Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Voltmeier; or, The Mountain Men

Novel (Romance) | U of South Carolina P | 1969

           Judging by a letter he wrote to his friend Evert Augustus Duyckinck in December 1868, William Gilmore Simms considered Voltmeier, his forthcoming Mountain Romance, to be, “in some respects, one of the most remarkable books I have ever written,” and “among the most excellent of my prose writings.”[1]  Part of the Border Romance series, the novel was inspired by the story of the infamous Allen Twitty, “a highly respected member of a prominent family noted for public service,” whose indictment and sensational trials for counterfeiting between 1805 and 1815 became a cause célèbre for North Carolina residents.  Simms seemed to develop an interest in Twitty when he took an 1847 hunting trip with friends in the Appalachian Mountains.[2] Excerpts from his journal entries on this trip reveal that Simms visited the house and farm of Twitty; twenty years later, he would draw from this research to write Voltmeier.[3]  The novel centers upon the title character, Leonard Voltmeier, who lives a double life.  In the public eye, Voltmeier rides a white horse (literally) as an aristocratic planter of the Keovala estate, lover of music and literature, and father to the beautiful Mignon; his criminal persona, Bierstadt or Old Grizzly, rides a black horse as the leader of a secret counterfeit operation and a band of robbers on the frontier. 

           John C. Guilds lauds the binary themes of Voltmeier, asserting that “the fictive world created by Simms is marked by alternating patterns of trust and betrayal, malevolence and beneficence, bravery and cowardice, needless violence and reasoned restraints—a world in which the only hope for justice and peace of mind lay in the will of man to think clearly and act bravely”; moreover, Simms conceived of the American frontier as “a wild, uncultivated region, caught in conflict between good and evil and torn by moral, social, and environmental forces, in the gradual yet violent process of becoming civilized.”[4]  Donald Davidson attributed the excellence of the novel to the characterization of Leonard Voltmeier, who is “more firmly realized and more clearly motivated” than Guy Rivers, Richard Hurdis, or Eliss Saxon of Border Beagles.  Davidson also highlighted the many German influences and allusions embedded in Voltmeier, chief of which lies in the title character who is “shaped as a power-seeking Faustian character whose moral dilemma is intended to resemble that of Goethe’s hero.”  Davidson attributed any shortcomings in Simms’s novel to be “largely of his period, which neither Simms nor his contemporaries, even the greatest of them, ever fully overcame, if we judge them by mid-twentieth century standards.”[5]

           The initial serial publication of Voltmeier was announced in an advertisement in the 4 January 1868 edition of The Southern Home Journal. It stated that Simms would be writing a serial to appear in forthcoming issues of that publication.[6]  A 20 January 1868 letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck confirmed that this arrangement would pay him six hundred dollars. Though this was a rather paltry sum, Simms was desperate to procure it as he was in the process of rebuilding his plantation that was still in ruins from the war.[7]  In addition to unfavorable wages, such writing imposed stressful deadlines and high stakes in completing his work in a timely fashion.[8]  He had completed 640 pages by May and planned to finish the remainder of the novel by July.[9]  In a June 1868 letter to his son, William (Gilly), Simms complained of not receiving compensation for a 155-page installment he submitted to John Y. Slater, publisher of the Southern Home Journal.[10]  After breaking off relations with the Southern Home Journal as a result of this altercation and prior to any of the installments of the novel seeing print, Simms wrote a letter to Orville James Victor, editor of Illuminated Western World, on 3 October 1868, proposing “‘Voltmeier’ to you, for the first use, for Seven Hundred Dollars, three hundred & fifty to be paid on the sheets already in your hands, & in advance of the residue; the remaining three Hundred & fifty to be paid on the delivery of the completed MS. of the work, which I undertake to complete with all possible expedition.”[11]  With this agreement accepted, Simms wrote Victor in January 1869 indicating that he finished “the residue” of Voltmeier, the manuscript totaling 1,255 pages (instead of the proposed 1,000).  Simms entreated Victor to abridge the text “with great tenderness and caution,” and encouraged him to “experiment” with his readers by putting forward “an art-romance—a something which passes above the sensational, into the psychological & largely imaginative; subordinating and using the passions without suffering their domination.”[12]  As Donaldson pointed out, Victor evidently did not use much caution in abridging the story, as the serialized novel failed to resolve an important mystery concerning an amulet given to Fergus at the beginning of the story.[13]  Voltmeier would be published serially for twenty six weeks from 6 March through 28 August 1869.  Simms intended for the romance to be published in book form, which was not realized until the 1969 Centennial Edition.  

           The 1969 Centennial Edition of Voltmeier features green boards and spine with a white dust jacket.  The title page reads: THE WRITINGS OF | William Gilmore | Simms | CENTENNIAL EDITION | [curvy rule] | VOLUME I | Voltmeier | or THE MOUNTAIN MEN | Introduction and Explanatory Notes by | Donald Davidson & Mary C. Simms Oliphant | Text Established by James B. Meriwether | UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS | COLUMBIA.

Michael Odom

[1] Letters, 5:181.

[2] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 313. 

[3] These journal entries are available as part of the explanatory notes in the Centennial Edition of Voltmeier.

[4] Guilds, Simms, 313. 

[5] Donald Davidson, introduction to Voltmeier, by William Gilmore Simms, Centennial Edition, vol. 1, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969), xv, xxi. 

[6] Letters, 5:84n; 106.

[7] Ibid., 5:106.

[8] Ibid., 5:126.  It is clear during this period that Simms was a subsistence writer who relied upon the serial publications of journals, magazines, and newspapers to earn what he called a “sorry compensation.”

[9] Ibid., 5:153.

[10] Ibid., 5:139.

[11] Ibid., 5:166.

[12] Ibid., 5:197.

[13] Davidson, introduction, xxvi.