Wlliam Gilmore Simms
image of pageExplore Inside
Other versions Edition: 1, Printing: 1 (1834)

Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia

Novel (Romance) | Redfield | 1855

          Guy Rivers was published by Harper & Brothers in July 1834 as the first of Simms’s many fictional frontier writings known as the Border Romance series. According to the author, these works were “meant to illustrate the border & domestic history of the South.”[1]  Writing to James Lawson in December 1833, Simms described the novel as “a tale of Georgia—a tale of the miners—of a frontier and wild people, and the events are precisely such as may occur among a people & in a region of that character.”[2]  Mary Ann Wimsatt notes that Guy Rivers established a template for the Border Romances, which she characterizes as a “clash between the ordered society of the plantation South and the unbridled license of the far frontier”; the outcomes of these stories often betrayed Simms’s loyalties to the “civilized South” and its institutions, which he felt should serve as models for the frontier.  The narrative structure of the Border Romance typically involves a young protagonist (Ralph Colleton in Guy Rivers) from the planting society (South Carolina) who journeys into the wild frontier (Northern Georgia) and falls into the hands of criminals (Guy Rivers and Wat Munro); with the assistance of a rural farmer or backwoodsman (Mark Forrester), the protagonist defeats the criminals and returns home to the civilized culture, more mature and wise from his experiences.  Simms based the story on the Northern Georgia gold rush of the early 1830s and the notorious Pony Club, who “specialized in terrorizing luckless settlers and stealing their horses.”[3]

          Although Simms was writing Guy Rivers at the same time as Martin Faber, it was eventually published nine to ten months after the latter.  In November 1832 he completed the first volume; a year later he reported “rapid progress” and roughly finished the draft in December 1833.[4]  Following the 1834 first edition from Harper & Brothers, the novel was published in three volumes, titled Guy Rivers, The Outlaw, in London in 1841.  A German translation was produced sometime between 1846 and 1854.[5]  Simms admitted to Rufus Wilmot Griswold in December 1846 that the first volume “was written some time before the second, & the style betrays the labor and anxiety of a young author, highly ambitious of his tools but, as yet unpracticed in the use of them.”[6]  Simms dedicated the book to fellow attorney, Charles Rivers Carroll, “the true friend who, from boyhood to manhood, has always maintained for me the same countenance.”[7]  In his dedicatory epistle to Carroll in the 1855 Redfield edition twenty years later, Simms assessed Guy Rivers as not only the first among his regular novels, but also his “first deliberate attempt in prose fiction,” which made it his “proper vocation.”[8] 

          Early reviews of Guy Rivers were overwhelmingly positive and led to comparisons with James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott.  A July 1834 review in the Charleston Courier praised Simms for entering the lonely field of American frontier literature, whose “untrodden paths afford a large scope for his fine imaginative mind”; the New York American asserted that the novel generated an excitement not matched since Cooper’s The Spy in 1821.[9]  Henry William Herbert, editor of the American Monthly Magazine, in the July 1834 issue, enthusiastically assigned the novel “a high place in the scale of fiction … above every American novel that has met our eye,” and boldly concluded that Cooper “could not have written Guy Rivers had he died for it.”[10]  Simms’s first biographer, William P. Trent, however, took exception to the vulgar language and violence in the book, which he believed were used sensationally to attract more readers and thus generate more revenue.[11]  John C. Guilds notes how this criticism seemed to reflect Trent’s own personal tastes and biases that permeated his assessment of Simms, and that such a perceived weakness in 1892 would now be praised by modern readers as verisimilitude.[12]  In a twentieth-century review that examines the role of the frontier in Guy Rivers, for example, Rayburn Moore asserts that in spite of “certain formulaic qualities in some of the scenes and characters, Simms manages, on occasion, to imbue his background and people with the stamp of reality.”[13] 

          Both the first edition of 1834 and the 1855 Redfield edition are housed at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.  The 1834 title page features: GUY RIVERS: | A TALE OF GEORGIA. | BY THE AUTHOR OF "MARTIN FABER." | [rule] | "Who wants | A sequel, may read on. Th' unvarnish'd tale, | That follows, will supply the place of one." | ROGERS. | [rule] | IN TWO VOLUMES. | VOL. I. | NEW-YORK: | HARPER & BROTHERS—82 CLIFF - STREET. | [rule] | 1834.  The 1855 Redfield edition title page features: GUY RIVERS | A | TALE OF GEORGIA | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ. | AUTHOR OF “THE YEMASSEE” — “THE PARTISAN” — “MELLICHAMPE” — | “KATHARINE WALTON” — “THE SCOUT” — “WOODCRAFT.” ETC. | "Who wants | A sequel, may read on. Th’ unvarnished tale | That follows, will supply the place of one.” | ROGERS’ Italy. | NEW AND REVISED EDITION | [ouroboros surrounding a burning lamp] | REDFIELD | 34 BEEKMAN STREET, NEW YORK.

Michael Odom

[1] Letters, 2:224. 

[2] Letters, 1:55.  A.S. Salley noted that when Simms was a boy he lingered around campfires behind the Bull’s Head Tavern in Charleston and listened to the stories of cotton and tobacco wagoners; these tales combined with his own trips to the Southwest to visit his father influenced his writing of Guy Rivers (Letters, 1:lxiii). 

[3] Mary Ann Wimsatt, The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Form (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 120-1, 123.

[4] Letters, 1:45, 53. 

[5] Letters4:40n, 103. 

[6] Letters, 2:225. 

[7] Letters, 1:lxx. 

[8] Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia (New York: Redfield, 1855), 10.  Also see Letters, 1:xxxiv. 

[9] Letters, 1:lxxi; also see discussion in John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 55. 

[10] Quoted in Guilds, Simms, 55. 

[11] William P. Trent, William Gilmore SimmsAmerican Men of Letters (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1892), 88-89.

[12] Guilds, Simms, 56-57. 

[13] Rayburn S. Moore, “William Gilmore Simms’s Guy Rivers and the Frontier," William Gilmore Simms and the American Frontier, eds. John Caldwell Guilds and Caroline Collins (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1997), 57.