Wlliam Gilmore Simms

William Gilmore Simms: An Overview

By David Moltke-Hansen, Director of the Simms Initiatives

Jump to: Background | Personal Life | Career | Associations | Thought | Writings | Posthumous Career


Harper's Weekly put it succinctly in its July 2nd, 1870 issue: "In the death of Mr. Simms, on the 11th of June, at Charleston, the country has lost one more of its time-honored band of authors, and the South the most consistent and devoted of her literary sons."1 Indeed, no mid-nineteenth-century writer and editor did more than William Gilmore Simms to frame white southern self-identity and nationalism, shape southern historical consciousness, or foster the South's participation and recognition in the broader American literary culture. No southern writer had more contemporary esteem and attention, at least after Edgar Allan Poe moved north. Among American romancers (or writers of prose epics), only New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper was as successful by the 1840s. In those same years, Simms was the South's most influential editor of cultural journals. He also was the region's most prolific cultural journalist and poet, publishing an average of a book review and a poem per week for forty-five years.

Simms, ca 1863 Before his death, Simms saw his national reputation fall with the Confederacy he had vigorously supported and the slave regime that many in the North had come to despise. Nevertheless, reprints of most of the twenty titles in the selected edition of his works, first published between 1853 and 1860, appeared up until World War I. Thereafter only his The Yemassee, an early romance about an Indian war in South Carolina, continued in print. The tide began to turn in the 1950s, when five volumes of Simms's letters appeared and a growing number of his works issued in new editions. Publication in 1992 of the first literary biography, by John C. Guilds, and establishment of the William Gilmore Simms Society and Review the next year, at once reflected and fostered this revived interest. Yet, not until the 2011 launch of the digital Simms edition of the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina did scholars of southern, American, and nineteenth-century culture have the prospect of ready access to all of Simms's separately published works. With the University of South Carolina Press's cooperation, readers also will have access to seventy-plus volumes in paperback editions by the end of 2013. Simms himself never saw nearly so many of his works in print at one time.

Clearly, the decline in the critical standing of, and historical attention to, Simms and his oeuvre in the century after his death has reversed in the years since. Consequently, the last three decades of the twentieth century saw more published on Simms than the previous hundred years.2 The last decade of the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first centuries saw more dissertations and theses on him3 than had appeared in all the years before. This is not to say that Simms is yet given the attention directed to some of his contemporaries. For the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Modern Language Association International Bibliography lists roughly four times as many scholarly publications on James Fenimore Cooper, more than ten times as many on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and sixteen times as many on Edgar Allan Poe. Not surprisingly, therefore, Simms is not yet included in most anthologies of American literature, although he is a subject or a source in an expanding and ever more diverse body of scholarship.

To prepare to read Simms, it is important to see his writings in multiple contexts. He rarely wrote about himself outside of his more personal poems and his letters (some 1,500 of the many thousands of which survive). Yet he systematically drew on his background, personal experience, and relationships in his work. He also shaped that work through a progressively developed poetics and philosophy of life, history, and art. He did so in the context of very broad reading of both contemporary and earlier Western literature and in the midst of multiple professional engagements and responsibilities. The richness and variety of these writings and involvements make Simms a key figure for future understanding of the literary culture, issues, and networks in mid-nineteenth-century America.


Simms's family history reflected the dynamics that fueled the spread southward and westward of the populations, plantation economy, and society of the South Atlantic states. As well, Simms's ancestry reflected Scots-Irish and English roots of what became identified as southern culture by the 1830s, a generation after the end of most immigration to the region. Two of Simms's grandparents, William and Elisabeth Sims, were Scots-Irish, who migrated to South Carolina from Ulster. One, John Singleton, was an American-born son of putatively English immigrants, who had come to South Carolina from Virginia. The fourth, Jane Miller, was daughter of two Scots-Irish and Irish descended people--John Miller, of North and then South Carolina, and Jane Ross. Ross's family also migrated to South Carolina from western Virginia, where members lived cheek by jowl with other Scots-Irish families, which migrated to the Carolinas.4 Simms's father and Uncle James migrated in 1808 from Charleston to Tennessee, then Mississippi. This was after the bankruptcy of the elder William's business and the death of both his wife and their other two sons. Following the last of these losses, the elder Simms's hair turned white in a week. To his anguished eyes, Charleston appeared "a place of tombs."5

