Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Other versions Edition: 2, Printing: 1 (1855)

Richard Hurdis; or, The Avenger of Blood. A Tale of Alabama.

Novel (Romance) | Carey and Hart | 1838

           Richard Hurdis, the second of Simms’s Border Romances (following Guy Rivers of 1834), presents an intriguing study of the author’s development, as its publication history illustrated Simms’s notorious sensitivity to critical reception.  Hurdis came out during a worrisome time in Simms’s life, with his second wife, Chevillette Eliza Roach Simms, severely ill while pregnant, and the writer’s relationship with his publisher, the Harper Brothers of New York, souring.  John C. Guilds notes that “alternating moods of depression and optimism—lifelong traits—soon became dominant again” during this period.[1]  After the break with the Harpers, Simms began a relationship with Carey and Hart of Philadelphia, who published Richard Hurdis in late August 1838.

           Significantly, this was an anonymous publication, as was the novel’s sequel, Border Beagles.  The reasons for anonymous publication were revealed by Simms in letters written in subsequent years, as well as the author’s advertisement for the 1855 Redfield reprinting of Hurdis.  In the latter, Simms suggested that critics’ misreadings and poor judgments of talent necessitated anonymity.  Here, he noted that anonymous publication provides the author with a kind of critical insurance:  “[Anonymity] is especially necessary, if you would be safe; if you would have anything like fair play; if you would escape from a thousand impertinences; if you would hope for any honest judgments.”[2]  Further, Guilds notes that “the novelist, evidently wanting to test the reception of the work on its own merits, without the benefit of his reputation, recognized that an anonymous book issued by a publisher unassociated with him would provide an excellent opportunity.”[3]  Simms’s anxiety over critical reception was, then, a significant reason behind the anonymous publication.  While never specifically announced, this anxiety seems to have been at least partially based on the reception of his previous frontier romance, Guy Rivers.  Guilds notes that Simms saw Guy Rivers as being “attacked” for its gloomy subject matter and dark aspects[4]; Simms certainly must have realized that Richard Hurdis — a novel even more shocking than its predecessor in its realistic portrayal of crime, violence, and immorality — would produce a similar reaction in the press.  Anonymous publication thus afforded Simms the ability to accomplish two tasks simultaneously:  to skirt controversy, and to receive an honest assessment of just how good the novel was, a situation that would satisfy his deepest needs as a proud, though often self-critical, writer. 

If Simms did, in fact, suspect such a negative critical reaction, he was right to do so.  Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler’s William Gilmore Simms:  A Reference Guide lists multiple reviews that show palpable exasperation and discomfort with Simms’s project in this novel.  The Knickerbocker review of October 1838 is typical:  the book “presents the most hideous distortions of character, and is enough to make a man sick of his humanity…Since the story of Cain and Abel, we doubt whether there has been a more diabolical narrative than this.”[5]  Despite the controversy, the novel was nevertheless recognized as quite good.  The very same Knickerbocker review calls it “a work of uncommon talent.  The author has not followed in the beaten path of novelists, but has boldly struck out a way of his own.”[6]  Guilds picks up this notion of Simms striking out his own way, suggesting that in providing a realistic presentation of crime and frontier violence through using a group of outlaws based on the infamous gang led by John A. Murrell, the author “was ahead of his time, anticipating realism and naturalism.”[7]  Guilds also posits the novel as one of the most important in Simms’s development as a writer, as in Richard Hurdis he performed significant experiments with perspective and character development, using an early version of the very techniques that “Henry James would perfect some four decades later.”[8] 

           The 1838 Carey and Hart edition of Richard Hurdis features a brown board and spine.  Plain front and back covers.  Spine of each volume features paper label:  RICHARD HURDIS | OR THE | AVENGER | OF | BLOOD. | A TALE | OF | ALABAMA | [rule] | IN TWO VOLS. | VOL. I [or VOL. II, respectively].  Its title page reads:  RICHARD HURDIS; | OR, | THE AVENGER OF BLOOD. | A | TALE OF ALABAMA. | I will recal | Some facts of ancient date: he must remember | When on Cithӕron we together fed | Our several flocks. | SOPHOC. ŒDIP. TYRAN. | IN TWO VOLUMES. | VOL. I | PHILADELPHIA: E.L. CAREY & A. HART. [dotted rule] | 1838.  The 1855 Redfield edition appears with Green boards and spine.   Front and back have flat double border box stamping inside flat triple border box stamping.  Spine features gilt stamped: RICHARD HURDIS | [rule] | SIMMS | [rule] | [Graphic of flag, rifle, haversack, drum, and book] | [flat double un-gilt rule] | REDFIELD, and a title page reading:  RICHARD HURDIS | A | TALE OF ALABAMA | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ. | AUTHOR OF ''THE YEMASSEE'' — ''THE PARTISAN'' — ''MELLICHAMPE'' — | ''KATHARINE WALTON'' — ''THE SCOUT'' — ''WOODCRAFT'' ETC. | ''I will recall | Some facts of ancient date. He must remember | When, on Citheron, we together fed | Our several flocks.'' | SOPHOC. Œdip. Tyran. | NEW AND REVISED EDITION |  [ouroboros with burning lamp in the center] | REDFIELD |34 BEEKMAN STREET, NEW YORK | 1855

W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] See John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 82, for a through overview of the situation in which Simms was writing Richard Hurdis.

[2] See the University of Arkansas Press’s 1995 reprinting of Richard Hurdis, pg. xxv.

[3] Guilds, Simms, 82.

[4] John Caldwell Guilds, “The ‘Untrodden Path’: Richard Hurdis and Simms’s Foray into Literary Realism,” William Gilmore Simms and the American Frontier, eds. John Caldwell Guilds and Carolina Collins (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1997), 47-54.  See p. 50 for this discussion.

[5] Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 39.

[6] Ibid.  Another review presents a moment of delicious irony that Simms—and his ego—must have certainly relished:  the Southern Literary Journal review of November 1838 states that “Simms now has a rival in this new Southern author; but the writer of this essay thinks that Simms should not fear him, because he is superior to this upstart.” (Ibid., 40)

[7] Guilds, Simms, 83.

[8] Ibid., 84.