Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Life of the Chevalier Bayard

Biography | Harper & Brothers | 1847

           For Simms, it was in a time “when chivalry was at its lowest condition in Christian Europe,” that the Chevalier Bayard provided the world, “the happiest illustration, in a single great example, of its ancient pride and character,” and “the most admirable model to the generous ambition of the young that we find in all the pages of history.”[1]  Simms wrote The Life of Chevalier Bayard, a biography of the late-medieval French knight, to serve as an archetype of virtue for Americans.  In 1845, Simms had written two articles on Bayard for Southern and Western[2], and in a letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck from October of that year, he indicated his intentions to publish a biography under a pseudonym.[3]  A January 1847 letter to James Henry Hammond revealed that Simms received an advance from Harper & Brothers to publish Bayard with an agreement that he would complete the manuscript and deliver it to New York.[4]  Having finished the manuscript in April 1847, Simms headed North in May to have the book printed and published under his name.[5]  A December 1847 issue of The Literary World declared that Bayard was “now in press” and provided excerpts of the biography.[6]  The work was dedicated to fellow Charleston native and classical archaeologist, John Izard Middleton.[7] 

           John C. Guilds speculated that Simms wrote and edited biographies of heroic men (e.g., John Smith, Francis Marion, Nathanael Greene[8], and Bayard) in the 1840s as a response to criticism he received from De Bow’s Review that his preoccupations with poetry took him away from his specialty of writing about grand historical themes; a fondness for such heroic men and a motivation to answer such criticism resulted, Guilds argued, in Simms expending “valuable creative energy on conventional biographies now scarcely worthy of inclusion in his canon.”[9]  Sean Busick noted that the Bayard biography was not as strong a history as those written on Francis Marion or Nathanael Greene, largely due to a lack of access to available primary materials on seventeenth-century French history; while Simms makes use of extensive research in primary and secondary sources (including footnotes and works consulted), Busick considered Bayard to be ultimately “popular, not scholarly.”[10] 

           Early reviews of Bayard, on the other hand, were largely positive, commending the biography’s unpretentious and smooth readability; The New York Evening Post praised Simms’s skill in writing dramatic biography.[11]  A February 1848 letter to Duyckinck addresses this dramatic component, as Simms indicated that the temptation was strong to write more “blood and thunder” episodes due to Bayard’s military achievements and exploits; he ultimately concluded that such an indulgence would impair the biographical integrity.[12]  As late as 1935, historian Edward H. O’Neil considered it the best of Simms’s biographies.[13]  And despite critical reservations concerning genre, Guilds estimated Bayard a biography of literary quality, written “with the natural ease of Simms’s best fiction.”[14] 

           The title page of the 1847 edition of The Life of Chevalier Bayard, housed in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, features: THE LIFE | OF THE | CHEVALIER BAYARD; | "The Good Knight," | "Sans peur et sans reproche." | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS. | And now, I dare to say, Sir Lancelot, there as though lyest, thou were never matched of none earthly | knights' hands.  And thou were the curteist knight that ever bare shield.  And thou were the truest | friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover, of a sinful man, that ever | loved woman.  And thou were the kindest man that ever stroke with sword. And thou were the good- | liest person that ever came among prece (press) of knights.  And thou were the meekest man, and the | gentlest, that ever ate in hall among ladies.  And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that | ever put spear in rest. --Morte Arthur. | NEW YORK: | HARPER & BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS, | 82 CLIFF STREET. | 1847.

Michael Odom

 



[1] The Life of Chevalier Bayard (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847), 1-2. 

[2] Southern and Western II (Aug. and Sept., 1845), 73-85, 193-200.  See Letters (2:106). 

[3] See Letters (2:105-106).  Additional letters reinforced Simms’s desire to write the biography pseudonymously (2: 111, 118-119); a November 1845 letter urged Duyckinck: “keep the secret to yourself—sacredly.  This must be wholly entre nous.  We shall have sport & capital out of it.” Simms never mentions why he decided to ultimately publish Bayard under his own name.

[4] Ibid., (2:260).

[5] Ibid., (2: 302, 316).

[6] The Literary World II (Dec. 11, 1847), 459-460.  See note in Letters (2: 329). 

[7] There is no documented correspondence between him and Simms.  Middleton was dubbed the first American classical archaeologist by Charles Eliot Norton, and his father, Arthur, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Middleton spent much of his adult life excavating ancient sites in France and Italy. 

[8] Simms edited William Johnson’s Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene

[9] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 186-187.

[10] Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 38.

[11] For a discussion of reviews, see Guilds, 187.

[12] Letters (2:396).

[13] Edward H. O’Neill, A History of American Biography, 1800-1935 (Philadelphia, 1935), 29-30, 54. 

[14] Ibid., 187.

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