Wlliam Gilmore Simms
image of pageExplore Inside

The Sense of the Beautiful.

Speech | Agricultural Society of South Carolina | 1870

            Simms delivered The Sense of the Beautiful, his final public oration, on May 3, 1870, a little over a month before his death.[1]  The occasion was the first Floral Fair held by the Charleston County Agricultural and Horticultural Society, a group that would merge in August with the older and recently revived Agricultural Society of South Carolina.  In his speech, Simms stressed the importance of natural beauty, a harmonious home life, and female leadership.  He praised the spiritual value of the natural world and claimed that a stable domestic sphere was a precondition for the progress of civilization and high culture, which depended in turn on the vital contributions women make to family and public life as moral educators.  Seeking out and suffusing corners of daily life with a “sense of the beautiful” was Simms’s cultural antidote to the threatening divide between the finer and baser passions lately sprung up in the southern soul in the wake of the Civil War. To the already strenuous repair of ruined cities and blasted farmland, he now added the great intellectual task of reengaging the war-sick South with higher culture. Appealing outright to the “Women of Carolina, mothers and daughters in our Israel, from which so much of the glory has departed,”[2] Simms renewed his own antebellum pleas for southerners to engage simultaneously their agrarian, educational, and artistic pursuits.

            Because of his ill health in these last days of his life[3] and the apparently late invitation to speak, Simms said very little about the composition of The Sense of the Beautiful in his letters.  His first mention of the oration was in a 22 April 1870 letter to his son Gilly, in which he noted that he was in the process of composing it “tho’ in pain.”[4]  This mention occurred less than two weeks prior to the event.  The next he said of the event or the speech was in a 4 May 1870 letter to James Lawson, in which he enclosed a copy of the oration he had delivered the previous evening.  In that letter, Simms admitted to his friend that, at the event, he had been “quite feeble & exhausted from delivery, but contrived, by sheer will, to hold out & hold forth to the last.”[5]  The first printed version of the address was in the 4 May 1870 Charleston Courier.  The copy that Simms enclosed to Lawson was a clipping out of that paper.[6]  The speech was published shortly thereafter, also in 1870, by the Agricultural Society of South Carolina and printed by Walker, Evans, & Cogswell out of Charleston, SC.

            The printed oration appeared as a separately-published text in a blue paperback, pamphlet-type booklet, with a cover reading the following (enclosed in a double-ruled rectangular frame) : THE | SENSE OF THE BEAUTIFUL. | [rule] | AN ADDRESS, | DELIVERED BY | W. GILMORE SIMMS, | BEFORE THE | CHARLESTON COUNTY AGRICULTURAL | AND | HORTICULTURAL ASSOCIATION, | (Now the Agricultural Society of South Carolina,) | May 3, 1870. | [rule] | PUBLISHED BY THE SOCIETY. | [rule] | CHARLESTON, S.C. | WALKER, EVANS, & COGSWELL, STATIONERS AND PRINTERS, | Nos. 3 Broad and 100 East Bay Streets. | 1870.  The title page features the same text and presentation.

Elizabeth Oswald

[1] Some of the content of this headnote comes from essays by John D. Miller and Sara Georgini in the collection William Gilmore Simms Unfinished Civil War, forthcoming in 2012.

[2] Simms, The Sense of the Beautiful, 5.

[3] Toward the end of his life Simms was more and more debilitated by and prostrate from the cancer that would kill him on June 11, 1870.  The oft-repeated platitude that he “rose from his death bed” to deliver his final speech is actually not far from the truth.

[4] Letters, 5:310; Simms mentioned his in-progress composition to James Lawson in a letter on the same day.

[5] Ibid., 5:313.

[6] Ibid., 5:313n.