Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Other versions Edition: 1, Printing: 1 (1972)

As Good as a Comedy, or the Tennessean's Story

Novel (Romance) | A. Hart | 1852

            As Good as a Comedy and Paddy McGann are two short novels that reveal Simms’s talents as a comedic writer.  While other works, like Border Beagles, contain humorous sections or characters, these two works stand out as sustained comedic successes.  In these, Simms shows an understanding of and skill at utilizing the tropes of frontier humor, popularized by the likes of A.B. Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, as well as a use of humor as social commentary that foreshadowed the work of Twain.  While each was published previously, they were published together in one volume in 1972, as a part of the Centennial Edition of the Works of William Gilmore Simms, by the University of South Carolina Press. Work on this series began in 1964 under the leadership of John Caldwell Guilds, James B. Meriwether, and Donald Davidson.  The series attempted to “present a critical, unmodernized text of Simms’s selected prose and poetry, in accordance with the textual principles and standards established by Fredson Bowers in the Centenary edition of Hawthorne.”[1]   Though labeled Volume III, the book that contains As Good as a Comedy and Paddy McGann was the second published in the Centennial Edition series. 

            The first edition of As Good As a Comedy, and the only edition to appear during Simms’s lifetime, was published anonymously in 1852 by A. Hart of Philadelphia as a part of their “Library of Humorous American Works.”[2]  Upon its release, it received significant critical praise, including positive comparisons of the author to Dickens[3].  Reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales,the novel opens with a prologue in the form of a “proem,” which creates a frame narrative for As Good as a Comedy. In it, representatives from several states are traveling together from Madison, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama.  Along this journey, the travelers, identified by the name of their state, tell tales[4].  Mary Ann Wimsatt notes that this allows Simms to emphasize “the regional diversity of the other passengers in a way that had been standard in southern humor at least since ‘The Big Bear of Arkansas,’ in which [Thomas Bangs] Thorpe had deliberately created an array of national types.”[5]  During the journey, a Tennessee gentleman tells a story set in rural Georgia, and this story forms the plot of the novel.  Wimsatt notes that having a “genteel speaker” relate a tale of backwoods Georgia — departing from the trope of Southwestern humor in which the rustic himself was usually the narrator — allowed the author to “blend his raucous backwoods scenes with the satiric social comedy of the sort found in his midcentury fiction about the low country.”[6]  Simms apparently desired to revise and republish As Good as a Comedy, proposing its publication with “the introduction [proem] omitted, and the title changed” in an 1854 letter to Henry Carey Baird.[7]  An 1865 letter to Duyckinck suggests that the novel may have been in the process of receiving a second printing in the closing days of the Civil War, though the “advent of Sherman was fatal to its publication.”[8]  The Centennial Edition is thus the second time As Good as a Comedy has been published.

            Paddy McGann, written during the Civil War, was published serially in a weekly Richmond paper, the Southern Illustrated News, in sixteen installments between 14 February and 30 May, 1863[9].  Publishing serially instead of in book format was likely a consequence of the War itself and its concomitant challenges to publishing.  After the Civil War, Northern publishers were understandably resistant to republish Paddy McGann, especially as, in many ways, the novel functioned as a defense of the Southern project and cause.[10]  The consequences of the Civil War, then, kept Paddy McGann uncommented upon and unpublished in book format during Simms’s lifetime; the novel remained obscure until its publication in the current format over a century after the author’s death.  This obscurity does not lessen the fact that Paddy McGann is a well-wrought comedic novel, in which Simms explores environmentalism and sectionalism through the drunken adventures of an Irish boatman who meets the Devil on the banks of the Edisto River.  Paddy’s adventures on his raft eventually find him shipwrecked in New York City.  The raft certainly foreshadows a central image of Twain, and Simms dealt with themes taken up by the younger writer in ways not merely limited to such an image or plot device.  As Guilds notes, “Simms even before Mark Twain demonstrates that integrity, wonder, and wisdom are the prerogatives of the backwoodsman all too often lost with the veneer of civilization.”[11]  Paddy McGann’s publication in the Centennial Edition is its first appearance in book form.

