Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Castle Dismal; or, The Bachelor's Christmas

Novella | Burgess, Stringer & Co. | 1844

            A gothic tale of ghosts, infidelity, murder, and love, Castle Dismal follows the protagonist Ned Clifton, a “veteran bachelor” who fears the bonds of marriage, in his holiday visit to the home of married friends.  Set during the Christmas season in South Carolina, Simms’s story illustrates the southern custom of bringing together family around a table to feast; and while Clifton eventually marries Elizabeth Singleton—freeing him from the “melancholy dependencies of bachelorism”—Simms subverts naïve nineteenth-century notions of marriage and domesticity.[1]  Marked “by the characteristics of passion & imagination,” Simms believed that Castle Dismal constituted one of the “best specimens of [his] powers of creating & combining, to say nothing of a certain intensifying egotism, which marks all [his] writings written in the first person.”[2]  Edgar Allen Poe considered it “one of the most original fictions ever penned,” confirming the genius of Simms; Evert A. Duyckinck, close friend and contemporary critic of Simms, called it “one of the best ghost stories we have ever read.”[3]  As recent as 1992, John C. Guilds considered the work to be excellent in “establishing atmosphere, tone, and mood.”[4]

            Simms first made mention of writing Castle Dismal in a January 1841 letter to James Lawson.  In the letter, Simms revealed his original title, “Castle Dismal, or a Bachelor’s Christmas in Carolina,” which he considered publishing through William Snowden in “numbers.”[5]  Published under the pseudonym G.B. Singleton (a family name from Simms's grandmother), the first five chapters were published serially from January to June of 1842 in Magnolia—a publication in which Simms became editor in March of that same year.[6]  The sixth and final chapter was not completed or published in Magnolia, largely due to the death of Simms’s youngest daughter, the two and half year old Mary Derrille Simms, as well as his newfound editorial demands.  Returning home from a New York trip, Simms wrote to Lawson in September 1843 that he had completed the manuscript, “‘William Potter, or a Christmas at Castle Dismal’—a Ghost Story—which will make a small vol. of 150 pages or thereabout,” and requested it be delivered to the Harpers for publication consideration.[7]  When Harpers declined, Simms secured the book’s publication with Burgess and Stinger, a new publishing house that had recently also obtained the rights to James Fenimore Cooper’s catalog, in the fall of 1844.[8] 

            Castle Dismal was an immediate success.  In addition to the favorable critical response it received, the volume also sold rather well.  Simms wrote Lawson in January 1845 to report that the Charleston bookstores had “been compelled to order fresh supplies [of the novel] several times.”[9] By June of that year, Simms was requesting Burgess and Stringer to ship more copies of the text to him for distribution, as it and some of his other recent works “still continue to sell in the South.” Indeed up to 500 copies had “been disposed of in Charleston alone.”[10] On the heels of the work’s strong sales and success, Simms began advocating for further editions of the book to be published.  This wish seemed as if it would be realized in 1855 when Simms began preparing Castle Dismal to be published in in a series with other novellas in the Redfield edition.  Ultimately, the edition was never produced due to the financial Panic of 1857. 

            The title page of the 1844 edition of The Life of Chevalier Bayard, housed in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, features: CASTLE DISMAL: | OR, | THE BACHELOR'S CHRISTMAS. | A DOMESTIC LEGEND. | BY THE AUTHOR OF ''GUY RIVERS,'' ''THE YEMASSEE,'' | ''RICHARD HURDIS,'' &C. | [wavy rule] | ''What, can the grave give up its habitant, | Or have the sheeted dead a power at will, | To visit us, and claim their wonted guise; | And from the eager reveller, the worm, | Regain their fleshly substance?'' | BARRY CORNWALL. | [wavy rule] | NEW-YORK: | BURGESS, STRINGER & CO. | [rule] | 1844.

Michael Odom

Note:  Portions of this headnote were derived from John M. McCardell, Jr. and Brian K. Fennessy's critical introduction to the University of South Carolina Press's Simms Initiatives Print-on-Demand edition of Castle Dismal

[1] Castle Dismal; or, The Bachelor's Christmas (New York:  Burgess, Stringer & Co., 1844), 10-11.  See the forthcoming critical introduction of the novella from University of South Carolina Press (2012) by John M. McCardell, Jr. and Brian K. Fennessy for a discussion of the story’s fears of domesticity, which are suggested to be semi-autobiographical for Simms. 

[2] Letters, 2:224. 

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, "Critical Notices," Broadway Journal 2:13 (4 Oct. 1845), 190; Evert Augustus Duyckinck, "Rev. of Castle Dismal, by William Gilmore Simms," New York Morning News 1.9 (9 Nov. 1844), 1.  

[4] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 167.

[5] Letters, 1:212. Presumably, it would have been published in Ladies’ Companion, the magazine of which Snowden was the publisher.

[6] Magnolia, IV (Jan., Feb., March, April, and June 1842).  See note in Letters, 1:212. 

[7] Letters, 1:368-9. 

[8] Guilds, Simms, 168.

[9] Letters, 2:13.

[10] Ibid., 2:84.