Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Cassique of Kiawah: A Colonial Romance

Novel (Romance) | Redfield | 1859

          The Cassique of Kiawah, thought by many critics of Simms’s own time and several modern scholars to be the author’s best work, is a colonial romance about the early days of Charleston.  Setting the book in the 1680s, Simms robustly describes the competing claims of the English and Spanish over Charleston and its environs, including the attendant violence and actions of Spanish pirates and English privateers.  In so doing, he presents a vision of Charleston that was not genteel and sophisticated, but rather raucous and frontier-like; Simms thus usedThe Cassique of Kiawah to critique his home city, with which he had long had a contentious relationship, engaging in biting satire that is reminiscent of Thackeray.[1]  After its publication by Redfield in 1859, Kiawah was nearly universally praised, with Simms regularly being hailed as the proper successor to the late Cooper as America’s greatest novelist[2].  Despite the approbation with which the novel was met and the general sense that this was the author’s greatest work, the book quickly faded from public consciousness, likely the result of both Redfield’s failure and the overall decline of Simms’s reputation in the aftermath of the Civil War.  On the latter speculation, it can be noted that two later reprints did little to bring the book back to the public consciousness[3].

          The germ of Kiawah was a project Simms undertook as a young man, an aborted novel called Oyster Point.  Simms biographer John Caldwell Guilds notes that while Kiawah may have had its genesis in this juvenilia, the author nevertheless “looked upon it as a new project rather than as a revival of an old one,” noting an 1845 letter to E. A. Duyckink in which Simms remarked, “I have in preparation a new romance in two vols, entitled ‘The Cassique, a Tale of Ashley River—’ time somewhere about 1685.”[4] Despite this 1845 suggestion of returning to a youthful idea, Simms did not begin to write Kiawah in earnest until twelve years later.  The book that began as Oyster Point was seemingly left untouched until 1857, when the author wrote to his good friend James Lawson, “I have just laid the keel of a new romance,”[5] the book that would be The Cassique of Kiawah

          Judging against Simms’s normally rapid rate of composition, two years seems a long time for Kiawah’s composition.  Yet, between 1857 and 1859, Simms was plagued by personal problems that surely slowed his usually breakneck pace.  For example, earnest composition of the novel began after Simms’s disastrous 1856 lecture tour of the north, during which the author found his unapologetically southern identity a sudden liability as sectional conflicts intensified.  Mary Ann Wimsatt notes that his “bitterness about the experience may have left its mark on his late fiction, particularly on some highly sardonic portions of…The Cassique of Kiawah.”[6]   This was followed by the 1858 death of his father-in-law, Nash Roach, leaving Simms with sole responsibility for the daily management of his plantation Woodlands, which had been one of Roach’s properties.  Despite Simms’s general success in running the plantation, “such work was not fundamentally congenial to a person of his temperament, and as he frequently complained, it took him away from his desk.”[7]  Yet the most severe shock to Simms would come later in 1858, when two of his sons, Sydney and Beverly Hammond,[8] died on the 22nd of September from yellow fever.[9]  Besides merely slowing his production of the novel, these tragedies likely also contributed to the story’s overall pessimism and negative presentation of human nature.  It was in this dark mental place, after all, that he finished the “Oyster Bay” project that had lived in his mind since youth, and it was out of this darkness that Simms produced “his most unsparing indictment in fiction of the Charleston social scene.”[10]

          The Redfield edition features green boards and spine.   Front and back have flat double border box stamping inside flat triple border box stamping.  Spine features gilt stamped: THE | CASSIQUE | OF | KIAWAH | [rule] | SIMMS | [rule] | [Graphic of flag, rifle, haversack, drum, and book] | [flat double un-gilt rule] | REDFIELD. Its title page is as follows:  THE | CASSIQUE OF KIAWAH | A | COLONIAL ROMANCE | BY WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ. | AUTHOR OF ''THE YEMASSEE'' —''THE PARTISAN''—''GUY RIVERS''— | ''SCOUT''—''CHARLEMONT''—''VASCONSELOS''—ETC., ETC. | ''I pray you let us satisfy our eyes, | With the memorials, and the things of fame | That do renown our city.'' | SHAKESPEARE. | [ouroboros surrounding lamp] | REDFIELD | 34 BERKMAN STREET, NEW YORK | 1859.

W. Matthew J. Simmons 

[1] Mary Ann Wimsatt notes the similarity to Thackeray, especially in Simms’s use of character names as a satirical technique.  She also notes that Simms knew Thackeray personally, meeting him on his visits to Charleston in the 1850s, as well as the fact that Simms was an admirer of the Englishman’s work, writing several positive reviews for various publications.  See Mary Ann Wimsatt, The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Form (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 188-89.

[2] See, for instance, Godey’s notice of August 1859: “Since Cooper, there has been no novelist equal to Simms in the delineation of early American life, manners, and indictments.  We need scarcely say that this latest production of our favorite is not at all unworthy of his fame and genius.”  Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide, (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1980), 116.

[3] Wimsatt notes that Kiawah “was not republished during [Simms’s] lifetime or in the editions of his works reprinted from the Redfield plates,” while Kevin Collins tells us that it “was re-issued only twice and only in very limited quantities, no second edition was ever undertaken, and it faded from the American consciousness.”  See Anne M. Blythe, “William Gilmore Simms’s The Cassique of Kiawah and the Principles of His Art,”“Long Years of Neglect”: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms, ed. John Caldwell Guilds (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1988), which provides Dodd, Mead as the publishing house for at least one of the reissues of Kiawah. See Wimsatt, 186, Collins’s afterward to the University of Arkansas Press republication of Kiawah (531), and Blythe, 37.

[4] See John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 229.  For the letter Guilds quotes, see Letters, 2:81.

[5] Letters, 3:504.

[6] Wimsatt, Major Fiction, 184.

[7] Ibid., 185.

[8] Letters, 4:93.

[9] Simms dedicated The Cassique of Kiawah to Porcher Miles, the dead boys’ godfather.  The dedication takes the form of a sonnet, both praising Miles’s steadfastness and support during this most trying time, as well as showing the depth of Simms’s anguish and grief.

[10] Wimsatt, Major Fiction, 185.