Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Atalantis; A Story of the Sea.

Poetry | Carey and Hart | 1849

            Though the first edition of Atalantis.  A Story of the Sea (1832) was well received by reviewers both North and South, it had only one printing.  The limited print run of just 500 copies meant that relatively few readers could enjoy the many “uncommonly strong and vigorous passages” that comprised William Gilmore Simms’s fanciful tale.[1]  Simms was early convinced that a larger readership existed and that Atalantis offered him an opportunity to increase his reputation in both the Northern states and Europe.  In 1837 he wrote to James Lawson, one of his best friends and a man well connected in New York literary circles, about the possibility of publishing a revised and expanded edition.  When combined with “the selection of metrical matters which I am able to throw together,” Simms was convinced that the new edition would “materially contribute to my reputation in this country, and be a very good introduction to a new career which I should desire to commence in the European world.”[2]  Several years and several book-length publications would intervene, however, before Simms would actually publish the second edition of Atalantis (1848).

            Part of the reason for the delay was that Simms revised and rewrote his dramatic verse so as to improve the form and eliminate “the redundancy of the descriptive portions.”[3]  The most obvious change came in the organization.  Rather than dividing into three parts, Simms instead relied on a three-act structure and subdivided each act into scenes.  He also added more than seventy pages of lyric poetry, which comprises the book’s second half and is entitled, “The Eye and the Wing; Poems, Chiefly Imaginative.”  Simms had previewed many of these poems in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1846 and 1847.  The eye and the wing evoked his crest, an eye between two wings with the motto: video volans, or I see soaring.

            Also adding to the delay was the fact that Simms apparently had difficulty finding a publisher for his work.  His desire that Atalantis find a Northern audience meant that he resisted publishing with a Charleston firm, even though he could have done so easily.  When he wrote to Lawson in 1837, he inquired about the possibility of finding a home for his work at Saunders and Otley, a London-based publishing house.[4] When that attempt proved unsuccessful, he continued to make inquiries, but to no avail.  Finally, in 1847, he decided to print the second edition at his own expense and proposed to Carey and Hart of Philadelphia that he would give them the printed sheets if they would distribute the book.  They agreed, and the 1848 edition of Atalantis bears their imprint, but it was actually printed by James S. Burges of Charleston.  Burges, who was also publisher of the Southern Quarterly Review, performed the service in lieu of payment for contributions that Simms had made to that publication.[5]  The printing probably approached 500 copies and Simms sold the edition, in sheets, to Carey and Hart for fifty dollars.[6]  Though the printing had occurred in 1848, and the copyright date in the volume reflects that year, Carey and Hart did not actually publish Atalantis until early 1849, and reviews began appearing in the spring of that year.[7]           

            This original second edition, first printing comes from the A.S. Salley collection at the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina.[8]  It features the original yellow board covers, and the paper label on the spine reads: “ATALANTIS, | AND THE | EYE | AND THE | WING.”  It also retains the original pink endpapers, which in this copy feature two inscriptions.  Both the front pastedown endpaper and the front free endpaper are inscribed by A.S. Salley, and the front free endpaper also indicates that Salley was presented with this copy by George Coffin Taylor, a Charleston native and long-time member of the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[9]  In addition, there is an inscription in Simms’s hand indicating that this copy was originally presented to a “Miss Martin of Columbia” by “The Author.”

            Though there was only one printing of the second edition of Atalantis, Simms would later gather many of the poems included in this volume and re-issue them as part of his two-volume Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary, and Contemplative, published in 1853 by J.S. Redfield of New York as part of what became a twenty-volume selected edition of Simms’s works.  That 1853 edition also included the third and final version of Atalantis.[10]

Ehren Foley



[1] New York Mirror, 17 November 1832, reprinted in Letters, 1:43-44n; Letters, 1:244.

[2] Letters, 1:105.

[3]  Letters, 2:222.

[4]  Letters, 1:105.

[5]  Letters, 2:408; James E. Kibler, Jr., The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Bibliography (Spartanburg: The Reprint Company, 1979), 79-80.  Simms had long maintained a tenuous relationship with the Southern Quarterly Review, and receiving compensation for his contributions was a perpetual concernHis difficulties certainly did not improve his opinion of founder D.K. Whitaker, a man whom he had never held in high esteem, and his concerns about Whitaker’s character had led him to decline an offer to edit the Review in 1843.  In 1845 he told E.A. Duyckinck, “The Editor is disposed to cheat me out of my wage,” and even when Simms did agree to edit the journal, following Whitaker’s resignation, he had difficulty drawing his pay.  His editorship began with the April 1849 issue, but in that same year he would write to George Frederick Holmes and complain, “the Review…owes me probably quite as much money as it owes you; and my fear is that the debt is a hopeless one.”  The financial concerns would persist throughout his editorship and would ultimately  lead Simms to break ties with the Review.  John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 152-161.

[6] Letters, 2: 414, 417.  In his letter of 20 July Simms stated that the number of copies sent to Carey and Hart numbered “450 or more.”

[7] Kibler, Poetry, 80.

[8] Alexander S. Salley (1871-1961) was a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina and an avid Simms collector.  Salley served as secretary of the South Carolina Historical Society and in April 1905 became the first secretary of the South Carolina Historical Commission, the precursor to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.  http://www.palmettohistory.org/exhibits/centennial/centennial.htm <accessed 21 July 2010>

[9] Guide to the George Coffin Taylor Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/t/Taylor,George_Coffin.html <accessed 12 August 2010>

[10] Kibler, Poetry, 80.