Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Damsel of Darien

Novel (Romance) | Lea and Blanchard | 1839

           The Damsel of Darien was published in two volumes in 1839.  Simms first mentioned the story to James Lawson in a 2 September 1838 letter, revealing that he “wrote during the first part of the summer some 150 pages of a new novel & there it sticks.”[1]  Simms informed Lawson in January of 1839 that Damsel would be published with Lea & Blanchard of Philadelphia, who would pay $1000 for a first edition of 3,000 copies; in the meantime, Simms was busy revising the “numerous errors of history & geography” committed while composing the first volume of the story.[2]  In a 16 June 1839 letter, Simms indicated that he had finished Damsel, calling it “a romance based upon the events in the early history of the American settlements of Spain […] and as the name somewhat implies, the scene is partly laid upon the isthmus of Darien and the material is drawn from the events attending the discovery by Vasco Nunez.”  This letter was written to James Kirke Paulding, regarded by Simms as “one among the successful of our native authors,—as indeed, one of the fathers of our forest literature,—a leading Pioneer.”[3]  Simms dedicated The Damsel of Darien to Paulding to show his appreciation for a “champion in the field of national literature” that he believed to be mistreated by critics.[4]

           Ironically, critical mistreatment became familiar to Simms himself, and from a most surprising source, when The Damsel of Darien appeared in print. James Lawson, his own friend and confidante, harshly reviewed the book in the November 1839 issue of the Knickerbocker.[5]  In the review, Lawson judged the work to be a failure to both readers of pleasure and those who desire to improve their minds.  Lawson accused Simms of careless composition, noting the repeated use of terms such as “speech,” which he claimed occurred every twelve pages.  Such carelessness led Lawson to conclude, “That The Damsel of Darien was written in a hurried manner, we think the proofs are numerous.  In fact, Mr. Simms writes so much, and publishes so often, that it is next to impossible, with all his genius that he can always avoid incorrectness of phrase, and tautology in expression.”[6]  Simms felt betrayed, and his lengthy 27 December letter was predictably defensive.  After sarcastically lauding the “admirable” traits of Lawson’s friendship—expressed by a negative review of the author’s latest book that “damns its reputation & defeats its sale”—Simms proceeded to answer the charges.  He accused Lawson of being “a very captious critic resolved upon nothing but fault finding,” and that the ultimate fault lay in confusing the work to be a novel instead of a romance, thus unfairly saddling the work with standards inappropriate to the genre.  Simms’s rejoinder, rich with rhetorical interrogatives hurled at Lawson, proved an important defense for the writer’s own work:

Mere verbal correctness, good similes, and the simple exclusion of irrelevant matter do not constitute the only, or even the greater & more distinctive essentials of a novel or romance.  Is nothing to be said of the invention which it displays, the fancy, the imagination—the creative faculty which makes the material to live, breathe, & burn.  Is nothing to be said of that epic singleness of object which, in the Damsel, fixes the eye of the Hero & the reader, equally upon one great aim & purpose which is steadily pursued, amidst trials, & tortures, & persecution, to its triumphant close.  Is nothing to be said of the felicity of moral, & natural painting in the description of scenes equally wild, wondrous & true—scenes of strife & repose—of passion & of tenderness—of hope, fear, shame, malignity, and every passion to which man & his nature are liable.  All these appear in the Damsel.[7]

Concluding that Damsel should be elevated to the higher standards of romantic composition, Simms ultimately labeled the work as a poem: “At least I have sought to make it such, and as such I require that it should be judged in all those essential respects which belong to the standards I have designated.[8]

           The New York Mirror reviewed the work favorably as “the most ambitious and successful incursion into the realms of romance the author yet made.”[9]  John C. Guilds notes that most other contemporary reviews were “polite and respectful, rather than enthusiastic and laudatory.”[10]  Guilds observes that while Simms endeavored to write “traditional European romance” to impress friends, his efforts ultimately “failed to arouse the degree of excitement among critics and readers that had greeted his best writing with American themes and settings.”[11]  Simms lamented in a 6 December 1846 letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “I do not think that the D of D ever had justice done it, though it received high encomiums from certain quarters.  The theme was too stately for the taste of our day which at that time ran on the rough & tumble.”[12]

           The 1839 edition of The Damsel of Darien is housed in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.  Both volumes feature faded green boards; the spines on both volumes have paper labels that are completely worn off and unreadable.  The title page for volume one features: THE | DAMSEL OF DARIEN. | BY THE AUTHOR OF | "THE YEMASSEE," "GUY RIVERS," | "MELLICHAMPE," &c. | “Què te hice vil fortuna, | Porque te quieras mudra, | Y quitarme de mi silla, | En que el Rey me fue à sentar.” | EL CONDE GRIMALTOS. | IN TWO VOLUMES. | VOL. I. | PHILADELPHIA: | LEA AND BLANCHARD, | SUCCESSORS TO CAREY AND CO. | 1839.  The title page for volume two features: THE | DAMSEL OF DARIEN. | BY THE AUTHOR OF | "THE YEMASSEE," "GUY RIVERS," | "MELLICHAMPE," &c. | “Què te hice vil fortuna, | Porque te quieras mudra, | Y quitarme de mi silla, | En que el Rey me fue à sentar.” | EL CONDE GRIMALTOS. | IN TWO VOLUMES. | VOL. II. | PHILADELPHIA: | LEA AND BLANCHARD, | SUCCESSORS TO CAREY AND CO. | 1839.

Michael Odom


[1] Letters, 1:135.

[2] Ibid., 139. 

[3] Ibid., 144.  At the time of the letter, Paulding was serving in the cabinet of Martin Van Buren as the 11th Secretary of the Navy.

[4] Ibid., cxxviii. 

[5] Knickerbocker, XIV (November, 1839): 457-58. 

[6] Letters, 1:152n, 154n.

[7] Ibid., 154-55.

[8] Ibid., 155.

[9] New York Mirror, XVII (October 26, 1839): 143.

[10] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 95.

[11] Ibid., 95.  Guilds considers the work an unmistakable waste of time and a departure from Simms’s successful concentration upon fiction dealing with the southern frontier

[12] Letters, 2:228.