Cameo Brooch For the son, however, Charleston was home—so much so that he refused to leave his maternal grandmother and move to Mississippi, when his uncle came to get him in 1816. Then the fifth largest and by far the wealthiest city, and one of the greatest ports, in America, Charleston was at the peak of its influence.6 Cotton culture on the sea islands to the south, begun in 1790, and rice culture in impounded lowcountry tidal marshes meant that the port was filled not only with sailors of many lands and languages, but also with enslaved people of many African and Creole cultures and speech ways (slaves continued to be imported legally in large numbers until 1808). This street life made vivid the trans-national nature of plantation agriculture and the fact that the developing region's dramatically expanding borders "were not just geographic; they also were human, historical, and intellectual."7

Even more importantly for the future author, the expanding region's borders and nature were taking imaginative shape. The West of the senior William Gilmore Simms and the first Creek War in which he fought, the Revolutionary War of the young Simms's maternal grandfather, the backcountry of many related Scots-Irish settlers, all these became grist for a lonely, energetic boy, who spent as much time with books as he could.8 The possibilities of such settings, incidents, and characters were not confined to history alone. Simms reported that he "used to glow and shiver in turn over 'The Pilgrim's Progress,'" while "Moses' adventures in 'The Vicar of Wakefield' threw [him] into paroxysms of laughter."9 Sir Walter Scott's Border and medieval romances and James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales also deeply colored his imagination.10 As affecting were the ghost stories and Revolutionary War tales of his grandmother and the verses sent, and tales told, by his father.

These diverse tales became reasons to explore—in books, but also on the ground. As a boy, Simms ranged through the city and along the banks of the Ashley River, which fed into Charleston harbor. He did so in search of scenes of colonial and Revolutionary battles and incidents.11 He first heard his uncle's and father's many Irish and frontier stories when they visited in Charleston in 1816 and 1818, respectively. He heard more on his trips to Mississippi during the winter of 1824 through the spring of 1825 and again in 1826. The first trip took him through Georgia and Alabama, where he saw elements of the Creek and Cherokee nations. At the time, Simms later reported, he was a boy "cumbered with fragmentary materials of thought,…choked by the tangled vines of erroneous speculation, and haunted by passions, which, like so many wolves, lurked, in ready waiting, for their unsuspecting prey."12 When he first got to Mississippi, traveling partly by stage, partly by riverboat, and partly by horse, Simms learned that his father had just come back from "a trip of three hundred miles into the heart of the Indian country…."13 Later, father and son "rode together on horseback to various settlements on the frontier of Alabama and Mississippi."14 Simms recalled as well "having traveled 150 miles beyond the Mississippi."15 The next year he returned to the Southwest by ship. "During this [second] trip he carried a 'note book.'" There he jotted episodes, encounters, stories heard, characters seen, and descriptions of the landscapes unfolding around him. He also wrote "at least sixteen poems."16

Simms took a third western trip five years later, writing letters back to the newspaper that by then he was editing.17 Together, these three trips provided materials for his writings over more than forty years. "The first… produced mainly short fiction; the second inspired much poetry; … the first and third … yielded three novels written in the 1830s."18 In part, this was because of the trips' timing. Sixteen years after the first trip, Simms told students at the University of Alabama that the interval had changed their world from a howling wilderness into a place of growing civilization.19 Had he not gone when he did, he would have been too late to see the frontier. Later travels took him many other places and also provided much grist for his writing. Never again, however, did he experience the frontier first hand. Furthermore, on these later trips, Simms was a practiced professional writer, no longer that boy haunted by passions.

Personal Life

After the ten-year-old boy's momentous refusal to leave Charleston, his grandmother sent Simms for two years to the grammar school, taught on the campus and by the faculty of the nearly moribund College of Charleston. By then, he already was "versifying the events of the war [of 1812]," just concluded, publishing "doggerel" in the local papers, and learning to read in several languages.20 His trip west a decade later helped him decide to pursue both literature and a career in law, but back in Charleston—this despite his father's urging that he stay in Mississippi. Upon his return home, he began to read law and also launched a literary weekly, The Album, which ran for a year. He became engaged as well to Anna Malcolm Giles, daughter of a grocer and former state coroner.

A year later, the young couple married. This was six months before Simms was admitted to the South Carolina bar, on his twenty-first birthday, and his appointment as a city magistrate. Although living up the Ashley River in the more healthful, less expensive village of Summerville, Simms kept a law office in the city. Shortly after using his maternal inheritance to buy The City Gazette at the end of 1829 and moving down to the Charleston Neck, just north of the city limits, Simms lost both his father and his maternal grandmother. He also found himself attacked because of his Unionist stance in the Nullification crisis resulting from South Carolina's rejection of a federal tariff. Then, in early 1832, Simms's wife died. Soon after, he took his four-year-old daughter back to Summerville to live and determined to sell his newspaper and leave the state for a literary life in the North.

