Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Other versions Edition: 1, Printing: 1 (1852)

Woodcraft; or, Hawks About the Dovecote

Novel (Romance) | Redfield | 1854

       Written in the “midst of one of the most productive creative surges in his career,”[1] Woodcraft; or, Hawks About the Dovecote: A Story of the South at the Close of the Revolution makes the most serious and sustained claim as Simms’s masterpiece in the novel form.[2]  The fifth novel composed in Simms’s saga of the American Revolution, it is set during the chaotic close and aftermath of the war.  This makes it the last (eighth) Revolutionary Romance in terms of chronological action. As the work opens, the British are evacuating Charleston in December 1782. Then the novel shifts to a ruined rice plantation, Glen-Eberley, on the Ashepoo River south of Charleston, where the plantation community is striving to reestablish relative civil order and comity.  Primarily through Porgy, Simms’s intriguing protagonist, the novel works as a soldier’s pay story, a domestic drama, a comedy of manners, a work of political suspense, and, as Simms famously noted to his friend James Henry Hammond, an implicit answer to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sensationalized portrait of slave life in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[3]

       Simms left little record of the composition history of his novel in his extant letters and other papers, but he likely began framing the work that would become Woodcraft following his reading of Joseph Johnson’s Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South in 1851.[4]  The novel was completed at least as of Simms’s 18 August 1852 letter to Hammond.  The initial publication was in serial form in the Southern Literary Gazette, with the first installment appearing in the February 1852 issue and the last in November.  Its title was The Sword and the Distaff; or, “Fair, Fat and Forty,” A Story of the South, At the Close of the Revolution.  Before the last section of the serialized version appeared, the complete novel appeared as a separately published work in Charleston from Walker and Richards (publisher of the SLG) in September 1852. It was still entitled The Sword and the Distaff, and bore on its title page “Second Edition,” which is actually the first book edition, created from the typesettings for the SLG. It was reissued by Lippincott, Grambo of Philadelphia from the same plates and with the same title in 1853.  The Redfield editions, beginning in 1854, featured the new title, Woodcraft, as well as two illustrations presumably by F.O.C. Darley[5] and engraved by Whitney, Jocelyn, and Annin in South Carolina.  The title page verso indicates that the text was stereotyped by C.C. Savage of New York.  In his dedication to Johnson, Simms suggested the novel was a roman à clef, peopled with fictional portrayals whose real-life antecedents Johnson would surely have no trouble recognizing.  He wrote, “The humorists of ‘Glen-Eberley’ were disguised under false names and fanciful localities, which, I am inclined to think will prove no disguise to you, I shall keep my secret, however, as a matter of course.”[6]  Simms went on to state that Johnson was under no such order to remain silent about the true identities of his characters, and in fact, was encouraged to spread widely his theories about their contemporary counterparts.

       The cover of the first book edition of The Sword and the Distaff is comprised of brown boards and spine with flat triple-border stamping and ornate, floral-themed framing design stamping at center of the front and back cover.  The spine features gilt stamped:  [budding plant image] | SWORD | AND | DISTAFF | [rule] | SIMMS. | [budding plant image] | [budding plant image] | W.R. & CO.  The title page features: THE | SWORD AND THE DISTAFF; | OR, | ''FAIR, FAT AND FORTY,'' | [script] A Story of the South, [end script] | AT THE CLOSE OF THE REVOLUTION. | BY THE AUTHOR OF | ''THE PARTISAN,'' ''MELLICHAMPE,'' ''KATHARINE WALTON,'' ETC. | SECOND EDITION.[7] | CHARLESTON: | WALKER, RICHARDS & CO. | 1852.  The cover of the first Redfield Woodcraft is comprised of green boards with flat, double border stamping on front and back.  The spine features gilt stamped:  WOODCRAFT | [rule] | SIMMS | [rule] | [Graphic of flag, rifle, haversack, drum, and book] | [double rule] | REDFIELD.  The title page features:  WOODCRAFT | OR | HAWKS ABOUT THE DOVECOTE | [script] A Story of the South at the Close of the Revolution [end script] | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ. | AUTHOR OF ''THE PARTISAN,'' ''MELLICHAMPE,'' ''KATHARINE WALTON,'' ''THE SCOUT,'' THE YEMASSEE,'' ''GUY RIVERS,'' ETC. | NEW AND REVISED EDITION | [Circle formed of snake biting its own tail with burning lamp in the center] | REDFIELD | 110 AND 112 NASSAU STREET, NEW YORK. | 1854.  Woodcraft was positively received by critics, but not widely reviewed. Only ten reviews and notices appeared from 1852 to 1854,[8] the first of which was in the 4 December 1852 issue of Literary World.[9]  Simms blamed his publisher for not disseminating the volume.  Many notices were short and non-specific, placing into question whether the reviewer had read the volume. The more specific reviews rightly praised Simms’s verisimilitude, humor, authentic use of locale, and “actual scenes and circumstances”[10].  In time, appreciation of the novel deepened and disseminated, with most contemporary reviewers agreeing to some degree with Donald Davidson’s later assertion that “Woodcraft is Simms’[s] highest achievement.  Certainly it stands, sui generis, a book apart, without a rival in its day and time, and hardly excelled or even paralleled later in its peculiar vein.”[11]  Later critics have also argued that Woodcraft was the first Realistic novel in America.[12]

Todd Hagstette

[1] See John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 202.

[2] Much of the content of this headnote comes directly from James Everett Kibler’s introduction to the 2011 print-on-demand issue of Woodcraft from University of South Carolina Press.

[3] See Simms’s 15 December 1852 letter to Hammond (Letters, 3:222).  This off-handed remark has been widely misinterpreted and subsequently used to relegate Simms’s novel as another of the dozen or so polemical works by southerners written to discredit Stowe’s novel.  The timing of each novel’s composition, though, makes it unlikely that Simms wrote with Stowe in mind:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin began appearing serially in June 1851, and an announcement of the forthcoming serial publication of Woodcraft (under its original title, The Sword and the Distaff) appeared in the Southern Literary Gazette of December 1851 (suggesting that the novel was substantially complete by that time).  Simms’s remark to Hammond was in the context of his complaining about the lack of reviews for his novel, particularly compared to the wildly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[4] The inspiration from that work is clear in Simms’s dedicatory remarks to its author.

[5] Though the illustrations are unsigned, they are highly similar in style to other Darley prints used elsewhere in the Redfield Simms editions

[6] See the Dedication Page of this edition of Woodcraft.

[7] This volume is erroneously listed as the second edition, on the grounds that it was printed from the same plates as were used in its serial publication in the Southern Literary Gazette.  This edition is the first book edition.

[8] See Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.), 84-98.

[9] Guilds, Simms, 207.

[10] Courier, 21 October 1852; See Butterworth and Kibler, William Gilmore Simms, 86.

[11] See Letters, 1:xlv; for a list of the contemporary reviews of the book, see Letters, 3:316n.  The other Simms novel ranked with Woodcraft, from later in the 1850s, is The Cassique of Kiawah.

[12] See especially Jan Bakker, “Simms on the Literary Frontier," William Gilmore Simms and the American Frontier (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 1997.