Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Lily and the Totem, or, The Huguenots in Florida

Novel (Romance) | Baker and Scribner | 1850

                While it largely fell out of the public consciousness after the author’s death, Simms’s The Lily and the Totem is one of his most intriguing works, both because of its overall quality and its experimentation with the possibilities of mixing history and fiction.  While The Lily and the Totem is a story of French Huguenots in sixteenth-century Florida, it is not, importantly, a historical romance.  Rather, Simms here experimented with a new way in which to relate history—by telling history through fictionalized narratives that fill in the gaps between what we do and do not know about a time and place.  The structure of The Lily and the Totem reflects Simms’s experiment, juxtaposing fictional narratives involving historical personages with “historical summaries.”  In historian Sean Busick’s words, Simms used imagination “for the sake of history and vice versa,” utilizing “historical summaries and footnotes” to tell “precisely how far the historical record supported his narrative.”[1]  In so doing, Simms was not writing historical fiction, but was instead experimenting with what Nicholas G. Meriwether identifies as “fictional history.”[2]

                The author’s first mention of the work is in an April 1845 letter to E.A. Duyckinck, in which he proposes to prepare “an original Romance of Florida, in one volume, the scheme of which is in my head” for Wiley and Putnam’s Library of American books series.[3]  While Simms was working on The Lily and the Totem as early as 1845, the book was not published until 1850.  This was due to issues with publishers, as well as “other distractions, such as family troubles and other work,” including the author’s “legislative duties in Columbia.”[4]  Likely due to its experimental nature, as Meriwether notes,  Wiley and Putnam “dragged their feet, despite Simms’s persistence, as did Carey and Hart, when Simms turned to them.”[5]  The work was finally published in 1850 by Baker and Scribner.  Meriwether goes on to relay the remainder of the book’s initial publication history:  Baker and Scribner gave the book “two printings, both apparently in 1850, and their successor firm, Scribner, another in 1854.  After the war, Simms went to considerable trouble to procure the plates from Scribner and had them shipped to the Charleston printing firm of Walker, Evans, & Cogswell, who agreed to print a limited run.  Under this imprint it appeared in 1871, a year after Simms’s death.”[6]  While initially greeted with great critical acclaim, The Lily and the Totem sold unevenly.  The reading public was likely hesitant about the book’s non-traditional narrative structure.  As such, it was never reprinted as part of the Redfield edition of Simms’s works and largely disappeared from the public consciousness after the 1871 edition.

                While the book’s experiments with “fictional history” are the most intriguing and unique aspect of the work, Simms did not sacrifice his longstanding artistic concerns for the sake of the experiment.  Rather, The Lily and the Totem found him adopting a radically different approach to exploring the same issues that had been central to his work from its beginning: the frontier, and how a mix of various European elements interacts alongside and with Native peoples to form America’s genesis.  The book includes some of the author’s most damning critiques of European—and especially Spanish—religious hypocrisy, greed, and violence.  Further, The Lily and the Totem provides us with some of Simms’s most robust evocations of Native Americans and their cultures. 

                Despite these elements, as well as the work’s interesting characters, plots, and often strong prose, The Lily and the Totem cannot be considered an unqualified success.  There is a “lack of continuity in the book,” and its narrative structure is often jarring; nevertheless, even if the experimental “framework exacted a certain toll on the literary merits, as conventionally defined, of the work as a whole, that toll should be viewed as inherent to the genre, for a new genre was in fact was Simms was attempting to create.”[7]  Considering its strengths, and understanding its weaknesses as due to the sophisticated, and even radical, experiment the author was undertaking, The Lily and the Totem may not stand as a masterpiece, but is indeed one of Simms’s most intriguing and important works, deserving renewed and robust critical attention.

                The edition used for the Simms Initiatives’ database comes from the South Carolinana Library, and features green boards, with the same pattern on front and back: an ornate floral frame surrounding smaller ovular frame containing a stylized B[aker] & S[cribner] logo.  Faded green spine with similar floral pattern and gilt lettering:  [floral patter] | THE LILY | AND | THE TOTEM | [rule] | W. GILMORE SIMMS | [multiple blocks of floral pattern].  The title page of this edition reads as follows:  THE | LILY AND THE TOTEM, | OR, | THE HUGUENOTS IN FLORIDA. | A SERIES OF SKETCHES, PICTURESQUE AND HISTORICAL, OF THE | COLONIES OF COLIGNI, IN NORTH AMERICA. | 1562-1570. | BY THE AUTHOR OF ''THE YEMASSEE," LIFE OF MARION," | "LIFE OF BAYARD" ETC. | NEW YORK: | BAKER AND SCRIBNER, | 145 NASSAU STREET AND 36 PARK ROW. | 1850.


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History:  William Gilmore Simms as Historian, (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 68.

[2] Nicholas G. Meriwether, “Simms’s The Lily and the Totem:  ‘History for the Purposes of Art,’” “Long Years of Neglect”: The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms, edited by John Caldwell Guilds (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1988), 82.  Simms’s experimentation cannot be overstated here; “fictional history,” as Meriwether terms it, seems more akin to the work of postmodern author Don DeLillo in books like Libra and Underworld than anything being produced in the 19th century.

[3] Letters, 2:55.

[4] Meriwether, “Simms’s The Lily,” 79.

[5] Ibid., 79.

[6] Ibid., 79.

[7] Ibid., 102.