Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Michael Bonham; or, The Fall of Bexar. A Tale of Texas

Drama | John R. Thompson | 1852

           “I have also a very Texan drama unpublished in my desk,” Simms wrote to state legislator, Armistead Burt, in January 1845, “which will make a rumpus, be sure, if ever it reaches light upon the stage.”[1]  That drama, Michael Bonham, was originally published pseudonymously (by “A Southron”) in the Southern Literary Messenger from February to June 1852.  Richmond publisher, John R. Thompson, released it as a small pamphlet after its serial run in July 1852.[2]  The drama is based on James Butler Bonham, a South Carolina native and lieutenant in the Texas Calvary, who died in the battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.  John C. Guilds highlights how the political context in the winter of 1843-44 piqued the interest of the author, as “the U.S. Senate was debating the annexation of Texas as a new slave state, and Simms, as a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1844, enthusiastically advocated expansion of the United States into Texas.”  Guilds speculates that the critical success of Norman Maurice (1851), another border drama from Simms, also induced the author to revisit poetic drama one last time to celebrate patriotic themes.[3] 

           In a November 1843 letter to James Lawson, Simms proposed the idea of staging the melodramatic play at the New Charleston Theatre.[4]  One month later, Simms informed Lawson that it took him less than a week to write the first four acts of Michael Bonham, but he would wait to write the fifth and final act until after he had spoken with the theatre manager, William C. Forbes.[5]  In February 1844, Simms indicated that the play was finished and in Forbes’s hands; the contractual terms of which entailed Simms sharing half the gross proceeds on the third night.  In a March 1844 letter to Lawson, Simms mentioned that the play was supposed to be in rehearsal but expressed doubt as to whether it would happen; with the close of the season impending, he considered withdrawing it.[6]  As late as November 1847, Simms wrote with resignation that “Forbes proposes to make alterations in my Michael Bonham & to bring it out there.  Of course, I attach no importance now to the matter & let him do as he pleases.”[7]  The play was eventually performed at the New Charleston Theatre for three nights on 26-28 March 1855.  Proceeds from the second night benefited the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association, who was erecting a monument to John C. Calhoun (eventually unveiled in 1887).  In a 27 March 1855 letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Simms remarked that the play was “brought out with great success,” and requested that he find out whether Redfield might “publish it as a fifty cent book.”[8] 

           Local reviews of the performance from the Charleston Courier and the Mercury lauded the play as a success for the “vigor of its verse, the lively succession of incidents that forms its plot, and the variety of well discriminated character in its persons.”  The Evening News tempered such praise by pointing out flaws in plot and characterization.[9]  After its publication in book form, Michael Bonham was reviewed only once in Godey’s, in April 1853; they praised the “many scenes of a stirring character, and many specimens of wit, love, and valor in prose and poetry.”[10]  Guilds considers the work a “diversionary potboiler,” the weakest of Simms’s plays due to an “artificial and contrived” narrative.[11]  Simms himself later referred to the play as one of his “trifles” in a 23 May 1859 letter to William Hawkins Ferris, calling it a “crude performance under a momentary impulse.”[12]

           The 1852 publication of Michael Bonham is housed at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.  The text features late nineteenth-century binding with black half roan and black-green marbled boards.  Spine reads from the bottom upward and features: [double rule] | [double rule] | [double rule] | W.G. SIMMS | [double rule] | MICHAEL BONHAM | [double rule] | [double rule].  The title page features: MICHAEL BONHAM: | OR, | THE FALL OF BEXAR. | A TALE OF TEXAS. | [rule] | IN FIVE PARTS. | [rule] | BY A SOUTHRON. | RICHMOND: | JNO. R. THOMPSON, PUBLISHER. | MACFARLANE & FERGUSSON, PRINTERS. | 1852.

Michael Odom

[1] Letters, 2:23-24.

[2] Thompson was also the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger.

[3] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 208-9.

[4] Letters , 1:387.

[5] Ibid., 1:393-94.

[6] Ibid., 1:404.

[7] Ibid., 2:368.

[8] Ibid., 3:372-73.  Redfield did not republish Michael Bonham.

[9] See Letters, 3:373n, for local reviews.

[10] Godey’s XLVI (April, 1853), 375.  Also see Guilds, Simms, 209. 

[11]  Guilds, Simms, 210.

[12] Letters, 4:154.