Fueling the ambition was the correspondence Simms had begun several years before with an accountant whom he had published in his City Gazette but not yet met—Scots immigrant James Lawson. At the time, Lawson, seven years Simms's senior, edited a New York City newspaper and, in addition to writing plays and poetry, was a friend (and, later, informal literary agent) to a wide circle.21 Simms's trip north in the summer of 1832 saw the two begin a life-long friendship, cemented as they squired ladies about and interacted with Lawson's literary circle. In subsequent years, Simms multiplied his friendships, in both the North and the South, making them in some measure a replacement for the family that he had lost. Lawson remained the closest of his northern friends, while James Henry Hammond, a future governor and U. S. Senator, became his closest friend in South Carolina.

Antebellum Woodlands Late in 1833, after his Summerville house burned, Simms wrote Lawson to say that he was enamored of "a certain fair one."22 Seventeen-year-old Chevillette Eliza Roach was the daughter of "a literary-minded aristocrat of English descent" with two plantations on the banks of the Edisto River in Barnwell District (later County) (Guilds, Simms 70). The courtship was protracted, as Simms felt it necessary first to clear debts that friends had bought up on his behalf. He also was determined "to marry no woman" before he was "perfectly independent of her resources, and her friends."23 Therefore, he did not propose until the spring of 1836. The nuptials took place seven months later, and as a result Simms came to call the four thousand acres of Woodlands Plantation, with its seventy slaves, home. It was twenty years, however, before he took over management of the plantation and, then, only in the wake of his father-in-law's final sickness and death. Five years after that, he lost his wife, the mother of fourteen of his fifteen children. Nine of Chevillette's children had already died, devastating Simms repeatedly. Five were still living (three sons and two daughters), as was Simms's daughter by his first marriage, who helped raise the youngest of her siblings. Those remaining children—even Gilly, who fought in the Confederate Army—all outlived their father. Gilly and a brother-in-law ran Woodlands after the war, when Simms, though dying of cancer, was earning what he could by writing again for publication in the North and editing one or another South Carolina newspaper.


The trip north in 1832 did not result in Simms moving there. Except during the Civil War, however, he returned almost every year. This was because the contacts he made, and the exposure to literary culture that he enjoyed, helped him define his future as an author. Earlier he had written fiction and criticism as well as journalism, filling the pages of several short-lived cultural journals and his newspaper, but between the ages of nine and twenty-six Simms primarily had focused his literary efforts on poetry. Beginning with his first book of verse in 1825, he had published five small volumes in Charleston. A couple had received positive notice in New York, and in the fall of 1832, J. & J. Harper issued the sixth anonymously from there, Atalantis. A Story of the Sea. Coming back the following summer, Simms had in hand for the Harpers a gothic novella, Martin Faber, and after his return south also would send the manuscript of his first two-volume, border romance, Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia.

Guy Rivers book art The reception of these and the romances and short stories that followed quickly made Simms one of the nation's most successful fictionists. He continued to issue poetry as well—roughly a collection every three years over the thirty-seven years that he worked as a professional author. But this output was dwarfed by the fiction—on average a title every year (counting several serialized works but not counting the many revised editions). Then there were the two dozen separately published orations, histories, and biographies as well as edited collections of documents and dramas and a geography of South Carolina. Add to these the revised editions, and the further printings and issues, of his own works and, it appears that Simms saw a title coming off the presses at the rate of one every three months or so. Making that figure all the more astounding is the fact that, during more than a dozen of those years (the early-to-mid 40s, the late 40s-to-early 50s, and the mid-to-late 60s), he also was editing a cultural journal or newspaper. Furthermore, he contributed reams of reviews and poems, hundreds of op-ed pieces and columns, and dozens of short stories and public addresses, which were never collected and published in volume form.

This career mapped along an arc. It ascended meteorically in the 30s and peaked in the early-to-mid 40s before beginning to descend. One reason was the popularity of the historical fiction that Simms began to write. When he left the law, his first newspaper, and the Nullification controversy, as well as his sadness behind, historical fiction was all the rage. Sir Walter Scott had fueled the craze, beginning with the publication of his first Border romance in 1814. He died in September 1832. Seventeen years Simms's senior, James Fenimore Cooper, the closest America had to a Scott at the time, was at the peak of his reputation and success, having started publishing his romances in 1820. Thus the way had been prepared for a writer of Simms's historical imagination and preoccupations. Within five years of his first trip north, moreover, Lawson's (and now his) circle became loosely affiliated in a nationalistic and Democratic group, self-styled Young America, this after Young Italy and similar ethnic, nationalist, European, cultural and political movements.24 Edgar Allan Poe and other members gave Simms's first fictions positive, if not uncritical attention.

