Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Prima Donna: A Passage From City Life

Short Stories | Louis A. Godey | 1844

         While one of the more obscure works in Simms’s canon, The Prima Donna:  A Passage from City Life, provides an intriguing look into his relationship with the serial publishers who published so much of his work.  It is also a noteworthy work for its content.  Biographer John C. Guilds finds that it  reflects Simms’s “interest in theater” and helps to demonstrate that the author “wrote more effectively about drama than he wrote drama itself.”[1] A brief, 24-page fiction published as a standalone book by Louis A. Godey in 1844, The Prima Donna was originally composed sometime in 1840.  In a 15 August 1840 letter to James Lawson, Simms notes that he “wrote a Tale entitled ‘The Prima Donna’ intending it as the first of the five for Snowden, but it grew so greatly under my hands that I could not afford it at the price he offers and accordingly sent it to Godey.”[2] The same letter asserts that, should Godey not be interested in it, Simms was ready to have a Mr. Beile deliver the manuscript to Lawson, likely to have his friend and literary agent shop it around.  Regularly publishing in many of the periodicals marketed towards women of the time, Simms here showed an understanding of the value of his artistic efforts to these publications, negotiating with several of these magazines for the best price.

         Godey’s accepted The Prima Donna, and seemed ready to publish it sometime the next year.  On 8 January 1841, Simms wrote Lawson “I have also a story in the hands of Godey called ‘The Cantatrice’ or ‘The Muse of the Ballet’.  He chooses between the two names.”[3]  These were seemingly the names Godey has chosen to call this tale, as evidence by what Simms writes to Lawson in a 24 February letter: “I have also sold him a story called ‘The Prima Donna.’  This name will be changed, & it may be called ‘The Muse of the Ballêt.’”[4]  He follows this with a prescient statement: “But these fellows publish too slowly where they have to pay.  They simply sprinkle their magazines with good authors.  The ‘rest is all but leather & prunella.’”[5]  The Prima Donna did not appear under that, or any other, title in Lady’s Book.  The work also seemingly disappeared from Simms’s consciousness, not reappearing in the letters until three years later.  On 4 April 1844, the author seemed to be caught somewhat off-guard when he told Lawson “I see that Godey has published as the first of a select Library, a story called ‘The Prima Donna’ which I furnished him for his Ladies [sic] Book.”[6]  This “select Library,” Godey’s Library of Elegant Literature, remains obscure, as The Prima Donna is the only work known to be published as a part of this series.

         The South Caroliniana Library copy of the title has a modern binding; plain brown boards, with gilt stamp on front cover:  THE | PRIMA DONNA | [rule] | Simms.  The title page features:  THE | PRIMA DONNA: | A | PASSAGE FROM CITY LIFE. | BY W. G. SIMMS, | AUTHOR OF ''GUY RIVERS,'' ''THE YEMASSE [sic],'' ''RICHARD HURDIS,'' ETC. | Mephistopheles.—Methinks, 'twere better far, | In place of these vain wanderings through the woods, | Didst thou requite the monkey for her love. | The hours to her are lamentably long,— | She stands beside the window, day by day, | To watch the shapeless clouds, and see them roll | Away, above the old walls of the town. | ''Were I a bird!''—thus ever runs her song | Through the long day and yet longer night:— | A moment cheerful,—but she lapses soon | To sadness, which is lasting: then she weeps | 'Till tears refuse to come:—then quiet seems, | But lovesick, not the less. | Faust.—Oh, serpent, serpent!—GOETHE'S FAUST. | [rule] | PHILADELPHIA: | LOUIS A. GODEY, | PUBLISHERS' HALL, No. 101 CHESTNUT STREET. | 1844. | [inscription:  A. S. Salley, Columbia, S.C. | July 10, 1944.].


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville:  University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 347.

[2] Letters,1:183.  Simms refers to William W. Snowden, publisher of the Ladies Companion and Literary Expositor, a rival publication to Godey’s Lady’s Book.  “The five” referenced here are five stories Simms had seemingly contracted to publish in Snowden’s periodical, as evidenced by another letter to Lawson from a week and a half earlier (1:180).   The editors of the Letters note that Simms published four tales in the Ladies Companion between 1842 and 1844, with “The Romance of Carolina” and “The Huguenot Settlements in Florida” being published serially; see Letters 1:180n.

[3] Letters,1:212.

[4] Letters, 1:233.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Letters, 1:413.