Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Other versions Edition: 1, Printing: 1 (1841)

Confession; or, The Blind Heart. A Domestic Story

Novel (Romance) | Redfield | 1856

            Building out of his early experiences with writing in the psychological gothic mode in such texts as Martin Faber (1833) and Carl Werner (1838) and anticipating his later work Castle Dismal (1844), William Gilmore Simms published Confesssion; or, The Blind Heart in 1841.  Coming at the front of what many consider to be the author’s most productive period, this novel is the extended confession of Edward Clifford who is orphaned at a young age and sent to be reared by his aunt and uncle in Charleston.  Rising above his foster parents’ scorn, Clifford becomes a lawyer, a prominent citizen, and a husband to his cousin, Julia.  His turbulent childhood leaves him emotionally scarred and suspicious of human relationships, though, and thus he becomes increasingly jealous of his wife’s friendship with his boyhood companion, William Edgerton.  After failing to ease his paranoia by moving his family west to Alabama, Clifford poisons his wife and challenges Edgerton to a duel.  Edgerton, however, commits suicide first.  Thanks to posthumous letters from both Julia and Edgerton, Clifford realizes his mistaken assumptions and, at the end of the novel, wanders further west into untamed Texas in search of absolution.  Because most of the novel is psychological in its examinations even though there is a distinct absence of the supernatural, Confession is often considered a gothic narrative[1].  Others have classed it among Simms’s Border Romances, because of its plot’s steady progression west[2].

            Simms began to write the novel that would ultimately become Confession in late 1840 or early 1841[3].  After composing approximately 150 pages, however, he ceased to make progress.  This writer’s block persisted at least into May 1841, where he cited vague “anxieties” as the reason for his inability to work.  By August of that year, he finally managed to complete his text, and announced to Lawson on August 16 that the manuscript was now safely in the hands of the publishers[4].  The book was published in either October or November of 1841 by Lea and Blanchard out of Philadelphia as a two-volume work.  Simms dedicated the novel to one of his oldest and closest friends, James W[right] Simmons, whom, he is clear to point out is “now of Texas.”[5]  Interestingly, Simms began the novel with a three-page author’s advertisement that essentially apologized for the youthfulness of the novel’s prose and for the sensationalism of its content.  On the former point, he noted that the finished novel was constructed out of some of his earliest prose writings[6].  On the latter point, he claimed that some of the instances from the story were based on his own observations in the West, and that he intended the novel to be experimental in its structure of “one single soul…declar[ing] its dreary experience for itself.”[7]  Simms might have been justified in his apology; the novel has not been embraced by critics, either of the author’s day or in the twentieth century[8].  This assessment might be changing, though.  John C. Guilds declares that “Confession is a much better book than is generally acknowledged”[9] and Miriam Shillingsburg praises it as “one of the earliest convincing studies of domestic battery in American literature.”[10]

            The cover of the 1841 first edition of Confession featured plain brown boards with a paper label on the spine bearing the title and author.  The title page features:  CONFESSION; | OR, | THE BLIND HEART. | A DOMESTIC STORY. | BY THE AUTHOR OF | “THE KINSMEN,” “THE YEMASSEE,” “GUY RIVERS,” ETC. | WAGNER.  But of the world — the heart, the mind of man | How happy could we know! | FAUST. [indented] What can we know? | Who dares bestow the infant his true name? | The few who felt and knew, but blindly gave | Their knowledge to the multitude— they fell! | Incapable to keep their full hearts in, | They, from the first of immemorial time, | Were crucified or burnt. | [indented] GOETHE'S FAUST, MS. Version. | IN TWO VOLUMES. | VOL. I. | PHILADELPHIA: | LEA AND BLANCHARD. | 1841.  The first edition did not contain illustrations, but the Redfield featured two (one a title illustration) by F.O.C. Darley and engraved by Whitney & Jocelyn out of South Carolina.  The most noteworthy subsequent edition of Confession is this Redfield edition, which formed the basis for all the later nineteenth-century issues of the novel.

Todd Hagstette

[1] See, for example, Lewis M. Bush, “Werther on the Alabama Frontier: A Reinterpretation of Simms’s Confession, Mississippi Quarterly 21.2 (Spring 1968), 119-130 and Todd Hagstette, ''Screams from the South: The Southern Psycho-gothic Novels of William Gilmore Simms,'' MA thesis, College of Charleston, May 1998.

[2] The first and most notable instance of this series assignment was in the 1856 Redfield edition of the novel.

[3] He mentions having begun the novel “in the winter” in a 24 February 1841 letter to James Lawson (Letters, 1:234).

[4] See Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 104.

[5] See Confession, vii.  In volume 1 of Simms’s letters, the biographical sketch of Simmons notes that he “became comptroller general and treasurer of the republic of Texas, and was connected with the Galveston Banner” (cxxxvii).

[6] What material he refers to here is uncertain, as his first mention of the novel is from the aforementioned February 1841 letter to Lawson (footnote 3).

[7] See Confession, xi.

[8] A common theme among the criticism is to brand the novel a poor imitation of the European psychological novel (helped in no small way by the epigraph from Goethe’s Faust on the title page) or as a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, see most recently Christy Desment, “Confession; or, the Blind Heart: An Antebellum Othello, Borrowers and Lenders 1.1 (Spring 2005), 1-24.

[9] Guilds, Simms, 105.

[10] Miriam Shillingsburg, “The Battered Woman Syndrome in Simms’s Fiction,” Studies in the Novel 35.2 (Summer 2003), 222.