By the end of the 30s, paradoxically, Simms, like Cooper, found his success attracting unauthorized editions of his work, because the British and the Americans did not have an international copyright agreement. Further, in the wake of the panic of 1837, Americans bought fewer books. Simms's response was to diversify his portfolio. He turned to biography and history, including his hugely successful Life of Francis Marion (1844). He also returned to the editor's chair, overseeing one and then another cultural journal. These were unlike the ones he had edited in the 20s: they included contributions by numerous authors, not just from Charleston, but from around the region and also the North. The ambition motivating the journals was to connect and promote Charleston intellectually. Consequently, the journals more closely resembled metropolitan quarterly reviews in their offerings.

The mid-40s saw Simms in politics, including a term in the South Carolina legislature. By the middle of the Mexican War in 1847, he had concluded that the South needed to become an independent nation. Thereafter, although he maintained ties with many in the Young America circle, he no longer promoted his writings as fostering Americanism in literature.25 Instead, he increasingly emphasized the ways in which his three romance series—the colonial, the Revolutionary, and the border—were making tangible and meaningful the origins and development of the future southern nation and the sad but inevitable consequences for Native Americans.26

Sectional politics colored more and more of Simms's perceptions, speeches, and private communications. The rising tide of abolitionism had him aghast. It also fed his growing sense that his position in American letters was slipping. He returned to editing and became increasingly patriotic in tone in his poetry, which was more often explicitly about the South. Although his first biographer, William Peterfield Trent, insisted that Simms's declining standing reflected the change in literary fashion from historical romances to realistic novels, Simms in fact wrote more and more as a social realist in the 50s.27

The Civil War consumed Simms. As he wrote Lawson: "literature, especially poetry, is effectually overwhelmed by the drums, & the cavalry, and the shouting."28 He did manage to editorialize often and to rework and finish things long on his desk, including poems, a novel, and a dramatic treatment of Benedict Arnold, the northern traitor in the Revolutionary War. Then, in the wake of the Confederacy's loss and the failure of his vision for the South, he found himself recording the loss in a new newspaper, dealing with the trauma in his poetry, and becoming more existential and psychological in his fictional treatments. Simms's old New York friends tried to help. He did edit and see through the press a volume of Confederate war poetry. Yet it is a measure of his reduced stature that the several new romances he published appeared only in serial form. In part this may have been because he was in a sense competing with himself. Publishers were beginning to reprint volumes out of the selected edition of his writings. A lot of Simms was available in book form, just not new works.


As the Letters testify, Simms had complex, overlapping networks of friends and colleagues. As a boy and young man, he received the friendship, patronage, and commendation of a variety of well placed people in Charleston, including Charles Rivers Carroll. It was Carroll with whom he read law, to whom he dedicated his first romance, and after whom he named a son. Both men were Unionists during the Nullification controversy. So were Hugh Swinton Legare, later U. S. Attorney General, and the considerably older William Drayton, as well as lawyer and editor Richard Yeadon and Greenville, South Carolina, newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Perry. Also considerably older, James Wright Simmons joined with Simms to launch the Southern Literary Gazette in 1828, when Simms was twenty-two. Through him Simms had direct touch with such British literary figures as Leigh Hunt and Byron.29

Bounetheau Sketch The next group of influential friends and collaborators that Simms acquired were members of the Lawson circle and included such figures as Edwin Forrest, the Shakespearean actor, and Evert Duyckinck, who published several of Simms's volumes in Wiley and Putnam's "Library of American Books," which he edited. Among the many others were poets and editors William Cullen Bryant and Fitz-Greene Halleck. Simms also made non-literary New York and Philadelphia friends, such as John Jacob Bockee and William Hawkins Ferris, the cashier at the U. S. Treasury office in New York who, after the war, helped Simms, Henry Timrod (poet laureate of the Confederacy), and others.

As a Barnwell planter, Simms met a widening circle of South Carolina's leaders and literati.  For instance, his acquaintance with James Henry Hammond began in the late 30s and deepened into a friendship in the early 40s.  It was in the early 40s, too, when he again was editing cultural journals, that Simms became friends with many southern writers.  He regarded several of them, including Virginians George Frederick Holmes, Edmund Ruffin, and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker as members, together with Hammond and himself, in a "sacred circle." Uniting the circle were members' devotion to the South and a shared sense of the marginal status and critical importance of the life of the mind in a largely rural and un-intellectual region.30 Others of Simms's wide connections in the region did not interact as much with each other, but Simms long corresponded with Maryland novelist and lawyer John Pendleton Kennedy, Irish-born Georgia poet Richard Henry Wilde, Alabama lawyer and writer Alexander Beaufort Meek, and Louisiana historian and assistant attorney general Charles Gayarre, among others. By the 50s, when Simms once more returned to editing a cultural journal, many of the writers whom he recruited were members of a younger generation. Poets Paul Hamilton Hayne and Henry Timrod were two. Often they and a half dozen others of Simms's and their generations met in John Russell's Charleston Book Shop and adjourned to dinner at Simms's Smith Street home, "dubbed 'The Wigwam.'"31 Shortly before his death fifteen or so years later, Simms wrote Hayne: "I am rapidly passing from the stage, where you young men are to succeed me."32


