Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Atalantis. A Story of the Sea: In Three Parts.

Poetry | J. & J. Harper | 1832

            William Gilmore Simms published Atalantis.  A Story of the Sea: In Three Parts in the fall of 1832.  While Simms’s name does not appear anywhere on or in the text, it is unlikely that he sought any type of anonymity in its publication.  Within weeks of its appearing in print a reviewer in the Charleston Courier announced, “It is attributed to the pen of our fellow-townsman, William Gilmore Simms, Esq.…”[1]  Even without such prompting anyone familiar with Simms’s work would have quickly recognized his authorship, because the opening sonnet was one that he had previously published in The Vision of Cortes (1829).[2]  As with much of his early published material, the volume is one of poetry, though it is unique in its form, being the first separate publication in which Simms deployed dramatic verse.  The characters that appear are largely derived from Simms’s imagination, though his subject material was well known.  Plato had introduced the civilization of Atalantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, and Simms acknowledged his debt to him, as well as to other, more modern, authors.[3]     

            Simms apparently composed Atalantis over a number of years.  He would later remember that he had written much of the text by 1824 or 1825, though he did not complete the final part until his first trip to the northern states in 1832.[4]  While Simms likely wrote much of the poem before 1832, it is doubtful that his work, even the first two parts, was entirely complete by that early date.  Still, as early as 1830 he wrote to James Lawson with plans to “bring forth … a fanciful Dramaa dramatic poem purely imaginative,” suggesting that he had completed some portion of the volume by that time.[5]

            It was not, however, until October of 1832 that Atalantis made it into print.[6]  The publishing house of J. & J. Harper, soon to become Harper & Brothers, issued the book, but G.P. Scott and Co. completed the printing for the volume.  The first edition enjoyed only one printing and it was small, numbering 500 copies only.[7]  Despite the short print run, however, the volume was well received in both the North and the South.  The New York Mirror was effusive in its praise, noting that the “vigorous passages” were “the production of a mind so highly imaginative and poetic, that we must not longer neglect to make our readers acquainted with its great merit.”[8]  Simms himself was quite pleased with his production and even years later did not shy at informing others of its quality. He dedicated this first edition to Maynard D. Richardson, his friend who had accompanied him on his trip north and who died shortly after its publication.[9]

            This first edition has undergone repair.  The front and back covers of the original tan printed paper wrapper have been detached and reapplied to a new wrapper.  As a further measure of conservation, matching four leaf, eight page gatherings of acid free paper have been stitched into the front and rear of the volume.  This copy was originally owned by James Lawson, Simms’s friend and confidant of forty years.  The inscription on the cover indicates that Mabel Reed Sandford presented this copy to Mary C. Simms Oliphant on 16 October 1954.  Sandford’s husband, Lawson Sandford, was James Lawson’s grandson.[10]

            Though there was only one printing of the first edition, selections from Atalantis also appeared in several anthologies, including William Cullen Bryant’s Selections from the American Poets (Harper & Brothers, 1840) and Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America (Cary and Hart, 1842).[11]  Simms was also successful in bringing to press a second edition of Atalantis in 1848; it included a selection of thirty-two additional poems by him, as well as a much needed title poem.

Ehren Foley

[1] Charleston Courier, 31 October 1832, reprinted in Letters, 1:44n.  The review goes on to say, “[it] has the charm which belongs to the creations of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ and Milton’s ‘Comus’ one or both of which may have furnished the model for ‘Atalantis.’”  In a letter to James Lawson written the previous July, Simms had used very similar language, saying, “[it] has no model in the language, unless I except something of the ‘Comus’ of Milton and a few scenes in the ‘Tempest’ of Shakespeare.”  The similarity suggests that Simms probably had engaged in conversations with the Charleston reviewer and had made his authorship known even in the case that it was not generally recognized.  See Letters, 1:40.  

[2] See The Vision of Cortes, Cain, and Other Poems (Charleston: James S. Burges, 1829), 144.  

[3] Letters, 1:40. 

[4] Letters, 5:357;  Letters, 2:503.

[5]  Letters, 1:8.

[6]  Ibid., 1:166.

[7]  Ibid., 1:244.

[8] New York Mirror, 17 November 1832, reprinted in Letters, 1:43-44n.

[9] Letters, 1:42;  Ibid., 1:40n.

[10] Lawson Sandford was the son of Thomas Sergeant Sandford and Mary Lawson Sandford.  Mary Lawson Sandford was the daughter of James Lawson.  “Obituary,” New York Times (16 June 1944), 19.

[11] Letters, 1:211n, 5:356n; William Cullen Bryant, Selections from the American Poets (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1840), 104-109; Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Poets and Poetry of America, 11th edition (Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1852), 323-324.