Simms’s use of the frontier in his works. Johanyak, Debra. “William Gilmore Simms: Deviant Paradigms of Southern Womanhood?” The Mississippi Quarterly 46 (Fall, 1993): 573-588. Discusses the portrayal of women in Simms’s fiction; claims that just as intellectual, independent, or masculinized women are repeatedly destroyed by seducers in Simms’s work, readers are encouraged to view them as deviant and as contributing to their own downfall. Mayfield, John. “‘The Soul of a Man’: William Gilmore Simms and the Myths of Southern Manhood.” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Fall, 1995): 477-500. An examination of southern men in Simms’s fiction; argues that both as literary figures and as paradigms Simms’s characters are failures, being stereotypes with little to offer; explores Simms’s use of masks, deceits, representations, and misrepresentations as well as his introduction of the romantic rogue to reveal a subtext that provides a more realistic portrait of southern manhood. Watson, Charles S. From Nationalism to Secessionism: The Changing Fiction of William Gilmore Simms. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Examines the political and social views of this southern author. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Wimsatt, Mary Ann. The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Forms. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Although Wimsatt focuses primarily on Simms’s novels, this study is one of the most useful discussions of Simms’s work as it reevaluates many of the misconceptions and dismissive attitudes about his fiction. Wimsatt makes use of biographical as well as historical information, and she discusses Simms’s novels within the context of twentieth century critical formulations about the romance genre.

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