The welter of Simms's works disguises unities and dynamics of the thought underlying it. From early on, Simms was convinced that art ennobles or transforms, as well as gives voice to individuals and societies; therefore, it must be cultivated assiduously. Without the potential for high artistic attainment, he insisted, societies are not ready for the independence and regard of free peoples. This is where Simms the historian joined Simms the poet. Societies develop, he argued (using the stadialism of the Scottish historical school), from imitation through self-assertion to achievement and also from savagery through strife to settled agricultural communities and, ultimately, to a hierarchical civilization supporting a rich artistic life. It was the job of the artist to help envision the goal, inspire the pursuit, and inform the process. That process was at once progressive and dialectical. Order, without dynamism, stifled development, as did the obverse—the dominance by ungoverned impulses or uncontrolled license. This was true in the individual, but also in societies as a whole. War was necessary for civilization, but its success was measured in the securities of the home, the center of cultural production and reproduction.

Whether in the public or in the domestic arena, "[t]he true governor, as [Thomas] Carlyle call[ed] him—the king man—" guided rather than impeded the forces of change and progress.33 There were few such men, with the capacity to lead. The same was true of nations. Neither all people nor all peoples were equal in either capacity or attainment. That was why Native Americans were overrun and Africans had been enslaved by European-derived peoples in the New World. Indeed, Simms argued, "slavery in all ages has been found the greatest and most admirable agent of Civilization," giving education and examples to less evolved peoples.34 The degree to which a people had evolved mattered. That was why, he held, Americans had won independence from the most powerful empire in the world. They had done so through their Revolution, led by an elite that felt correctly its time had come.35 By mid-1847, that also was Simms's judgment for the South: the region had evolved enough to become independent.36 The hope inspired and then failed him and the people he sought to lead.

While not all men could rise to the highest rank, they all had the same responsibility at home. There, the father was patriarch, protector, and head, while the mother was nurturer, moral instructor, and heart. There, too, children's characters and minds were formed by age twelve.37 Children's upbringing was critical to citizenship, and it was through her sons and the support of her husband, father, and brothers that a woman shaped the public sphere. The culture and character instilled in the child expressed and informed not just the household, but the larger society—the people.

"The history of peoples and their embodiments in institutions, states, and artistic productions—these were the great subjects" in Simms's view.38 Yet "poets were the only class of philosophers who had recognized" this until his own day, when at last "we now read human histories. We now ask after the affections as well as the ceremonies of society."39 Peoples or races—that is, ethnic groups—were not unchanging any more than were their politics and their cultures. They either advanced or were overrun by history. Further, new peoples emerged, and old identities were submerged. The Spanish conquistadors were the creation of centuries of conflict with the Moors: their motivation was the glory of conquest, not the routine of trade or the plow. On the other hand, the English settlements in North America reflected the impulse to transform the wilderness into verdant farms and build society.40 The same impulse drove Americans westward in Simms's own day and gave Americans their Manifest Destiny.

To explore these facts of the South's settlement and its place in international conflicts, Simms wrote all together, between 1833 and 1863, two romances set in eighth-century Spain, two set during the Spanish exploration and conquest of the Americas and two during the later English colonization of South Carolina, seven set during the American Revolution, and—depending on how one counts—perhaps eight set on the borders of the nineteenth-century South. After the war, he published one more Revolutionary romance and two more that, like it, were set beyond the boundaries of civilization. He also left two unfinished romances, also set beyond society's normal reach. These late works, however, no longer had as their framing justification the cultivation of the South's future and civilization.

White southerners had their independence foreclosed on them by the war. In his last works, therefore, Simms found himself exploring the psychological, philosophical, and historical impulses that led to the Confederacy's demise at northern hands and what, in the aftermath, it meant to be a good man and to build for the future, however impoverished. On the first score, he argued that the impulse to idealism behind abolitionism ignored historical realities, becoming inhuman in its consequences. On the latter score, he affirmed responsibility for one's dependents and the virtues of stoicism, as well as a continued commitment to the beauty and truth of art and the impulses to the cultivated life and fields. Therefore, in the face of the burning of his Woodlands home and library in February 1865, during Sherman's march, and in the midst of desperate circumstances, he insisted that home, or the ideals and past characterizing its potential, still was at the center of true civilization—but only if elevated by art.41 It was wrong to measure civilization by the getting, spending, and mad dashing, or material progress and utilitarianism, characteristic of both a capitalistic North and also many southerners. These traits he often had attacked even before the war, insisting that "[t]he work of the Imagination, which is the Genius of a race, is only begun when its material progress is supposed to be complete."42


Simms expressed many of his ideas most personally in letters and most cogently in essays, speeches, and occasional introductions to his books. But he illustrated them most fully in his fiction and poetry. By the time he arrived in New York in 1832, he had formed many of the core ideals and beliefs that would shape his work. His application of them, however, modified his understanding over time. Growing as a writer and growing in knowledge and experience, he also grew as a thinker.