            The Centennial Edition of As Good as a Comedy andPaddy McGann features plain green boards, green spine with gilt stamp:  CENTENNIAL | SIMMS | III | As Good | as a | Comedy | Paddy | McGann | [U of SC P Logo] | SOUTH | CAROLINA Faded blue-green dust jacket.  Front dust jacket features:  CENTENNIAL EDITION | THE WRITINGS OF | William Gilmore Simms | [frame] | VOLUME III | As Good as a Comedy | or The Tennesseean's Story | and | Paddy McGann | or The Demon of the Stump | [end of frame] | Introductions and Explanatory Notes by Robert Bush | Texts established by James B. Meriwether Dust jacket spine features:  CENTENNIAL | SIMMS | III | As Good | as a | Comedy | [fleur-de-lis type decoration] | Paddy | McGann | [U of SC P logo] | SOUTH | CAROLINA Back dust jacket features an advertisement.  Its title page features:  THE WRITINGS OF | William Gilmore | Simms | CENTENNIAL EDITION | [curvy rule] | VOLUME III | As Good as a Comedy: | or THE TENNESSEEAN'S STORY. | and | Paddy McGann; | or THE DEMON OF THE STUMP. | Introductions and Explanatory Notes by Robert Bush | Texts Established by James B. Meriwether | UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS | COLUMBIA

            The 1852 A. Hart edition of As Good as a Comedy features a modern binding around the original paperback.  Current binding features plain black boards and spine; spine features gilt stamp reading:  AS GOOD | AS A | COMEDY | SIMMS.  The original front cover is illustrated with comical figures sitting on top of and below an ornate frame.  Above the frame reads LIBRARY OF HUMOROUS AMERICAN WRITERS | with Illustrations by Darley.  Inside the frame reads: "AS GOOD AS | A COMEDY" | OR THE | TENNESSEAN'S STORY. | By an Editor. | [ornate rule] | Philadelphia, | A. HART LATE CAREY & HART. | 1852.  The original back cover features the same frame, and contains advertisements for various other titles.  The title page reads: AS GOOD AS A COMEDY: | OR, THE | TENNESSEEAN'S [sic] STORY. | BY AN EDITOR. | [inscription enclosed in brackets:  Wm. Gilmore Simms] | [wavy rule] | "I have some purpose in it;—and, but best off these two rooks, | Jack Daw and his fellow, with any discontentment hither, and I'll | honor thee forever." | BEN JONSON. | [wavy rule] | PHILADELPHIA: | A. HART, LATE CAREY AND HARD, | 126 CHESTNUT STREET. | 1852.

 

W. Matthew J. Simmons


[1] See the “General Preface to the Centennial Edition," Voltmeier, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969), v.

[2] John Caldwell Guilds notes that Simms “knew that his hard-earned reputation came from his full-length historical novels,” and that writing a comedic novel was thus a possibly dangerous experiment on his part.  Anonymous publication served to “reduce the risk to his reputation” if the book was critically panned.  John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville:  University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 204.

[3] See several positive reviews in Keen Butterworth and James E Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide.  (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 85; Godey’s review described Simms as “quite equal to Dickens in some of his very best efforts.”

[4] Simms would expand this narrative conceit into a full novel-length treatment two years later with the publication in 1854 of Southward Ho!

[5] Mary Ann Wimsatt, The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Form (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 196-97.

[6] Ibid., 197.

[7] Letters, 3:293.  A footnote on the same page states that no evidence has ever been found that Baird undertook a republication of As Good as a Comedy.

[8] Letters, 4:518.

[9] Guilds, Simms, 289.

[10] Wimsatt notes the ways in which the presentation of the positive interactions between different classes in Paddy McGann “make palpable the strong sense of community among social classes that existed in the antebellum South,” and that “the patrician figures in this story serialized midway through the Civil War demonstrate his conviction that the genteel element in southern culture had produced a civilization of great refinement…[and serve] as mouthpieces for his fervent sectionalism.” (204).

[11] Guilds, Simms, 289.

 

 

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