Wlliam Gilmore Simms
image of pageExplore Inside

Helen Halsey, or The Swamp State of Conelachita: A Tale of the Borders

Novella | Burgess, Stringer & Co. | 1845

                While one of the lesser-known of Simms’s border romances, the novella Helen Halsey is nevertheless a strong work, indicative of the overall project the author undertook in that series.  The first mention of Helen Halsey in the Letters was in June 1843.  By September, Simms told James Lawson that the work was “nearly ready.”  Helen Halsey was “to follow up” Simms’s ghost story Castle Dismal, a work he announces in the same letter to be sending to “the Harpers.”[1]  Letters to Lawson from this time period indicate that the author was interested in shopping both novellas around to various publishers in hopes of procuring the most advantageous deal; both were eventually brought out by Burgess, Stringer & Co. of New York, with Castle Dismal appearing in late 1844, and Helen Halsey in early 1845.  Even though the frontier adventure of Helen Halsey is vastly different in both setting and tone from the gothic Castle Dismal, biographer John Caldwell Guilds notes that the two works’ proximity likely contributed to the limited success of Halsey.  This work was published two months after Castle Dismal, and “the timing,” Guilds notes, likely contributed to Helen Halsey not being “reviewed so widely or so favorably as Castle Dismal.”[2] This was to Simms’s chagrin, as he wished that Halsey would have been published first because “I think ‘Helen Halsey’ much the best, and [Burgess, Stringer & Co] promised otherwise.”[3] While it’s unclear exactly what Simms means by “promised otherwise,” it seems likely that he wanted Helen Halsey, a work he seemed to think superior to Castle Dismal, to be published first.  In this, Simms seems to be anticipating Guilds’s thinking that publishing two works so closely together would limit the critical, and possibly commercial, reception of one of them. Further evidence that Simms thought very highly of Helen Halsey is exemplified by his noting in June 1844 that, “as a rapid and truthful domestic story I think it one of my most successful performances.  Besides, its style is, I am disposed to believe, particularly good.”[4]  Upon its publication, Helen Halsey was at least politely received by some critics, though letters from as late as February 1846 find Simms frustrated by the novella being ignored by significant journals like the Democratic Review.[5]

                Despite the largely nonchalant critical reception, Helen Halsey is a solid work that strongly exemplifies many of the most significant aspects of the project Simms attempted in his Border Romances.  Guilds notes that the novella, like many of Simms’s other Border Romances, deals with “marital conflict as well as physical violence in frontier life…Helen Halsey is a ‘tale of passion’ in which the heroine is exploited and victimized in a domestic situation from which there is no escape.”[6]  The work also points to Simms’s concern for fidelity to the rough facts of frontier life, as the gang includes both “rough, profane women who actively participated” in outlawry, as well as a perverse “chaplain to conduct weddings, funerals, and other ‘Christian’ services for the membership.”  Guilds states that these facts would have been “dramatic revelations for the readers of the day and constituted new and innovative subject matter for the American novel.”[7]  

                Despite the strengths of Helen Halsey, the work was only published once in book form.  In March 1856, Simms asked Lawson about a new edition of Helen Halsey, noting that he had seen “B&S announce Castle Dismal & Helen Halsey anew.”[8]  No record of these possible subsequent editions exists, and it is unclear where Simms saw such an announcement.  However, years later, Helen Halsey was republished serially, as “The Island Bride,” between February and April 1869 in George Munro’s New York Fireside Companion.[9]

                The South Caroliniana Library’s copy of Helen Halsey features a late nineteenth century binding around the original pamphlet.  Current binding features marbled front and back boards with brown leather-like trim on corners and along inside edge.  Spine is the same brown leather-like material, and features a gilt stamp:  [double rule] | [double rule] | HELEN | HALSEY | [double rule] | [double rule] | SIMMS | [double rule] | [double rule] | [double rule].  The original pamphlet cover features: [ornate frame surrounding all] PRICE 25 CENTS | [rule] | HELEN HALSEY, | OR | THE SWAMP STATE OF CONELACHITA: | A TALE OF THE BORDERS. | [wavy rule] | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, | AUTHOR OF "RICHARD HURDIS," "THE YEMASSEE," | "THE KINSMEN," &C. | [wavy rule] | NEW-YORK: | BURGESS, STRINGER & CO. | 222 Broadway, corner of Ann street, | Boston:  Redding & Co.  Philadelphia:  G. B. Zeiber & Co. | 1845 [close ornate frame surrounding all].  The title page reads: HELEN HALSEY: | OR, | THE SWAMP STATE OF CONELACHITA. | A TALE OF THE BORDERS. | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, | AUTHOR OF "RICHARD HURDIS," "THE YEMASSEE," "THE | KINSMEN," &c. | [wavy rule] | "Even so it was with me when I was young; | If we are Nature's, these are ours: this thorn | Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong; | Our blood to us, this to our blood is born; | It is the show and seal of Nature's truth, | Where Love's strong passion is imprest in youth: | By our remembrances of days foregone, | Such were our faults,—O!  then we thought them none." | SHAKSPEARE. | [wavy rule] | NEW-YORK: | BURGESS, STRINGER & CO. | [rule] | 1845.


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Letters, 1:369

[2] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life, (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 168.

[3] Letters 1:436. 

[4] Ibid., 1:420

[5] Ibid., 2:140

[6] Guilds, Simms, 168

[7] Ibid., 169.  Guilds also suggests that Mowbray, the corrupt priest, may be a source for Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale.

[8] Letters, 2:154

[9] See Letters, 5:156n.