Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Letters of William Gilmore Simms. Vol. 2

Correspondence | U of South Carolina P | 1953

            In his lifetime, William Gilmore Simms “was the author of thirty-four works of fiction, nineteen volumes of poetry, three of drama, three anthologies, three volumes of history, two of geography, six of biography, and twelve of reviews, miscellanies and addresses, a total of eighty-two volumes.”[1]  The estimate of the output was impressive, if not quite complete.[2]  Regardless, Simms’s influence was unparalleled.  No mid-nineteenth-century writer and editor did more to frame white southern self-identity and nationalism, shape southern historical consciousness, or foster the South's participation and recognition in the broader American literary culture. No southern writer had more contemporary esteem and attention, at least after Edgar Allan Poe moved north. Among American romancers (or writers of prose epics), only New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper was as successful by the 1840s. In those same years, Simms was the South's most influential editor of cultural journals. He also was the region's most prolific cultural journalist and poet, publishing an average of a book review and a poem per week for forty-five years.  By any standard, Simms’s literary production was remarkable.  Even if one were to consider only those works that represent the author’s highest creative attainments, the subset would still dwarf the total corpus of almost any other writer of Simms’s day.  Then there are the letters. As Donald Davidson notes, with the publication of The Letters of William Gilmore Simms, any imagined collection of “the major achievement of Simms the artist must be increased.”  After all, “aside from their great intrinsic value and notable interest as human documents, the letters of Simms open the way to a new and rich knowledge of the man and his times.”[3]  This is no insignificant accomplishment, given the expanse of the author’s influence and life.

            Decorating the covers of all six volumes of Letters is the author’s personal emblem, from a design that graced the signet ring he wore, and the accompanying motto, Video Volans – literally “I see soaring.”[4]  It is a fitting symbol, for in his letters Simms revealed most dramatically the telescopic vision that informed his fictional and non-fictional writing.  For their variety, their information, their insight, and their entertainment value, these letters are unparalleled in nineteenth-century epistolary culture.  Spanning almost 40 years, from July 1830 to May 1870, the more than 1,500 letters collected into these volumes offer a comprehensive view of the antebellum South’s leading man of letters, fixing him “intimately into his place in the literary America of his day and presenting his off-the-record views of virtually every important phase of our national existence.”[5] Though only a fraction of his total correspondence, the letters that survive chronicle almost the entirety of his professional life, from the time he was 21 years old to three weeks before his death at age 64.  Many of his correspondents are not represented, but over 300 are.  Among them are famous writers, editors, publishers, and others in the literary worlds of the North and South; politicians, statesmen, soldiers, and other shapers of antebellum policy; not to mention literary societies, colleges, newspapers, and other organizations of contemporary culture.  The scope is vast, and thus offers a rich repository for the historian, the political scientist, and the literary scholar alike.  John C. Guilds maintains that, because Simms’s correspondence covers such a “wide range of American politics, economics, and philosophy as well as literature and publishing, his letters have national implications and importance.  They are in effect a cornucopia of Americana.”[6]

            Simms’s letters are the best documentary source for tracing the author’s career as a writer.  They show the composition and publication histories of most of his major and minor works.  They also effectively reveal aspects of his writing process, including “the principles which guided him in his unimpeachable use of historical data, his sensitiveness to language, the care and study which resulted in his command of the colloquial, and the thorough knowledge of his people and their traits, upon which realism his published work is based”[7] Furthermore, Simms was an opinionated and involved commentator on the politics and cultural changes of his day.  In a direct and unequivocal tone largely absent in his fiction and in an impulsive and candid style unsuitable for his non-fiction, Simms’s letters demonstrate the author’s interpretation of most of antebellum America’s key events.  Noted southern literary scholar Louis D. Rubin remarked that nobody “who writes about the period in any depth can do it without consulting [Simms’s] letters….They constitute the most important single document in the study of antebellum Southern cultural life.”  In fact, the letters are “essential not only for matters involving Simms but almost anything having to do with Southern literature, intellectual and political life during those key years when [the] fateful identity of the region was being established.”[8]            

The editing and compilation of Simms’s letters began in the late 1930s as a collaboration between the author’s granddaughter, Mary C. Simms Oliphant, and Furman University English professor Alfred Taylor Odell.  Following Odell’s untimely death in 1948, Oliphant recruited T.C. Duncan Eaves of the English department at the University of Arkansas to shepherd the volumes through to their completion.  Enough work was completed in the eleven years from the launch of the editing project to his death that Odell is still credited as a co-editor on the first five volumes, despite the first of these not appearing in print until years after his demise.  The first five volumes appeared one per year beginning in 1952, all from the University of South Carolina Press.  The sixth volume of the Letters, which features correspondence collected after the issue of the first series, was published in 1982.  Unlike the first five volumes, which present the letters chronologically in distinct historical segments[9], Volume 6 spans the author’s full life and gathers missing communications throughout the other volumes.  A revised and expanded edition of Volume 6, also from the University of South Carolina Press, was published in 2012 and includes nearly 70 more recently discovered Simms documents.

Todd Hagstette




[1] A.S. Salley in his biographical essay in volume 1 of The Letters of William Gilmore Simms (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952), lxxii.

[2] Since Salley, the mid-twentieth century’s most accomplished collector of Simmsiana, made his estimate in 1951, more Simms works have been discovered.

[3] Davidson in his introduction to volume 1 of Letters, liii.

[4] The 2012 reprint of Volume VI features a photograph of the Simms memorial in the Charleston Battery Park, not Simms’s personal emblem.

[5] Mary C. Simms Oliphant in her preface to volume 1 of Letters, vii.

[6] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 348.

[7] Oliphant, Letters, 1: viii.

[8] Quoted from a personal letter to the editor in John Caldwell Guilds, “Long Years of Neglect”: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1988), xi.

 

[9] Volume 1 collects letters from 1830-1844, Volume 2: 1845-1849, Volume 3: 1850-1857, Volume 4: 1858, and Volume 5: 1867-1870, plus a section of undated or problematically dated letters.

 

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