In his hierarchy of values, poetry came first. It was a prophetic calling as well as evocative of the deeply felt (or, sometimes, fleeting) and thus testimony to the perdurance and transcendence of the beautiful and the human spirit. Yet, as Simms often ruefully reflected, prose spoke to many more people. That was a principal reason why he turned to writing prose epics or romances. He gave his most concerted consideration of poetry's value and roles in three lectures in Charleston in 1854. Over the prior three years he had given portions in Augusta, Georgia, Washington, D. C., and Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Entitled Poetry and the Practical, they did not see print until 1996, as Simms never found the time to expand them as he wanted. On the other hand, his last address on the same themes, The Sense of the Beautiful, did issue soon after he delivered it, also in Charleston.

Many of his important reviews have not yet been gathered, but Simms collected some in 1845-46, and Views and Reviews in American Literature, History and Fiction came out in 1846 and 1847 in two "series." Beginning with a consideration of "Americanism in Literature," the first series explored the themes and periods of American history for treatment by the novelist. Simms argued there, and in forewords to several of his romances, that fiction rendered the past more truthfully, interestingly, and tellingly than histories and biographies could, because fiction—like poetry—required imagination to look beyond what is not known or expressed. The second series examined additional American writers and what distinguished them, for instance, in their humor.

Despite their early success, Simms's romances, novellas, and stories provoked mixed reviews. Poe eventually concluded that Simms had become "[t]he best novelist which this country has, on the whole, produced" but also insisted that "[h]e should never have written 'The Partisan,' nor 'The Yemassee.'" This was in a review of Confession. That novel, like the gothic Martin Faber, demonstrated, Poe contended, that Simms's "genius [did] not lie in the outward so much as in the inner world." Yet he nevertheless wrote of Simms's short-story collection The Wigwam and the Cabin: "in invention, in vigor, in movement, in the power of exciting interest, and in the artistical management of his themes, he has surpassed, we think, any of his countrymen." Other critics, especially in the genteel and Whiggish Knickerbocker circle, joined Poe in condemning what they considered to be the excessively graphic and vulgar qualities of many characters and scenes, and Simms's prolixity and sententiousness, in his romances.43

The violent realism and earthiness of the romances did not result in realistic novels. Although Simms received early praise for his characterizations (particularly of women), he used the romance formula, with its stereotypic heroes and heroines, predictable themes, and conventional polarities. People were on quests or had lost their way or were fighting long odds or were carrying forward the banner of, and modeling, civilization or were mired in the slough of despond or were resisting all the claims of civilized society and behavior or were pursuing love interests. Deceitfulness, selfishness, and greed opposed honor, high-mindedness, and honesty against the backdrop of the South's development from the earliest days of Spanish exploration to the westward movement in Simms's own youth.

It was only gradually that Simms married the psychological acuity of some of his portraits of the interior struggles of his gothic characters and fiction to the historical romance. Helping him think through how to do so were the biographies he wrote in the mid-40s, but also the incidents on which he focused particular fictions, such as the murder in Beauchampe: Or, The Kentucky Tragedy. A Tale of Passion (1842). However incomplete the blending of realism and romanticism or of stereotypical and socially individuated renderings through the 40s, by the 1850s Simms fundamentally had made the transition to social realism in such works as Woodcraft and The Cassique of Kiawah. Indeed, some scholars have considered Woodcraft the first realistic novel in America.44

In some sense disguising the transition is the fact that Simms also increasingly wrote as a humorist and, in so doing, often rendered his late narratives fabulistically, when not writing social comedy or stories of manners. This dimension of Simms's work was largely hidden, however, until the 1974 publication of Stories and Tales, Volume V in the Centennial Simms edition. There, for the first time, readers had access in print to "Bald-Head Bill Bauldy." There, too, for the first time one could read together that story and another "Legend of the Hunter's Camp," "How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and Wife," published posthumously in Harper's Magazine in October 1870. These and other stories and tales made it clear that Simms was a fecund contributor to southern and American humor.

