Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Life of Captain John Smith. The Founder of Virginia.

Biography | Geo. F. Cooledge & Brother | 1847

           The Life of Captain John Smith was published by George F. Cooledge & Brother in March 1847 as part of The Illustrated Library series intended for school libraries and general reading.[1]  Simms’s letters indicate that he began the biography as early as November 1844 when he wrote to George Frederick Holmes: “I have half contracted to prepare a Life of Sumter, one of Paul Jones, and a third of John Smith, with a new edition of his history of Virginia.”[2]  By the middle of the month Simms informed James Lawson he had already “written a chapter.”  The process of getting the biography completed and published, however, proved to be a challenge.  Throughout the composition of the biography, Simms sent drafts of manuscripts to New York publisher, J. and H.G. Langley, with the goal to have it printed by the first of August 1846.  Letters exchanged with Evert Augustus Duyckinck, who was serving as a literary editor for Langley at the time, revealed the beginning of a publication crisis.[3]  In a 14 September letter, Simms lamented the failure of two Langley newspapers, The New York Morning News and The New York Weekly News, both of which “perished” in early September 1846—an ominous sign for Simms, who complained he had still not received the sheets for The Life of Captain John Smith.[4]  It was not until December that the biography had been revised and printed, but publication release would continue to elude Simms, who was only starting to understand the extent of Langley’s financial issue. 

           Upon their failure as a publishing firm, Langley transferred the rights to Cooledge & Brother.  “I have just seen announced in a northern paper that Coolidge [sic] & Brother of New York have in preparation my Life of Captain Smith,” Simms wrote to Lawson on 12 December, requesting that he use this letter as a power of attorney authorizing Lawson “to make immediate inquiry into this business & to arrest every publication of the work” by injunction.  Simms contended that the biography could not be published by Cooledge without his consent since he held the copyright in his name and had not received full payment from Langley.  Simms also requested that Lawson attempt to sell the copyrights of The Life of Francis Marion and The Life of Captain John Smith for $1,300 and to find out information about the new publisher who had no reputation at the time.[5]  Langley finally sent Simms a letter on 8 February 1847 to inform him of the transfer that would net him $1,000 for both biographies to be published by the Cooledge firm.[6]  Early reviews such as the April 1847 Literary World praised Simms as an able historian: “The novelist cuts down into an admirable historian, and long familiarity with the effective treatment of deeds of adventure, intimacy with the details and spirit of Indian life, a genuine Americanism which kindles with enthusiasm at every footprint of his hero on Virginian soil, would naturally claim this task for the author of ‘The Yemassee.’”[7]  Simms himself displayed confidence in a letter to Lawson that same month: “I am sure the book will take.  It has life, spirit, energy and these are the essentials.”[8]  As late as 1935, historian Edward H. O’Neil considered it to be an “excellent biography.”[9]

           John C. Guilds speculated that Simms wrote and edited biographies of heroic men (e.g., John Smith, Francis Marion, Nathanael Greene[10], and Chevalier Bayard) in the 1840s as a response to criticism he received from De Bow’s Review that his preoccupations with poetry took him away from his specialty of writing about grand historical themes; a fondness for such heroic men and a motivation to answer such criticism resulted, Guilds argued, in Simms expending “valuable creative energy on conventional biographies now scarcely worthy of inclusion in his canon.”[11]  Sean Busick notes that Simms considered Smith to be a model for “all Americans—not just southerners.”  Busick also contends that the 1840s largely provided a period when “it was still possible to be regional without being divisively sectional.”  The word “hero,” by Busick’s count, appears seventy-six times in The Life of Captain John Smith.  Busick notes that the depiction of John Smith closely resembles Chevalier Bayard (whose biography Simms also wrote in 1847) in terms of accomplishing much under difficult circumstances. [12]  As Simms made clear in the first chapter, Smith embodied the man of action; his resolute temperament made him a stabilizing figure during a transitional period in America’s early history.  Simms wanted to celebrate Smith’s “heroic dignity” a steadfast moral character “distinguished by its spirit, its courage and its passion, for vigorous and stirring performance.”  Simms’s biographical sketches during the 1840s also reveal a pattern; by displaying these “master spirits” of respected periods, Simms sought to inspire and challenge his readership to imitate such a great cloud of witnesses.[13]

           The 1847 edition of The Life of Captain John Smith, housed at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, features original black cloth boards and spine.  Spine is torn at the top and features gilt stamped title that reads: [unknown illustration that is cut off] | LIFE | OF | CAPTAIN | JOHN SMITH | [rule] | SIMMS. | [unknown illustration] | [illustration of Captain John Smith] | ILLUSTRATED | LIBRARY.  The title page reads: THE LIFE | OF | CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH. | THE | FOUNDER OF VIRGINIA. | [rule] | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS. | AUTHOR OF "LIFE OF MARION," "HISTORY OF SOUTH CAROLINA," ETC. | [rule] | NEW YORK: | PUBLISHED BY GEO. F. COOLEDGE & BROTHER, | BOOKSELLERS AND PUBLISHERS, | 323 PEARL STREET.

Michael Odom


[1] It is important to note that while the biography was copyrighted in 1846, it was not published until 1847.  See footnoted discussions in Letters, 1:436 and 2:250.  It appears that most citations of the work still use the 1846 date and have not accounted for this fact.

[2] Letters, 1:434-35.  The biography of Smith would be the only project of the three to be published. 

[3] See Letters, 2:184n. 

[4] Ibid.  Duyckinck responded in a 22 September letter that sheets were not yet ready, “but the Langleys promise them to me by the first in time for the next steamer.  They do not publish till afterwards.”  Simms responded in a 1 October letter: “Do not suffer Langley to evade you.  They are exceedingly dilatory in that establishment.”  See Letters, 2:189. 

[5] Ibid., 2:238-39.

[6] Ibid., 2:270n.

[7] Literary World I (April 10, 1847): 222.

[8] Letters, 2:306-7.

[9] Edward H. O’Neill, A History of American Biography, 1800-1935 (Philadelphia, 1935), 29.

[10] Simms edited William Johnson’s Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene

[11] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 186-187.

[12] Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 43, 50.

[13] The Life of Captain John Smith. The Founder of Virginia (New York: Geo. F. Cooledge & Brother, 1847), 10-11.