Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Pelayo: A Story of the Goth

Novel (Romance) | Harper & Brothers | 1838

                By the late 1830s, Simms’s reputation and fame were on a steady rise; on the strength of romances like The Yemassee and The Partisan, Simms was widely regarded as one of antebellum America’s finest writers.  At this point, the always self-conscious novelist made one of the more curious decisions of his literary career by reworking a piece of verse-drama juvenilia into the novel Pelayo:  A Story of the Goth, published in two volumes by Harper & Brothers of New York in 1838.  In writing Pelayo, Simms left the romantic epics of America’s history and frontier on which his reputation had been built for a tale of medieval Spain and the beginnings of the Reconquista.  Simms biographer, John Caldwell Guilds, suggests that Simms, so recently married into the lowcountry gentry from “which he had felt rejected since boyhood, was encouraged by his new peers […] not to forsake the great literary traditions of Europe, to which they still looked, with something akin to awe, for cultural verification.”[1]  With pressure to prove the legitimacy of his talents amongst his new social milieu, Simms produced what Guilds sees as a “derivative piece below the standards of an author of Simms’s caliber.”[2]

                Whatever its limitations, Pelayo provides a fascinating look into Simms’s personal literary history.  The earliest mention of the novel in Simms’s correspondence was in a March 1837 letter to James Lawson, in which the author noted that “the Harpers […] have the entire MS of Pelayo.”[3]  He also remarked that the book turned out to be a “much longer work than I had intended it to be, and has cost me more time & thought than I had anticipated.”[4]  Simms was an author of exceptional productivity; that he struggled mightily with Pelayo’s production provides evidence in favor of Guilds’s argument that Simms was out of his element with this novel, perhaps indeed producing something out of social necessity, rather than out of artistic vision.  In a similar vein, a letter to Lawson from September of the same year finds the author complaining that he was “literally doing nothing, unless turning into prose, the verse passages of Pelayo be considered doing something.  It is labor, but labor without profit.”[5]  While it is unclear how much the publishers wanted changed from their reception of “the entire MS” to this rewriting of the “verse passages” six months later, it is clear that the overall process was exceptionally taxing for Simms; while Harper & Brothers had the full manuscript of the novel in March 1837, Pelayo was not published until the spring of 1838, over a full year later.[6] 

                Simms’s reference to the “verse passages” of Pelayo he was reworking speaks to two separate, but related, features of the work:  its genesis and the author’s implied desire to have it also appear on the stage.  Writing again to Lawson in October 1841, Simms recounted parts of his literary biography, noting that “I have in my possession now a Tragedy partly written when I was 17-18—founded on the apostacy [sic] of Count Julian.  From the materials of this tragedy, my romance of Pelayo was evolved.”[7]  That this “Tragedy” was in verse is evidenced by a preface Simms wrote for the appearance of this early version of the work in the short-lived Charleston Rambler, between 14 November  and 21 December  1843: Pelayo and its sequel, Count Julian, were “drawn from a dramatic poem—in which form the story, [sic] was originally written many years before it appeared in form which it now assumes…Portions of this drama…were permitted to remain in the original proof sheets of the Romance, and were only omitted from it when the stereotype plates were to be cast.”[8]  Whether the verse portions published in 1843 were unchanged from what Simms wrote as a young man is unknown.  However, this preface, combined with the 1837 letters to Lawson, does suggest that part of Simms’s begrudging labors that year involved removing verse passages from Pelayo at the behest of his publishers.  Besides the fact that he was seemingly resistant to removing these sections, the importance Simms placed on them is further evidenced by his writing to Lawson about the “dramatic portions of ‘Pelayo,’” and his desire to see these performed.[9]

                Pelayo was, then, a novel with which Simms had a vexed relationship.  In a December 1846 letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold—one of the many letters in which Simms described his literary biography at some length—the author remarked that “Pelayo and [its sequel] Count Julian, though full of scenes & passages of which I should never be ashamed, are yet, in design, not the things I would make them now.”[10]  Further, Simms did not choose to make Pelayo part of the Redfield edition of his works.  This despite the fact that he had recently paid $1500 dollars, a sum that proved a real financial hardship for him,[11] to buy its copyright along with five other works, back from Harper & Brothers. While the other works of the Redfield edition generally proved successful, Pelayo remained in obscurity, unpublished after the 1838 Harper & Brothers edition.  Nevertheless, its interesting textual history provides a glimpse into the various pressures, both external and internal, that Simms worked through in his career: financial and societal demands and expectations, as well as a desire to have mastery of and success in various genres.

                The 1838 edition of Pelayo is in two volumes; each volume features plain blue boards and spine.  Spine features a paper label:  [rule] PELAYO: | A STORY OF | THE GOTH.| By the Author of | ''MELLICHAMPE,'' | ''GUY RIVERS,'' | ''THE YEMASSEE,'' | &c., &c., &c. | [rule] IN TWO VOLS. | VOL. [I/II].  The title page of each volume features: PELAYO: | A STORY OF THE GOTH | BY THE AUTHOR OF | ''MELLICHAMPE,'' ''THE YEMASSEE,'' ''GUY RIVERS,'' | ''THE PARTISAN,'' ''MARTIN FABER,'' &c. | ''Nor should the narrow spirit chide the toil | Through these old ruins.  They have noble spoil | And goodly treasure.'' | IN TWO VOLUMES.  | VOL. [I/II]. | NEW-YORK: | HARPER & BROTHERS, 82 CLIFF-STREET. | [rule] | 1838.

W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1]John Caldwell Guilds, Simms:  A Literary Life (Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 81. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Letters, 1:99.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 116.

[6] Ibid., 116n.

[7] Ibid., 285.

[8] Ibid., 4:595n.

[9] In several of Simms’s 1837 letters to Lawson, talk of Pelayo is often found beside a discussion of the work of Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest.  Especially important here is the following, from a letter from December 1837:  “From Forrest I have rec’d a packet simply containing the acts furnished him & the proof sheets of the dramatic portion of ‘Pelayo.”  There was no letter—no opinion accompanying them!  Of course I know nothing of the estimate which he puts on the play, or of the plan of its opening scenes.”   I can find no evidence than any dramatic version of Pelayo was ever performed.  See Letters, 1:122.

[10] Letters, 2:236.

[11] The other five works were Martin Faber, Guy Rivers, The Yemassee, The Partisan, and Mellichampe.  In a July 1854 letter to Lawson, Simms notes that “The necessity of payg. $1500 to H&B. has not only compelled me to sell property, but to stint myself very greatly.” See Letters, 3:312.