In part, humor let Simms take up issues that otherwise he could not address in print and expect to be well received. He did so both during and after the war. The war also pushed Simms past the emerging fashion of social realism. Having destroyed the familiar, the preoccupation of much realistic fiction, it made the liminal central.45 While his romances and tales had often explored life on the edge or in extreme circumstances, whether in war or on the frontier or on the verge of madness or in fanciful realms, it had done so against a backdrop of, and with the goal of affirming, social norms and development. In the war's wake, that goal seemed absurd. Mythologized memories of a healthy past might nurture a sense of the beautiful but could not help one deal with the present. Thus Simms's conclusion, in a March 1869 letter to Paul Hamilton Hayne: "Let us bury the Past lest it buries us!"46 Fifteen months later he lay dead in his eldest daughter's 13 Society Street, Charleston home, with the shell holes in the walls of the bedroom he had shared with several children.

Posthumous Career

The twenty years after Simms's death saw him often respectfully treated first in obituaries, later in memoirs and columns, and also in literary dictionaries and encyclopedias. Yet Charles Richardson's 1887 American Literature: 1607-1885 proved a harbinger of a shift: Simms, Richardson observed, was "more respected than read," having "won considerable note because he was so sectional" and then having "lost it because he was not sectional enough," although he showed "silly contempt for his Northern betters."47 Five years later, Trent's biography of Simms appeared. It was the first full-length, scholarly treatment. Its central thesis was that Simms's environment frustrated his abilities; the South was inimical to art and the life of the mind, and Charleston high society's hauteur marginalized Simms despite his talent and character. Trent's second thesis was that Simms's commitment to the romance and his romanticism meant that his works had become largely unreadable in an age of literary realism. Although Vernon Parrington and later scholars recognized Simms's impulses to realism, the two theses long shaped Simms criticism and, indeed, also helped frame study of antebellum southern literature and intellectual life.48

A Virginian born in 1862, Trent was a progressive who wanted a New South radically different from the old. He saw his pioneering study of Simms as an opportunity to criticize what the Civil War had made untenable. From his perspective, that Old South was not the expanding and rapidly developing environment, with a deep history, that Simms portrayed, but a place where slavery stultified and stunted the growth and progress displayed by the North. Occasionally, southern—especially South Carolinian—writers challenged Trent's agenda and conclusions, but those critiques had little impact. Not until after publication of the Simms letters in the 1950s did scholars begin to consider the author in the historical and contemporary contexts that he had rendered in his poetry and fiction. And not until after the centennial of his death did a growing number of scholars, having concluded that southern intellectual history was not an oxymoron, begin to study in detail the culture in which Simms participated and to which he contributed so voluminously and variously.

Some of these scholars also have had agendas: they have wanted to see Simms included in the American literary canon, for instance, or they have wanted to defend the heritage that in their view Trent, and so many others, inappropriately belittled or ignorantly dismissed. More fruitfully, other scholars have begun to reframe the understanding of nineteenth-century American intellectual life by stripping away preconceptions that characterized earlier evaluations of Simms and his contemporaries. They are closely examining the historical record and trans-Atlantic and other, contemporary contexts and developments in the process. Although the pursuit of canonical status in a post-canonical age seems Quixotic at this point, the explosion of the canon is leading to more varied fare being offered and may, therefore, mean that Simms, once his work is widely available, will be more often anthologized as well as studied. Defensiveness about Simms and the antebellum South may warm the hearts of like-minded people, just as critics of the Old South have been encouraged by shared presuppositions and disdain. Yet dueling cultural ideologies do not advance comity and may only reinforce mutual incomprehensions. Continued, deep research in original sources and the theoretical reframing that Atlantic history, the history of the book, and other perspectives offer—these approaches promise most for further study of Simms, his works, and his world.

