Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Donna Florida. A Tale.

Poetry | Burges and James | 1843

            Donna Florida is a narrative poem dealing with Ponce de Leon's exploits in what would later become Spanish Florida.  Before full publication in 1843, portions of the poem appeared in The Boston Monthly in 1841 and in the February-May 1843 issues of the Magnolia.[1]  Simms more than likely paid for the publication of this work in book form himself, with the volume being issued in 1843 by Burges and James in Charleston, SC.[2] Simms described the work as not “published, but presented for private distribution.”[3]  Indeed, according to a 29 June 1843 letter that Simms sent to James Lawson, the New York friend to whom he dedicated the work, handing out copies privately seemed to have been his publication plan from the beginning.  Simms sent Lawson thirty-five copies, fifteen of which he addressed to specific people, leaving the rest for Lawson to distribute as he saw fit.[4]  Simms also specifically requested of Lawson, “Oblige me by saying to Editors to whom you may send them that the work is printed only for private distribution, -- otherwise they may send some of their readers on a wild goose chase seeking them at the publishing shops – the Bookstores.”[5]  Simms apparently wanted to control who received copies of this work.

            It nevertheless seems that Simms did have some intention of issuing Donna Florida to the general public eventually.  In fact, he stated his wish to “publish it, hereafter, when times are better, with a satisfactory sequel.”[6]  According to Simms, he was planning on producing a fifth canto to be added to the work.  No evidence of the production of this canto, however, has been found to date.[7]  Simms’s intention apparently was to sample the feedback of this private audience to see if the work was well received, and since the overall evaluation of the work was not positive, it is possible that Simms discontinued the project.[8]  Simms was very busy both professionally and personally when he wrote the poem.  At the time, he was also working as editor of the Magnolia, giving lectures steadily, helping to run his in-laws’ plantation, pursuing the publication of both The Yemassee and The Damsel of Darien in England, and writing “the companion piece to his history of South Carolina.”[9] This influx of work may be another reason Simms abandoned his expansion of Donna Florida.

            This copy of the first edition housed in the Salley-Simms Collection at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina features a modern blue binding and has an inscription that reads, “A.S. Salley, Jr. Charleston, SC Sept. 23, 1896” inside the original front cover.  On the inside of the modern front cover is another inscription, which reads, “A.S. Salley, Columbia, SC [from the binder] October 27, 1938.”  The original cover is printed on blue paper with decorative border and reads:  DONNA FLORIDA. | A Tale. | BY THE AUTHOR OF ''ATALANTIS,'' ''SOUTHERN | PASSAGES AND PICTURES,'' &C. | [wavy rule] | CHARLESTON: | BURGES AND JAMES. | 1843. 

Elizabeth Oswald

[1] James Everett Kibler, Jr., The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Bibliography (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, Publishers, 1979), 69.

[2] Ibid., 69-70.

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] Letters, 1:359.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kibler, Poetry, 70.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 142-143.