1“William Gilmore Simms,” Harper’s Weekly, July 2, 1870, 420.
2Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980), 126-200.
4William B. White, Jr., The Ross-Chesnut-Sutton Family of South Carolina (Franklin, NC: Privately Printed, 2002).
5William Gilmore Simms, “Personal Memorabilia,” Charles Carroll Simms Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, quoted in John C. Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 6, 12.
6David Moltke-Hansen, "The Expansion of Intellectual Life: A Prospectus," in Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, ed. David Moltke-Hansen and Michael O'Brien, 3-44.( Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), and George C. Rogers Jr., Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1980).
7David Moltke-Hansen, “Southern Literary Horizons in Young America: Imaginative Development of a Regional Geography," Studies in the Literary Imagination 42, no. 1 (2009): 19.
8William Gilmore Simms to James Lawson, December 29, 1839, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, ed. Mary C. Simms Oliphant, Alfred Taylor Odell, and T.C. Duncan Eaves (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952), 161.
9Paul Hamilton Hayne, “Ante-Bellum Charleston,” The Southern Bivouac, October 1885.
10William Gilmore Simms, Views and Reviews in American Literature, History, and Fiction, ed. C. Hugh Holman (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 258 ff, and Moltke-Hansen, “Southern Literary Horizons in Young America: Imaginative Development of a Regional Geography," 6-15.
11Alexander Salley, introduction to The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, by William Gilmore Simms (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952), lxii.
12William Gilmore Simms, “The Social Principle,” in The True Source of National Permanence, (Tuscaloosa: The Erosophic Society of the University of Alabama, 1843), 6.
13William Peterfield Trent, William Gilmore Simms (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1892), 15.
14Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life, 10-11, 17-18.
15Miriam Jones Shillingsburg, “Literary Grist: Simms’s Trips to Mississippi,” Southern Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2003): 120.
16Kibler, "The First Simms Letters: 'Letters from the West '(1826)," Southern Literary Journal, 19 (Spring 1987), 81-91, and Shillingsburg, “Literary Grist: Simms’s Trips to Mississippi,” 123.
17Simms to The City Gazette, 1831, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, 10-38.
18Shillingsburg, “Literary Grist: Simms’s Trips to Mississippi,” 119.
19William Gilmore Simms, “The Social Principle,” 5-6.
20Simms to James Lawson, October 16, 1831, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, 285.
21Thomas L. McHaney, "An Early 19th-Century Literary Agent: James Lawson of New York," Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America 64 (Spring 1970): 177-92.
22Simms to James Lawson, November 5, 1835, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, 73.
23Simms to James Lawson, January 27, 1836, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, 78.
24Moltke-Hansen, “Southern Literary Horizons in Young America: Imaginative Development of a Regional Geography."
25Simms, Views and Reviews in American Literature, History, and Fiction.
26Charles S. Watson, From Nationalism to Secessionism: The Changing Fiction of William Gilmore Simms (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993). See also Masahiro Nakamura, Visions of Order in William Gilmore Simms: Southern Conservatism and the Other American Romance (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).
27Mary Ann Wimsatt,"Realism and Romance in Simms's Midcentury Fiction," Southern Literary Journal 12, no. 2 (1980): 29-48.
28Simms to James Lawson, July 4, 1861, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 4, 369-70.
29James Kibler, The Poetry of Willam Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Bibliography, (Columbia: Southern Studies Press, 1979), 15.
30Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
31“Simms’ Circle,” preceding The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 1, cxxxvi.
32Simms to Paul Hamilton Hayne, January 2, 1870, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 5, 290.
33William Gilmore Simms, "Guizot's Democracy in France," Southern Quarterly Review 15, no. 29 (1849): 122.
34Simms to John Pendleton Kennedy, April 5, 1852, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 3, 174.
35William Gilmore Simms, “Ellet's 'Women of the Revolution,’” Southern Quarterly Review ns 1.2 (1850): 328.
36Simms to James Henry Hammond, July 15, 1847, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 2, 332.
37Simms, “Ellet's 'Women of the Revolution.’”
38Moltke-Hansen, “Southern Literary Horizons in Young America: Imaginative Development of a Regional Geography," 120.
39Simms, “Ellet's 'Women of the Revolution,’” 319-20.
40Simms, Views and Reviews in American Literature, History, and Fiction, 64, and William Gilmore Simms, “The Social Principle,” 8 ff.
41William Gilmore Simms, “The Sense of the Beautiful,” (Charleston, Agricultural Society of South Carolina, 1870), 8, 17.
42William Gilmore Simms, Poetry and the Practical, ed. James Everett Kibler, Jr. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996), 12.
43Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide, 50, 64, et passim.
44Jan Bakker, "Simms on the Literary Frontier; or, So Long Miss Ravenel and Hello Captain Porgy: Woodcraft Is the First 'Realistic' Novel in America," in William Gilmore Simms and the Frontier, ed. John Caldwell Guilds and Caroline Collins, 64-78 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), and Mary Ann Wimsatt, "Realism and Romance in Simms's Midcentury Fiction," Southern Literary Journal 12, no. 2 (1980): 29-48.
45Miriam J. Shillinsgburg, "The Cub of the Panther: A New Frontier," in William Gilmore Simms and the Frontier, ed. John Caldwell Guilds and Caroline Collins, 221-36 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
46Simms to Paul Hamilton Hayne, March 6, 1869, in The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, vol. 5, 214.
47Charles Richardson, American Literature: 1607-1885 (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1887), 402, quoted in Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide, 130.
48Vernon L. Parrington, The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860. vol. 2 of Main Currents in American Thought (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927), 119-30.